Team work is simultaneously one of the most important ingredients in organizations and one of the most difficult things organizations do. Teams rarely function well without effort. What are processes that can help teams function better?
Why Teams Don't Work
Why Teams Don’t Work: Harvard Business Review. Author: Sarawat, Fariha; Editor: Checksfield, Molly Wentworth
These are findings from an interview with J. Richard Hackman, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University and a leading expert on teams. His research reveals that most of the time team members don’t even agree on what the team is supposed to be doing and that team leaders have to assume great personal and professional risks to determine the team’s direction.
Hackman talks about how people are taught from very early on in life that teams are great and can get the work done in a shorter time. However, research shows that challenges with coordination and motivation negate the benefits of collaboration, making teams underperform quite consistently. Even among teams of senior executives there are similar challenges and Hackman argues that choosing effective team members requires ruthless decision making.
Leaders also are critical to setting the direction of the team, however in doing so they encounter resistance so intense that it can place their jobs at risk.
Hackman also confuse the cause-effect relationship between effective teams and job satisfaction—‘When we’re productive and we’ve done something good together (and are recognized for it), we feel satisfied, not the other way around.’
His research shows that smaller teams are more effective than larger teams and while the addition of new members can inspire creativity, injecting too many new members can actually reduce productivity and accuracy.
He thinks every team needs a ‘deviant’—a disruptor who questions them and pushes back on complacence—to be more effective.
How Teams Can Work Better
Sutherland, J. & Sutherland, J.J. (2014). Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time. Crown Business, Happiness: pp 71-144. Author: Legnetto, Deanna Marguerite; Editor: Rodriguez Ranf, Daniela
Throughout these three chapters, Sutherland discusses the importance of cutting down waste and planning strategically and realistically before what he calls Daily Stand-Up meetings and Sprints.
Chapter 4: Time
The Sprint: Companies frequently give their employees large amounts of time to work on projects, most of the time which they seldom receive feedback before it’s too late and the time is long wasted. Instead of working slowly on long, drawn out projects, the Scrum sprint is a way to present the receiving end with a product in a short amount of time. Using an example of “Team WIKISPEED” a company that makes cars in Seattle, they use a large white board and present all the items they perceive can get done an a week (one Sprint) and team members see the progress being done by their colleagues as these items are moved from “Backlog, Doing, and Done”.
Daily Stand-Up: Sutherland builds on the Sprint idea by using daily, 15 minute meetings in which everyone participates and attends. These performance measurement meetings revolves around three questions that can be utilized to assess each Sprint by giving the team a chance to spot any weaknesses or problems and solve them right away. Since special titles and specialization seem to create tension between roles in a group, absolving titles can be a productive action before adopting this “Daily Stand-Up”.
Time and Time Again: Sutherland uses an interesting scenario of a friend’s plan for remodeling his house and a neighbor attempting the same. By using the Scrum model of Daily Stand-Ups and Sprints, his friend was able to complete the project in six weeks, while the neighbor’s project took twice as long and cost twice as much. One of the main differences between the jobs was how much time was wasted waiting on each piece to finish before the other could start.
Chapter 5: Waste Is a Crime
Sutherland stresses the importance of establishing a positive rhythm or pattern of occurrences without succumbing to waste through unreasonableness, inconsistency, and outcomes.
Doing One Thing at a Time: Evidence shows us that working on more than one thing at a time presents extreme cases of waste, even if you’re a business executive and you are trying to juggle several projects at once. Similar to talking on the phone and driving, one’s brain cannot concentrate equally on both tasks. Teams can suffer tremendously from trying to multi task on three projects simultaneously instead of working through the first part, then the second, and finally the third. Rotating through projects creates wasteful time trying to get back on track when switching gears.
Half Done Isn’t Done at All: Sutherland discusses the importance of having fully finished products or tasks rather than a bunch of half-finished ones. It is wasteful to invest in effort without the positive outcomes.
Do It Right the First Time: A team that stops and works together to fix a problem, will achieve success faster than a team that has to make corrections following completion.
Working Too Hard Makes More Work: Working longer hours is not necessarily an indication of working harder and in many cases can be seen as working slower or more inefficient. This idea syncs up with “ego depletion” and the notion that an individual is limited to a certain number of good or mindful decisions each day.
Be Reasonable: Sutherland discusses Toyota’s Taiichi Ohno three types of unreasonableness waste and the effects on teams. Absurd goals can frustrate and destroy teams, unreasonable expectations sets teams up to fail, overburden can waste valuable time with monotonous tasks, and also “Emotional Waste” usually comes from a poisonous employee whom incessantly causes trouble.
Flow: He finishes chapter five by suggesting teams should strive to create an effortless flow of discipline that does not succumb to waste.
Chapter 6: Plan Reality, Not Fantasy
Planning can easily get out of hand and buried underneath piles of paper. Grouping similar points together and organizing where to start first allows groups to prioritize their work.
Wedding Planning: Sutherland relates estimating goals for a business to planning a wedding. It is important to make a priority list, which is consistently reviewed and updated and organized by value.
Size Does Matter, but Only Relatively: Once a prioritized list is created, it’s important to scale these items in terms of size or amount of involvement. One scale is the Fibonacci sequence or “Golden Mean”, which is a pattern of numbers where the following number is always the sum of the previous two. This pattern allows our brains to better handle estimating large jumps than slight changes, which is more comfortable for the human mind.
The Oracle of Delphi: It is common for certain things to occur when dealing with groups, such as “the bandwagon effect” or following the common ideas, “informational cascade” or over-valuing the judgement of others, and the “halo effect” or allowing one characteristic to influence other unrelated characteristics. In the case of the Rand Corporation during the Cold War, these three effects were avoided by the use of anonymous surveys given to each team member, so as to get rid of potential bias and locate commonalities in thinking.
