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7.4: Understanding Team Design Characteristics

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Understand the difference between groups and teams.
    2. Understand the factors leading to the rise in the use of teams.
    3. Understand how tasks and roles affect teams.
    4. Identify different types of teams.
    5. Identify team design considerations.

    Effective teams give companies a significant competitive advantage. In a high-functioning team, the sum is truly greater than the parts. Team members not only benefit from each other’s diverse experiences and perspectives but also stimulate each other’s creativity. Plus, for many people, working in a team can be more fun than working alone.

    Differences Between Groups and Teams

    Organizations consist of groups of people. What exactly is the difference between a group and a team? A group is a collection of individuals. Within an organization, groups might consist of project-related groups such as a product group or division, or they can encompass an entire store or branch of a company. The performance of a group consists of the inputs of the group minus any process losses, such as the quality of a product, ramp-up time to production, or the sales for a given month. Process loss is any aspect of group interaction that inhibits group functioning.

    Why do we say group instead of team? A collection of people is not a team, though they may learn to function in that way. A team is a cohesive coalition of people working together to achieve mutual goals. Being on a team does not equate to a total suppression of personal agendas, but it does require a commitment to the vision and involves each individual working toward accomplishing the team’s objective. Teams differ from other types of groups in that members are focused on a joint goal or product, such as a presentation, discussing a topic, writing a report, creating a new design or prototype, or winning a team Olympic medal. Moreover, teams also tend to be defined by their relatively smaller size. For example, according to one definition, “A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they are mutually accountable” (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993).

    The purpose of assembling a team is to accomplish larger, more complex goals than what would be possible for an individual working alone or even the simple sum of several individuals’ working independently. Teamwork is also needed in cases in which multiple skills are tapped or where buy-in is required from several individuals. Teams can, but do not always, provide improved performance. Working together to further a team agenda seems to increase mutual cooperation between what are often competing factions. The aim and purpose of a team is to perform, get results, and achieve victory in the workplace. The best managers are those who can gather together a group of individuals and mold them into an effective team.

    The key properties of a true team include collaborative action in which, along with a common goal, teams have collaborative tasks. Conversely, in a group, individuals are responsible only for their own area. They also share the rewards of strong team performance with their compensation based on shared outcomes. Compensation of individuals must be based primarily on a shared outcome, not individual performance. Members are also willing to sacrifice for the common good, in which individuals give up scarce resources for the common good instead of competing for those resources. For example, in soccer and basketball teams, the individuals actively help each other, forgo their own chance to score by passing the ball, and win or lose collectively as a team.

    Micheal Phelps standing next to George Bush
    Figure 9.5. Teams are only as good as their weakest link. While Michael Phelps has been dubbed “the world’s greatest swimmer” and received a great deal of personal attention, he could not have achieved his record eight gold medals in one Olympic games without the help of his teammates Aaron Peirsol, Brendan Hansen, and Jason Lezak.. Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

    The early 1990s saw a dramatic rise in the use of teams within organizations, along with dramatic results such as the Miller Brewing Company increasing productivity 30% in the plants that used self-directed teams compared to those that used the traditional organization. This same method allowed Texas Instruments Inc. in Malaysia to reduce defects from 100 parts per million to 20 parts per million. In addition, Westinghouse Electric Corporation reduced its cycle time from 12 to 2 weeks and Harris Corporation was able to achieve an 18% reduction in costs (Welins, Byham, & Dixon, 1994). The team method has served countless companies over the years through both quantifiable improvements and more subtle individual worker-related benefits.

    Companies like Schneider Electric, maker of Square D circuit breakers, switched to self-directed teams and found that overtime on machines such as the punch-press dropped 70%. Productivity increased because the set-up operators themselves were able to manipulate the work in much more effective ways than a supervisor could dictate (Moskal, 1988). In 2001, clothing retailer Chico’s Retailer Services Inc. was looking to grow its business. The company hired Scott Edmonds as president, and 2 years later revenues had almost doubled from $378 million to $760 million. By 2006, revenues were $1.6 billion and Chico’s had 9 years of double-digit same-store sales growth. What did Edmonds do to get these results? He created a horizontal organization with high-performance teams that were empowered with decision-making ability and accountability for results.

