Why Teams?

Change has grown to be one of a few constants for contemporary organizations (Elrod & Tippett, 1999). In today’s dynamic business landscape, a firm can no longer secure sustained competitive advantage by the employment of traditional strategies. Instead it is the organization’s resilience capacity (Lengnick-Hall & Beck, 2009), essentially its ability to adapt and innovate that ‘seals the deal’ (De Dreu, 2002; West & Anderson, 1996). Teams -especially high performing teams- are considered the focal driver of innovation and organizational adaptability. Indeed, ‘Increasingly, the basic unit of accomplishment in the contemporary workplace is the team rather than the individual’ (De Dreu & Van Vianen, 2001) and ‘only teams can make hierarchy responsible without weakening it, energize processes across organizational boundaries without distorting them, and bring multiple capabilities to bear on difficult issues without undermining them’ (Katzenbach & Smith,1992).

Further, apart from driving innovation and facilitating change -outcomes that reflect the long-term survival of the organization- a large body of research notes that effective teamwork is also associated with beneficial day-to day work experiences. Reduced work errors (Manser, 2009), improved worker well-being (Carter and West, 1999), fewer turnover intentions among employees (Abualrub et al., 2012) greater job satisfaction (Buttigieg et al., 2011) and cost-effective services (Ross et al., 2000) are only a few. All things considered, both research and real-life organizational tales strongly advice far-sighted managers and executives to focus their activities (ranging from staff selection, performance appraisal procedures to change management initiatives) towards building and running high performing teams.

A Team Building ‘sin’

However, many organizations fail at putting together high performing teams and a great majority of teams do not eventually fulfill the synergies they could (Cesar & Alberto, 2000); they do not produce ideas, they do not solve problems. As a matter of fact, Dr. Parisi-Carew reports that 60% of the time, work teams fail to accomplish their goals (Blanchard, Parisi-Carew & Carew, 2009). In turn, such experiences may yield lingering hard feelings among team members, while simultaneously causing frustration for coaches and managers, who may have poured significant organizational resources into the process. One reason as to why this misfortune occurs has to do with –among other factors- the fact that managers fail to capture that their working groups may be ‘teams’ in name only, missing those fundamental ‘real team’ characteristics. In fact, it is ‘due to the romance of teams in popular literature’, (West & Lyubovnikova, 2012) that managers are adopting the term ‘team’ ever so loosely and indiscriminately in modern organizations, relying on the dangerous illusion that simply labelling a group of professionals a ‘team’ will produce powerful performance outcomes (McDonald & Keys, 1996). This reality is often described as a ‘team building sin’, whereby managers use teams for pseudo team purposes or push for challenging initiatives when in reality they do not have a team to work with but rather a mere group of employees. Without ‘real team’ traits in place, pseudo team entities emerge instead. Such pseudo teams are associated with higher levels of work errors, more incidences of bullying and higher stress (West & Lyubovnikova 2013), production stagnation, resistance to change, organizational silos etc. Such palpable –sometimes catastrophic- costs make it of imperative importance, therefore, for organizations –especially leaders, coaches and managers- to be made aware of what constitutes a pseudo-team and how to develop authentic and effective teamwork.

Teams and Pseudo teams

So how can leaders assess whether their staff are experiencing, displaying real- or pseudo-team membership? A fine definition of what constitutes a team is provided by Katzenbach and Douglas Smith (1993). ‘Organizations use multiple forms of groups. But there is a threshold, defined as a small number of people (between two and twenty-five) with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable’. There are, hence three key prerequisites to becoming a team. One is that the group has shared objectives; the second is interdependence among teammates; the third concerns the state of collective and individual accountability over the hits or misses of the team. Without all three the group will never become a team.

