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Management experts never seem to tire of referring to geese flying in V formations when commencing or concluding lectures on team work. The ability of these aviators to take advantage of air “lifts” and save energy by 70 % is probably due more to instinct than to their knowledge of team dynamics. Nevertheless, the amazingly high incidence of collective behaviour in the animal world (be it in the behaviour of foraging ants or in the tactics of packs of hungry jackals), showcases the importance of team work and places it among the very basic survival strategies of living beings. Geert Hofstede, (2001) in his four point theory on the differences between cultures, argues that westerners have much stronger individualism traits and far fewer collectivism traits than Asians. As such, compared to Asians, they should also be less inclined to work in teams. It is thus nothing short of ironic to know that the British East India Company, the world’s first multinational corporation, was able to lay the foundation of the British Empire, and that too at the cost of numerous Asian kingdoms, mainly because of the astonishing teamwork shown by small teams of British employees in distant areas of the world.
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It has long been recognised that teams working together can produce tremendous results, often in the face of extreme adversity. This phenomenon has been proved time and again in diverse areas like warfare, sports, relief work, civic life, and of course in business. The most striking example of team work to arise in recent times is the emergence of the European Union, an initiative that has seen a number of affluent West European states put away centuries of competition, discord and animosity and move forward to forge a strong, powerful and effective team. The unique attributes of teams, and their potential to achieve much more than single individuals, has led social scientists, behavioural experts and management pundits to engage in extensive research and investigation on the subject, leading in turn to a broad ranging body of literature. Various team theories that attempt to explain and define the issue are now routinely studied by students of management and behavioural sciences. It is the purpose of this essay to take up the issue of teams and team work, study the various theories on the topic, analyse the importance of the issue in business and finally relate its applicability to practical business situations.
The practice of people working together in businesses has existed for hundreds of years; in fact businesses would not have grown without groups of people working towards common objectives. While working in groups is not exactly the same as functioning in teams, it is nevertheless an important first step. The rapid growth of joint stock companies and separation of management from ownership, both in the USA and Europe, led to situations where large groups of people, unknown to each, needed to work together to achieve the objectives of the company. Managers were quick to realise that groups of people, with different skills, could achieve much more by working in teams than by working alone. Henry Ford, for example, was a great believer in teams. His successful initiatives to introduce team work in Ford factories in Detroit are among the pioneering efforts to introduce the benefits of this strategy in US business.
The results of the national survey, HOW FAIR, revealed the true importance of teamwork in business life. “Americans think that ‘being a team player’ was the most important factor in getting ahead in the workplace. This was ranked higher than several factors, including ‘merit and performance’, ‘leadership skills’, ‘intelligence’, ‘making money for the organization’ and ‘long hours’.” (Teamwork, 2006) A short discussion on the formation, development and evolution of a team is, in this context, very relevant According to Tuckman’s (1964) theory of group dynamics, group activity commences when different people come together, start knowing each other and begin forming weak relationships. This is known as the Forming Stage and is followed by the Storming Stage, when members test the limits of their relationships and experience some discord and conflict before a certain equilibrium is achieved. This achievement of equilibrium is followed by the establishment of roles in line with the skill sets, strengths and weaknesses of the group members. Once people are comfortable with each other and the boundaries of relationships are established, group relationships enter a phase of Normalisation, a necessary precursor to effective Performance; which is the last and final stage of Tuckman’s theory. Fiona Beddoes Jones (2001) argues that these four phases should be followed by a Mourning phase when members mourn the exit of known team members and a change in group working. Beddoes states that the dynamics of team activity also change when a team is given newer responsibilities or when there is a shift in the roles of team members.