    The use of teams also began to increase because advances in technology have resulted in more complex systems that require contributions from multiple people across the organization. Overall, team-based organizations have more motivation and involvement, and teams can often accomplish more than individuals (Cannon-Bowers & Salas, 2001). It is no wonder organizations are relying on teams more and more.

    It is important to keep in mind that teams are not a cure-all for organizations. To determine whether a team is needed, organizations should consider whether a variety of knowledge, skills, and abilities are needed, whether ideas and feedback are needed from different groups within the organization, how interdependent the tasks are, if wide cooperation is needed to get things done, and whether the organization would benefit from shared goals (Rees, 1997). If the answer to these questions is yes, then a team or teams might make sense. For example, research shows that the more team members perceive that outcomes are interdependent, the better they share information and the better they perform (De Dreu, 2007). Let’s take a closer look at the different team characteristics, types of teams companies use, and how to design effective teams.

    Team Tasks

    Teams differ in terms of the tasks they are trying to accomplish. Richard Hackman identified three major classes of tasks: production tasks, idea-generation tasks, and problem-solving tasks (Hackman, 1976). Production tasks include actually making something, such as a building, product, or a marketing plan. Idea-generation tasks deal with creative tasks, such as brainstorming a new direction or creating a new process. Problem-solving tasks refer to coming up with plans for actions and making decisions. For example, a team may be charged with coming up with a new marketing slogan, which is an idea-generation task, while another team might be asked to manage an entire line of products, including making decisions about products to produce, managing the production of the product lines, marketing them, and staffing their division. The second team has all three types of tasks to accomplish at different points in time.

    Another key to understanding how tasks are related to teams is to understand their level of task interdependence. Task interdependence refers to the degree that team members are dependent on one another to get information, support, or materials from other team members to be effective. Research shows that self-managing teams are most effective when their tasks are highly interdependent (Langfred, 2005; Liden, Wayne, & Bradway, 1997). There are three types of task interdependence. Pooled interdependence exists when team members may work independently and simply combine their efforts to create the team’s output. For example, when students meet to divide the section of a research paper and one person simply puts all the sections together to create one paper, the team is using the pooled interdependence model. However, they might decide that it makes more sense to start with one person writing the introduction of their research paper, then the second person reads what was written by the first person and, drawing from this section, writes about the findings within the paper. Using the findings section, the third person writes the conclusions. If one person’s output becomes another person’s input, the team would be experiencing sequential interdependence. And finally, if the student team decided that in order to create a top-notch research paper they should work together on each phase of the research paper so that their best ideas would be captured at each stage, they would be undertaking reciprocal interdependence. Another important type of interdependence that is not specific to the task itself is outcome interdependence, in which the rewards that an individual receives depend on the performance of others.

    Team Roles

    Robert Sutton points out that the success of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 to land with no fatalities when it crashed into the Hudson River in New York City is a good example of an effective work team (Sutton, 2009). For example, reports show that Captain Chesley Sullenberger took over flying from copilot Jeff Skiles, who had handled the takeoff, but had less experience in the Airbus (Caruso, 2009). This is consistent with the research findings that effective teams divide up tasks so the best people are in the best positions.

    Construction workers in Chinatown
    Figure 9.6. Production tasks include actually making something, such as a team of construction workers creating a new building.. Leyla.a – Construction Workers in Chinatown – CC BY-SA 2.0.

