Really effective teamwork

The secret of great teamwork?  You’ve all read the books and articles haven’t you? No brainer! If I had to make a bet, I’d say that there are more five-minute solutions to this subject than almost any other aspect of management.  Motivation ranks pretty high on the list, doesn’t it?  Sporting analogies are always a safe bet?  Going for gold, the power of positive thought, pulling together, lifting your game and, of course, let’s not forget the never ending search for the ‘level playing field’.

Image courtesy of Elex Atelier

However, what exactly is a team? Are they all the same?  Do they have the same needs?  An Olympic team and football team differ; the former being an independent team (comprised of individual athletes) and the latter being an interdependent team where each team member, united in a common and immediate goal, carries out mutually supportive tasks. Clearly, the 100 metre sprinter is a sole contributor, having no team commitments other than wearing the national blazer at the opening ceremony.  Equally clearly there is no place in the soccer team for the selfish individualist.

Largely forgotten in the quest for improving teamwork is that in the business world a team is usually put together to operate a system, itself invariably a part of a larger system. Within these systems all elements have to be in harmony and in alignment.

Back in the 80’s, before the Business Process Re-engineering concept was expounded by Hammer & Champy, the Business Processes Management (BPM) movement got under way and I had the good fortune to study with the late Geary Rummler in the USA.  His work (within Rummler & Brache) on organisations as systems intrigued me but it was the concepts down at the job performer level that excited me most.  Here was a system, a five-part closed loop system that could be used as easily to design as to trouble-shoot right down to the individual.  Rummler taught that people were the least likely part of a system to be at fault (agreeing with Demmings’s view that 85% of problems could be laid at the door of management).

Rummler’s five part Human Performance System addressed the following aspects:

  1. The inputs to the performer
  2. The job performer
  3. The desired output
  4. The consequences to the job performer
  5. The feedback given to the job performer

The first three aspects appear so straightforward that they hardly merit comment.  However, in many organisations I have found that at even this elementary level, one or more of these basic aspects could be missing or incomplete.  Yes, the job performer ought to have the right qualifications and experience.  Nevertheless, as I have posted previously, many organisations may have job descriptions but less have a detailed profile of the behavioural characteristics required to match the requirements of the role.  Even training, as a vital input, is often neglected.   The output that is desired must be equally specific in terms of timing and measurement.  One further often forgotten or simply neglected step in the system is that feedback must be ensured in a timely, specific and constructive form.  All pretty basic stuff.

Management inflicts the most damage, however, in the step that is almost never even considered in many organisations but it is the area with the most profound implications; the consequences to the job performer.

People perceive positive consequences to any action that they are required to take as a result of their role.   We all know this; you do the job as required and you get paid, you keep your job and may even, in time, get promoted.  But the overlooked aspect is that they may also perceive negative consequences of doing what we want or even not doing what we require!  Let me give a couple of examples:

Some years back the banks decided (or perhaps more accurately consultants advised) that is was the tellers who had the most contact with their customers, so why not require them to sell the extra services that made the bank more money?  OK, so you’ve spotted already that they needed to provide training?  But what about their suitability to the selling role; did you get that one?  Problem number one is that the careful, systematic types that make great bank tellers aren’t your natural selling types.  But it’s problem number two that was the real killer; the busy folks in the queue are in a hurry and don’t want to wait even longer to get their turn to be sold to.  So who get’s it in the neck?  Our poor teller who never left school wanting to be salesperson.

One of the airlines wanted to find out why excess baggage charges were not being enforced; they knew they were carrying extra weight on most flights but the charges never matched the excess weight.  In those days it was the responsibility of check-on staff to enforce and collect the excess charges.  Now not only did check-in staff have to suffer the negative feedback from the people checking in but they also had to fight their own company policy; how was that possible?  This particular airline had a strictly enforced policy that no check-in line could be longer than a certain length; if a supervisor spotted a lengthy line building, the check-in operator got ‘helped’ (and we all know what that meant).  The result was that the positive consequences of keeping the queues short meant that the negative consequences of insufficient excess baggage charges would be delayed (and no-one could pin down who was responsible anyway).

Often we create systems unknowingly, where the feedback is little and late, the positive consequences of not doing what is required are immediate whilst the negative consequences are delayed or dodged altogether.  But even if the system appears to be sound the pervading culture ‘on the ground’ may be against you.  Many years ago I moved from a high-powered and tightly controlled selling environment into a company where the salespeople had far more freedom.  At my first sales meeting a few of the old hands took me on one side and quietly tried to explain how things actually worked in terms of hours worked, calls made and the maximum over-target performance that was deemed ‘safe’.  In this way the good old guys reckoned that they kept management’s demands within bounds.  They didn’t reckon with me; I was hungry and was soon top of the sales league!  Management hadn’t a clue what was going on though.

So, before you start ‘motivating’ your team, and exhausting your store of sporting analogies, make sure that all five parts of the Human Performance System are working for you and not quietly and insidiously undermining your best efforts.

Have you ever suffered as a result of ill-designed systems?


5 responses to “Really effective teamwork

  1. An interesting post, which I enjoyed. I might have missed you making the point, but in my opinion, a part of the problem that exists is that in fact, the boundaries of most teams are ill defined; how many examples can you think of when a so called team member has actually existed in more than one team (e.g. Matrix Organisations?) and therefore, as you suggest sub optimisation is likely to occur. Until this issue is addressed, I fear that that the issue you describe will continue to exist.

  2. Hi Dan
    Thank you for the comments. The point you make is an extremely valid one. I have been talking of process trouble-shooting at the job / performer level; the point you make is an issue that should be picked up at the process level (one up). Sadly, in many organisations your issue would be missed completely.
    Regards, Tony

  3. You’re right Tony, a subtlety that I had missed.

    I was trying to find this example when I posted earlier but couldn’t. Boeing took an interesting approach to the point I was making when building new aircraft (and this example comes from the 777 build). They ensured that their teams had a common purpose – to build the aircraft, and rather than setting objectives for each of the component teams, e.g. the wing team – thus bounding the team at the lower level and sub optimising, they set an overall target and used decision rules to guide their teams. The excerpt from this book touches upon it –

    I actually first read about this in Don Reinertsen’s book, Managing the Design Factory which focusses a lot on the economic trade offs in a Product Development process – I typically work in the software industry to which such a process is aligned.

    Enjoy the long weekend.

    Regards, Dan.

  4. A regular challenge for me in a matrix organisation where I’m accountable for the outcomes of 30 peoples work, but responsible for only about 3 of them. It is increasingly harder to spend time with my management team to focus on these key factors, and in some cases, they’re not receptive to even exploring them.

  5. Dan , I like the idea of an internal economic market for a key metric. Really fascinating.

    Tim, one way of overcoming the problems associated with matrix organisations is in giving priority to management of the process over that of the function. Management of cross functional teams is always a challenge. I remember the conversation I had with my MD when I headed the marketing function in a company many years ago; frustrated that I had no control of staff in other functions I was arguing for an extension of my line authority. “That’s why marketing is such great training for general management”, came the response, “If you can prove you can motivate them without line authority, then you are proving yourself ready for the wider role.” Frustrating as that response was, it did make me concentrate more on leadership skills rather than my previous style of beating people over the head with what I thought was the sheer logic of a rational argument. I make no pretense that it’s got any easier over the years.

    Thanks to both for sharing your views.


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