Adopting a Team Approach

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A Team approach is increasingly being adopted in many organisations to tackle the complexity of current problem-situations. Individuals from different background disciplines work together during each step of the problem-solving process for the development of effective solutions.

Watching the FIFA World Cup made me realise the key role of each member in a team to have good performances and successful results. In a football match, most of the time, we only see eleven players running up and down the field, but more individuals integrate a football team. Although less visible to the public eye, each member (i.e. DT, psychiatrists, medical doctors, nutritionists, turf specialists) adds something unique to the team that contributes to the team performance and results.

Beyond football, team work has become essential to many organisations from sport teams and fund-raising teams to financial teams and design teams. In many large organisations, the work is increasingly done in teams. Each situation is different, but in all cases, team members work together to find a solution to address a problem (e.g. win a match/championship in the case of a football team).

Traditionally, designers have had multi-tasking approach to solve problems: they receive the problem from clients, then figure the problem out, work and find a solution, finally report to clients. More recently, that approach has shifted to a more collaborative and multi/interdisciplinary approach in which individuals from various different backgrounds work together towards finding a solution. However, in practice, designers and professionals from other disciplines don’t tend to actually (or in practice) work together from beginning to end in a project. Frequently, a collaborative project starts with a kick-off meeting, continues with regular emails, phone calls and online meetings followed by some face-to-face meeting to report updates and/or discuss any issues, until the final solution is developed and sent by email or presented in another meeting. This approach to collaborative work is not teamwork. Teamwork is defined as:

a set of interrelated thoughts, actions, and feelings of each team member that are needed to function as a team and that combine to facilitate coordinated, adaptive performance and task objectives resulting in value-added outcomes. (Kay et al., 2006)

In other words, the contribution and skills of each member of a team throughout the problem-solving process are essential for the development of a well-conceived and effective solution. Adopting a Good team approach to solve current problems would benefit organisations and professionals develop better solutions. First, it is important to learn what makes a team a Good Team.

6 Factors for Making a Team Work

Having a group of highly skilful and well-trained individuals working together does not guarantee a successful performance and the development of better solutions. The most talented people can be blocked when working in a dysfunctional group or team, while even less experienced individuals can improve their performance when working in a team that works well. When a team does work, it can perform far beyond the sum of its individual talents despite scarce resources, limited support, disagreements, and stressful deadlines.

So, as Bolman and Deal (1992) asked, what makes a team work?

In their paper, Bolman and Deal analyse the performance of a group of engineers from the 70s who developed a computer in record time in order to understand what makes a group of individuals working together be highly productive and efficient in some cases, and what makes them dysfunctional in other cases. Below is a summary of key factors discussed in their paper that can be extrapolated to any team.

1. Flexible team structure. All members should be equally responsible for decisions made and actions taken (good and bad). Frequently, some teams have a strong hierarchical structure, while others adopt a more democratic approach. In the former case, the leader hands in a well-framed problem and aims to accomplished to the rest of the team, and then the team presents the solutions at the end of the process. In the later case, each member of the team helps frame the problem and determine goals and objectives. Good teams are the ones using this approach. It is important to note that, at some point, each team needs to have a leader. Someone to make the ultimate decision in a critical situation, someone to report to external parties, etc. Good teams have a shared leadership, in that any member of the team could become the leader according to the characteristics of each situation and their skills.

2. Framing the situation. All members of the team should contribute to frame a problem situation. Problem situations are often ill-defined and unframed, full of unclear elements and unknowns which generate complexity and confusion. The first step to solve a problem is to clearly frame the situation. In some teams, project managers and leaders are the ones who frame the problems as a way to simplify the work of the rest of the team. When doing that, leaders are relying on their frames to process and filter the information they have about the problem. But sometimes, their repertoire of frames is not the appropriate for the problem or they are approaching the situation from their own perspective. Often this can lead to passing to the rest of the team an ill-conceived or too simple starting point which may mislead the work; or a too complex explanation which makes things even more confusing. In a good team, each member brings their own frames, which results in having multiple frames and various points of view. When the whole team is involved in framing a problem, the possibilities to reframe or rethink ideas increase.

3. Well-equipped. Clarity and understanding from day one between members of the team. A team needs to have well-defined goals (clear to each member of the team) from the start of the project, open dialogue and constant communication, shared leadership, and comfortable, informal atmosphere (Bolman and Deal, 1992). In addition, a good team has individuals with the key required expertise for each project and with organisational skills which help determine clear deadlines and organise tasks.

4. Mutual trust. Each team member’s skills are equally relevant and necessary. A team should have individuals with unique talents, styles and skills willing to understand each others’ ways of doing things and learn from them. The more diverse backgrounds composing a team, the more prepared a team will be to address challenging problems. However, each member needs to have a specific, defined role; and each individual (including the more experienced members) must respect and trust the others’ skills and expertise.

5. Shared culture. A team is a small family sharing values and moods, and having good and bad days. When members of a team share a well-integrated organisation they learn how to balance seriousness and stressful situations with humor and patience. Humor and playful behaviour releases tensions, encourages creativity, strengths members’ links, and creates bonds and team spirit.

6. Common language. Members of a team speak their own language. Team members develop their own vocabulary, terminologies, phrases, icons and way of visualising thoughts reflecting the team’s culture, which facilitates communication and understanding among members.

Effort, training and cooperation complement the above factors. When a team works, each member is contributing with something of themselves to the final outcome and is committing beyond the fact of just doing the job. In a good team, members are committed to do the best job possible. Knitted efforts, Respect and Trust are the values that a team needs to work.

– Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (1992). What makes a team work?. Organizational Dynamics, 21(2), 34-44.
– Kay, J., Maisonneuve, N., Yacef, K., & Reimann, P. (2006, January). The big five and visualisations of team work activity. In Intelligent tutoring systems (pp. 197-206). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.
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