What Is a Team? How Does Teamwork Work?
A team (or a work team) is a group of people with complementary skills who work together to achieve a specific goal.3 In the case of Motorola’s RAZR team, the specific goal was to develop (and ultimately bring to market) an ultrathin cell phone that would help restore the company’s reputation. The team achieved its goal by integrating specialized but complementary skills in engineering and design and by making the most of its authority to make its own decisions and manage its own operations.
Teams versus Groups
As Bonnie Edelstein, a consultant in organizational development suggests, “A group is a bunch of people in an elevator. A team is also a bunch of people in an elevator, but the elevator is broken.”4 This distinction may be a little oversimplified, but as our tale of teamwork at Motorola reminds us, a team is clearly something more than a mere group of individuals. In particular, members of a group—or, more accurately, a working group—go about their jobs independently and meet primarily to work towards a shared objective. A group of department-store managers, for example, might meet monthly to discuss their progress in cutting plant costs. However, each manager is focused on the goals of his or her department because each is held accountable for meeting those goals.
Some Key Characteristics of Teams
To put teams in perspective, let’s identify five key characteristics. Teams:5
- Share accountability for achieving specific common goals
- Function interdependently
- Require stability
- Hold authority and decision-making power
- Operate in a social context
Why Organizations Build Teams
Why do major organizations now rely so much on teams to improve operations? Executives at Xerox have reported that team-based operations are 30 percent more productive than conventional operations. General Mills says that factories organized around team activities are 40 percent more productive than traditionally organized factories. FedEx says that teams reduced service errors (lost packages, incorrect bills) by 13 percent in the first year.6
Today it seems obvious that teams can address a variety of challenges in the world of corporate activity. Before we go any further, however, we should remind ourselves that the data we’ve just cited aren’t necessarily definitive. For one thing, they may not be objective—companies are more likely to report successes than failures. As a matter of fact, teams don’t always work. According to one study, team-based projects fail 50 to 70 percent of the time.7
The Effect of Teams on Performance
Research shows that companies build and support teams because of their effect on overall workplace performance, both organizational and individual. If we examine the impact of team-based operations according to a wide range of relevant criteria, we find that overall organizational performance generally improves. Figure 1.3 lists several areas in which we can analyze workplace performance and indicates the percentage of companies that have reported improvements in each area.
|Area of Performance
|Firms Reporting Improvement
|Product and service quality
|Quality of work life
Source: Adapted from Edward E. Lawler, S. A. Mohman, and G. E. Ledford (1992). Creating High Performance Organizations: Practices and Results of Employee Involvement and Total Quality in Fortune 1000 Companies. San Francisco: Wiley. Reprinted with permission of John Wiley & Sons Inc.
Types of Teams
Teams, then, can improve company and individual performance in a number of areas. Not all teams, however, are formed to achieve the same goals or charged with the same responsibilities. Nor are they organized in the same way. Some, for instance, are more autonomous than others—less accountable to those higher up in the organization. Some depend on a team leader who’s responsible for defining the team’s goals and making sure that its activities are performed effectively. Others are more or less self- governing: though a leader lays out overall goals and strategies, the team itself chooses and manages the methods by which it pursues its goals and implements its strategies.8 Teams also vary according to their membership. Let’s look at several categories of teams.
As its name implies, in the manager-led team the manager is the team leader and is in charge of setting team goals, assigning tasks, and monitoring the team’s performance. The individual team members have relatively little autonomy. For example, the key employees of a professional football team (a manager-led team) are highly trained (and highly paid) athletes, but their activities on the field are tightly controlled by a head coach. As team manager, the coach is responsible both for developing the strategies by which the team pursues its goal of winning games and for the outcome of each game and season. He’s also solely responsible for interacting with managers above him in the organization. The players are responsible mainly for executing plays.9
Self-managing teams (also known as self-directed teams) have considerable autonomy. They are usually small and often absorb activities that were once performed by traditional supervisors. A manager or team leader may determine overall goals, but the members of the self-managing team control the activities needed to achieve those goals.
Self-managing teams are the organizational hallmark of Whole Foods Market, the largest natural-foods grocer in the United States. Each store is run by ten departmental teams, and virtually every store employee is a member of a team. Each team has a designated leader and its own performance targets. (Team leaders also belong to a store team, and store-team leaders belong to a regional team.) To do its job, every team has access to the kind of information—including sales and even salary figures—that most companies reserve for traditional managers.10
Not every self-managed team enjoys the same degree of autonomy. Companies vary widely in choosing which tasks teams are allowed to manage and which ones are best left to upper-level management only. As you can see in Figure 1.5 for example, self-managing teams are often allowed to schedule assignments, but they are rarely allowed to fire coworkers.
Many companies use cross-functional teams—teams that, as the name suggests, cut across an organization’s functional areas (operations, marketing, finance, and so on). A cross-functional team is designed to take advantage of the special expertise of members drawn from different functional areas of the company. When the Internal Revenue Service, for example, wanted to study the effects on employees of a major change in information systems, it created a cross-functional team composed of people from a wide range of departments. The final study reflected expertise in such areas as job analysis, training, change management, industrial psychology, and ergonomics.11
Cross-functional teams figure prominently in the product-development process at Nike, where they take advantage of expertise from both inside and outside the company.
Typically, team members include not only product designers, marketing specialists, and accountants but also sports-research experts, coaches, athletes, and even consumers. Likewise, Motorola’s RAZR team was a cross-functional team; responsibility for developing the new product wasn’t passed along from the design team to the engineering team but rather was entrusted to a special team composed of both designers and engineers.
Committees and task forces, both of which are dedicated to specific issues or tasks, are often cross-functional teams. Problem-solving teams, which are created to study such issues as improving quality or reducing waste, may be either intradepartmental or cross- functional.12
Technology now makes it possible for teams to function not only across organizational boundaries like functional areas but also across time and space. Technologies such as videoconferencing allow people to interact simultaneously and in real time, offering a number of advantages in conducting the business of a virtual team.13 Members can participate from any location or at any time of day, and teams can “meet” for as long as it takes to achieve a goal or solve a problem—a few days, weeks, or months.
Team size does not seem to be an obstacle when it comes to virtual-team meetings; in building the F-35 Strike Fighter, U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin staked the $225 billion project on a virtual product-team of unprecedented global dimension, drawing on designers and engineers from the ranks of eight international partners from Canada, the United Kingdom, Norway, and Turkey.14
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