    Studies show that individuals who are more aware of team roles and the behavior required for each role perform better than individuals who do not. This fact remains true for both student project teams as well as work teams, even after accounting for intelligence and personality (Mumford et al., 2008). Early research found that teams tend to have two categories of roles consisting of those related to the tasks at hand and those related to the team’s functioning. For example, teams that focus only on production at all costs may be successful in the short run, but if they pay no attention to how team members feel about working 70 hours a week, they are likely to experience high turnover.

    Terms are based on many roles being carried out, as summarized by the Team Role Typology. These 10 roles include task roles (contractor, creator, contributor, completer, and critic), social roles (calibrator, communicator, and cooperator), and boundary-spanning roles (consul and coordinator).
    Figure 9.7. Teams are based on many roles being carried out, as summarized by the Team Role Typology. These 10 roles include task roles (green), social roles (yellow), and boundary-spanning roles (orange).. Source: Mumford, T. V., Van Iddekinge, C., Morgeson, F. P., & Campion, M. A. (2008). The team role test: Development and validation of a team role knowledge situational judgment test. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 250–267; Mumford, T. V., Campion, M. A., & Morgeson, F. P. (2006). Situational judgments in work teams: A team role typology. In J. A. Weekley and R. E. Ployhart (Eds.), Situational judgment tests: Theory, measurement, and application (pp. 319–344). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Based on decades of research on teams, 10 key roles have been identified (Bales, 1950; Benne & SHeats, 1948; Belbin, 1993). Team leadership is effective when leaders are able to adapt the roles they are contributing or asking others to contribute to fit what the team needs given its stage and the tasks at hand (Kozlowski et al., 1996; Kozlowski et al., 1996). Ineffective leaders might always engage in the same task role behaviors, when what they really need is to focus on social roles, put disagreements aside, and get back to work. While these behaviors can be effective from time to time, if the team doesn’t modify its role behaviors as things change, they most likely will not be effective.

    Task Roles

    Five roles make up the task portion of the typology. The contractor role includes behaviors that serve to organize the team’s work, including creating team timelines, production schedules, and task sequencing. The creator role deals more with changes in the team’s task process structure. For example, reframing the team goals and looking at the context of goals would fall under this role. The contributor role is important, because it brings information and expertise to the team. This role is characterized by sharing knowledge and training with those who have less expertise to strengthen the team. Research shows that teams with highly intelligent members and evenly distributed workloads are more effective than those with uneven workloads (Ellis et al., 2003). The completer role is also important, as it transforms ideas into action. Behaviors associated with this role include following up on tasks, such as gathering needed background information or summarizing the team’s ideas into reports. Finally, the critic role includes “devil’s advocate” behaviors that go against the assumptions being made by the team.

    Social Roles

    Social roles serve to keep the team operating effectively. When the social roles are filled, team members feel more cohesive, and the group is less prone to suffer process losses or biases such as social loafing, groupthink, or a lack of participation from all members. Three roles fall under the umbrella of social roles. The cooperator role includes supporting those with expertise toward the team’s goals. This is a proactive role. The communicator role includes behaviors that are targeted at collaboration, such as practicing good listening skills and appropriately using humor to diffuse tense situations. Having a good communicator helps the team to feel more open to sharing ideas. The calibrator role is an important one that serves to keep the team on track in terms of suggesting any needed changes to the team’s process. This role includes initiating discussions about potential team problems such as power struggles or other tensions. Similarly, this role may involve settling disagreements or pointing out what is working and what is not in terms of team process.

    Boundary-Spanning Roles

    The final two goals are related to activities outside the team that help to connect the team to the larger organization (Anacona, 1990; Anacona, 1992; Druskat & Wheeler, 2003). Teams that engage in a greater level of boundary-spanning behaviors increase their team effectiveness (Marrone, Tesluk, & Carson, 2007). The consul role includes gathering information from the larger organization and informing those within the organization about team activities, goals, and successes. Often the consul role is filled by team managers or leaders. The coordinator role includes interfacing with others within the organization so that the team’s efforts are in line with other individuals and teams within the organization.