Teams are characterised by the presence of members who are generally allotted specific roles. The four commonly accepted team theories, namely Belbin’s team roles, Cognitive team roles, the Team Management Wheel and Myer’s MTR- i all have 8 to 10 specified roles that need to be performed by members of working teams. Belbin’s team roles, for example, consist of members who fulfill the roles of doers, thinkers and people managers. The doers consist of implementers, shapers and finishers while the thinkers consist of people who are comfortable in the roles of specialists, investigators and problem solvers. People management, according to Belbin, is best handled by leaders, coordinators, teamworkers and investigators. The other three team theories also specify somewhat similar roles for team members. These team members join hands to create enormous synergies within the team. By complementing and supporting each other thay are able to create workforces that can be used to solve specific problems, achieve difficult targets, take up trouble shooting assignments and achieve significant increases in productivity and operational efficiencies.
Changes in business environment have brought about enormous increases in the levels of competition. The world has witnessed the emergence of astonishing new technologies and huge business successes, as well as the extinction of large and seemingly unshakeable business corporations. The challenges to businesses today come from many quarters and demand quick and strong responses. Increases in regulatory requirements, workforce demands, environmental challenges, and costs have kept pace with the increase in global demand. Customers want better quality at lower prices. Competitors are springing up from low cost locations and product life cycles are becoming shorter. Obsolescence frequently sets in before product maturity in today’s business scenario. In such trying circumstances, management teams have extremely important roles to play in achieving business performance.
Many companies have responded to these unprecedented challenges by the empowerment of teams formed to overcome specific problems or to achieve objectives that are necessary to gain or retain their competitive edge. There are a number of examples of companies who have used high performance teams to break deadlocks or retrieve their fortunes. Mark Hanlan (2004) describes the case of a manufacturer of electronic equipment hit hard by the economic slowdown and increased competition of the 1990s. In this case, the company, after exhausting all available avenues of staying afloat e.g., entering new markets, squeezing suppliers, cutting wages and laying off workers, was finally left with just three options, namely, cut costs by 50 %, find another large market or close down. As a determined response the company decided to create a state of art facility for design and production. It formed a number of teams who operated on the basis of ownership of individual products and tried to cut costs drastically; without howevr resorting to high capital expenses. One of these teams, working with suppliers, engineers and customers, succeeded in reducing production time from 45 days to less than a week, achieving thereby a 85 % reduction in costs and cycle time. This effort was instrumental in reviving the efforts of the compnny and in its resurrection as a viable business. There are thousands of such examples in the USA, and also in the UK, where focussed teams have been able to contribute significantly to the fortunes of their companies.
The oft repeated statement about there being no “I” in a team remains as true today as when it was first coined. Western companies, staffed as they are with individualistic and ambitious managers, have realised that the key to corporate success lies in effective team work, and have happily embraced the use of teams, particularly in their project and international operations. Vodafone has entrusted their planned acquisition of the Hutch stake in Hutch Essar India to a crack multi disciplinary team led by their CEO Arun Sarin. The challenge before western business corporations is significant because, to put it simply, building a real team is much more difficult than theorising about its mechanics or espousing its benefits. This is typically so for the highly individualistic and “me only” society of the western world. In this context the principles elaborated below are commonly accepted to be very helpful in optimising team performance.
- Form teams to solve real issues, in other words, do not waste organisational time by focussing on non issues.
- Hold team meetings regularly to monitor progress
- Build fun and shared experiences into the team agenda.
- Celebrate team successes publicly (Becton, Wysocki and Kepner, 2002)
Teams are built and operate on the strength of different skill sets, delineated roles, interdependence, trust, shared loyalties, camaraderie and a common vision. These values are also the key to their success.
Becton, C, Wysocki, A and Kepner, K, 2002, Building teamwork and the importance of trust in a business environment, Retrieved January 12, 2007 from http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/HR/HR01800.pdf.
Beddoes-Jones, F, 2001, Team theory and group dynamics, Train the trainer, Retrieved January 12, 2007 from www.cognitivefitness.co.uk/thinking_styles/fenman/TtT_team_theory_group_dynamics_23.pdf
Hanlan, M, 2004, High performance teams: how to make them work, Praeger, USA
Hofstede, G, 2001, Culture’s Consequence: Comparing Values, Behaviours, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations, Sage Publications, USA
Teamwork, 2006, Wikipedia, Retrieved January12, 2007 from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teamwork
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