Do You Have Teams? by Kevin McManus
First published in Industrial Engineer magazine April 2000
Over four years ago, I came across some survey results that intrigued, angered, and motivated me. In the October '96 issue of Training Magazine, a half-page table summarized the results of a survey that the magazine had conducted regarding the use of teams in organizations. To this date, I still find these results to be amazing in terms of the lack of perspective they reflect - many of the respondents stated that they did not have any teams at work in their organizations!
Specifically, 73% of the organizations surveyed stated that they had "some employees that were members of a working group identified as a team." This of course meant that 27% of the respondents felt that they did not have any teams in their companies. A second set of statistics from this survey indicated that of those organizations with teams, only 55% of their employees were members of these teams - 45% of their workforce however were not on a team. These percentages did not vary significantly with company size, indicating in this case at least that "size did not matter." Why would these statistics bother me so? Why would they serve to motivate me to challenge their accuracy?
The answers are simple - I believe that all organizations have teams and that essentially all employees are members of at least one team. The disparities between my beliefs and those reflected in the survey indicate a lot of what I feel is holding back high performance in organizations. We don't recognize the teamwork that is going on in our world today, and worse, we don't make the regular investments necessary to improve the effectiveness of these teams.
A difference in operational definitions offers one possible explanation for these off base percentages. I personally hesitate to call a group of people working together to achieve a common a goal a "team" until they have demonstrated a certain degree of cohesiveness and accomplishment. The "groups versus teams" debate however is grounded more in semantic differences than practice. The fact that these groups are working together to achieve a common goal makes them a team, even though their level of effectiveness may be less than desired. Our failure to recognize them as such however results in a lot of sub-optimization across most, if not all, businesses, schools, churches, chambers of commerce, and city councils.
Unless all employees of a given organization work in an isolated, non-interactive vacuum, they are on some kind of team. In other words, if you count on other people to achieve your own work goals, you are on a team. Your team might not meet regularly, it might not have a fancy name, and it might fail miserably in terms of managing their group dynamics, but you are still a team because you share a common goal and need each other to help attain it.
We have further complicated and confused the use and effectiveness of teams by attempting to make distinctions between formal team processes and the daily work that each person does for the organization. Do you remember quality circles, self-directed work teams, or kaizen teams? Once an organization chooses to use these terms, trains people in team concepts, or places those who become members of such teams on a pedestal, they essentially tell the other employees that their groups are not as important. The message is often sent that you are on a team when you away from the workplace in a meeting room, but for the other 39 hours a week you are not on a team. In other words, for most of your time at work, teamwork is not important.
I have even heard people say "We tried to use teams in our organization, but they did not work, so we dropped that program." This explains the survey percentages, but more importantly, it also shows why so many companies just can't seem to improve like they would like to. If we did not need teams, this whole argument would be moot. In sports, it is obvious whether teams exist or not. In business, schools, or communities, the definitions are far less clear, let alone the potential benefits that could be gained if the city council could learn to effectively use that time they spend together each month.
If you question my argument, watch these groups in action, or better yet, ask yourself "When was the last time I almost fell asleep in a meeting?" Members of effective teams only fall asleep in meetings on the day after Super Bowl Sunday! The recognition and development of the teams you already have in place is needed for several reasons. These reasons include increasing performance ownership, enhancing project quality, reducing the time it takes to put a project in place, and demonstrating the dependency that employees have on each other to achieve their personal goals and the goals of their organizations.
We each have unique skills that are more developed than the skills of others. Without teams, these skills often go to waste. Worse yet, without the recognition of team existence and efforts to improve team effectiveness across the board, workplaces do not improve like they should and in turn fail to realize their potential. This applies to non-work teams as well. The names you give to your teams are secondary to recognizing their existence.
By taking the first step of recognizing that you have many teams in place already, you can begin to help each team improve the ways in which they work together to achieve the goals that need to be attained. The next time you meet with one or more people, either at work or away from the job, ask yourself "Do we have a common goal?" If you are taking the time to meet, you probably do. What would it take to make this team more effective? In this day and age, we need to use our time together wisely. We also need each other to make our workplaces and communities more effective. Keep improving!
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“The only thing I know is that I do not know it all.” -- Socrates