In Katzenbach and Douglas Smith’s words a pseudo team is essentially a group that has not focused on collective performance, shared accountability and has no interest in shaping a common purpose or set of performance goals. Pseudo teams are the weakest in terms of performance outcomes and impact. In our present thesis, however we are further expanding Katzenbach and Douglas Smith’s dimensions by incorporating Richardson’s (2011) and West & Lyubovnikova’s (2012) observations. According to this analysis there are two additional criteria for assessing real teams and spotting pseudo teams: reflexivity and boundedness. Through this lens, a pseudo team is ‘a group of people working in an organization who are called by managers a team, whose typical tasks require members to work alone towards disparate goals; whose team boundaries are highly permeable with individuals being uncertain over who is a team member; without consequent shared efforts towards innovation’. Integrating both views we can propose a distinctive set of characteristics that distinguish pseudo teams from real teams (Figure 1), thereby helping managers make more accurate judgments about what accounts for real teamwork in modern firms.

Figure 1. An integrated taxonomy of real teams vs pseudo teams

Source: West & Lyubovnikova (2012).

All the above points might very well give our reader the impression that pseudo teams and real teams are standing on the opposite sides of a spectrum. Interestingly enough, that is not the case! They are not opposites. Rather, they describe two different stages of the team maturation process (maturity); the latter can be viewed as the evolution of the former, with both reflecting not a spectrum but a curve, instead.

The team maturation/learning curve

The Wisdom of Teams (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993) is one of the most popular contemporary texts on teams. In their book, Katzenbach & Smith discuss the team maturation process and introduce their “team learning curve” (Figure 2). This curve illustrates the relationship of a team’s performance (Y axis) to the degree of a team’s development or maturation (X axis). Katzenbach & Smith (1993) indicate that teams go through a transformation from working groups, to a state of diminished effectiveness (pseudo teams), to a potential team, to a real team with the ultimate goal being that of becoming a high- performing team.

Figure 2. The Team learning curve. Where does your team sit? What to target next?

Zooming in the five stages, the authors define a working group as practically the ground zero, where there is no significant performance need or emerging opportunity that would prompt the group to become a team. The next state -that of pseudo teams- reflects a state of confusion, disorder and uncertainty; groups that find themselves in this state of maturity display the lowest performance outcomes since they are … not focused on collective performance and are not really trying to achieve it’ (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993). Teams that achieve emergence from this state can be expected to move toward becoming a group that is really trying to improve its performance, showcasing a glimpse of potential; hence they are considered a ‘potential team’.

The real performance gains are achieved at the next stage of a team’s maturity; the stage of a ‘real team’, which is graphically depicted as the steepest portion of the learning curve. Here, collective accountability and shared task objectives emerge for the first time within the group and small gains build up towards significant performance results. The final state -the ideal goal for teams and team leaders- is the ‘high performing team’. In theory at this stage of maturity and development the team acts as a self-directed, self-organized entity in which members are committed to group effectiveness but simultaneously strive for each other’s personal growth and success. That type of commitment transcends the team. This milestone while attainable, in practice very few teams reach it.

It is crucial for all managers to act upon the knowledge of this team performance-maturity relationship. Armed with such an understanding, managers can be assured that no matter the type of groups or people they have to work with, they can confidently transform their teams from pseudo entities to real and even high performing ones. At a macro-level, the overall implication of this knowledge for practitioners can be boiled down to the insight that transitioning from a traditional, hierarchical firm to a team-based agile organization is not a hypothetical possibility – but an attainable goal!

A transformative tool

At this point the question of how managers can help teams transform from pseudo to real teams, arises. As established earlier, it is not easy for a handful of co-workers who previously performed individually, to get together, share objectives, expertise and responsibility over the final product. The key tool towards a smooth and safe transition is team building. Team building is described as a constellation of carefully targeted exercises/processes and it essentially, makes up all those factors that help a team become a cohesive unit. It is a set of processes that addresses among others team climate and interpersonal issues, guiding teams towards the co-creation of more effective group decision making strategies, out-of-the box thinking and optimal problem solving.

 

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