Planning Poker: Similar to Delphi, the art of “Planning Poker” is a faster and more accurate way of estimating. Each team is to use Fibonacci sequence labeled cards to estimate the size of each piece of the project. If each card is not within two sequences then the group must come together and share their reasoning, and re-submit their cards. This too allows groups to work without bias effects.
There Are No Tasks; There Are Only Stories: Without giving individuals or teams a context of the items that need to be done, workflow may suffer. Similar to telling a story, providing an outline of who the task is being done for, what the particular goal is, and the motivation of why this individual wants this done will provide clear reasoning and may even improve estimates. These stories however, are best told as short, to the point stories that pinpoint straight forward tasks.
Be Ready and Be Done: Sutherland uses the INVEST criteria to identify if a story is ready: Independent (able to self-complete), Negotiable (be flexible), Valuable (delivers value), Estimable (provide a scale), Small (to make for easy planning), and Testable (a way to test for completion). Tying this back to Sprints, these stories are commonly discussed at Sprint Planning meetings where accomplishments can be estimated.
Know Your Velocity: By using all the applications discussed in this chapter, teams can develop a velocity and use this to calculate the time for a finished product. Using the Medco example, this velocity can and should be used to identify and correct for waste.
The Shift in Management Philosophy
Denning, S. "Why do Managers Hate Agile." Forbes Magazine. Part I (January 26, 2015) and Part II (January 28, 2015). Author: Farrior, Cheri Nicole; Editor: Dieselman, Andrew
This article discusses the worlds of management and Agile. Management is when everything is vertical and being run top-down. Management functions systematically. The top bosses appoint workers, assign tasks, make decisions, and assess performance. Employees compete with other employees for compensation, and compensation is tied to rank. There is tight control and a heavy focus on efficiency. On the other hand, Agile is horizontal. The goal is customer satisfaction and money is a result, but not the ultimate goal. There is a focus on innovation which enables those doing the work to be able to utilize their talents and abilities. Firms with the horizontal mindset are thriving, while those firms with a vertical mindset are struggling.
The article states that the Agile approach consists of self-organizing teams working to deliver additional value directly to customers. Teams trying to go the distance as a unit, passing the ball back and forth, is more effective in today’s competition verses the relay race approach to product development. The agile approach is now becoming more popular in all sectors of the economy.
The agile approach was a result of hierarchical bureaucracy, which consists of individuals who report to bosses who have control and tell them what to do. Hierarchical bureaucracies created order in times of chaos and was scalable, efficient, and predictable. However, the focus was internal, it was non-collaborative, its plans were linear, and it was dispiriting to staff. However, none of these liabilities didn’t matter much because firms could overcome them, but then all of a sudden the world changed due to a number of factors: globalization, deregulation, new technology, and the Internet. The buyer gained power in the marketplace and the customer was now central. Average performance as no longer good enough. Innovation was required. This led to managers rethinking the way in which organizations were run and the birth of the agile world. Work was now done by self-organizing teams that could utilize the talents of all involved in the work and there was a main focus on satisfying customers needs.
The Agile approach there is a belief that if you put the customers needs first then the organization will flourish. Making money is the result not the goal.
At the team level, firms use the Product Owner to interpret what the customer wants. At firms like Apple, those doing the work are able to deal directly with the customers. Apple has been able to achieve a massive scale by having a platform serving as a lens to the need of the customer. They have hundreds of thousands developers working to meet the needs of its hundreds of millions of customers and because of that the hundreds of millions of customers have a product that is customized to meet their own interests and needs.
Scrum teams and the Apple platform are similar in that they have total focus on the customer, they have an ideology of enablement rather than control, they have a flat horizontal structure, they have the same iterative dynamic, and they both are inspiring people to do the work.
Another example of the dynamic of Agile is Autodesk, which is a leader in the CAD/CAM software and building system modeling. Autodesk has created a platform where companies in construction and civil engineering can utilize a number of apps to help large construction companies simulate all aspects of a giant building project before it begins. This allows these companies to anticipate problems and coordinate suppliers. As a result, Autodesk has been able to outperform the S&P 500 index.
Agile is not easy to accomplish, as there will be losses for the first few attempt, which can be costly. However, if companies are dedicated and persistent they will get to the goal, which will exceed any losses and failures they encountered a long the way.
Another component of Agile is continuous deployment. Etsy.com deploys more than 30 software improvements each day. By releasing small changes on a daily basis, its easier to spot and fix problems than it would be by releasing a bundle of many changes at once, as this can be difficult to figure out exactly where the problem was. In addition, management does not have to approve changes to the site. Improvements that have been fully tested are deployed immediately, with the staff devising the improvement overseeing their implementation. This creates mastery and autonomy. These small changes are significant and can create additional millions of dollars in sales. This method also enables rapid innovation and learning.
Managers are now having to ask new questions and with these new questions, the person at the top of the hierarchy doesn’t have the best answers anymore. There are some organizations who transition partially. You have one part of the company operating in a hierarchical bureaucracy, while the other part is operating under the agile and scrum mode. These different ideologies within the same organization can lead to a lot of friction within the company.
Building Effective Teams
Duhigg, C. What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. The New York Times Magazine, February 25, 2016. Author: Berkley, Njeri N; Editor: Fantigrossi, Steven Marc
Twenty-five year old Julia Rozovsky wanted to find a job with a social aspect that would allow her to "be a part of a community". Upon being accepted to Yale School of Management, Rozovksy "was assigned to a study group carefully engineered by the school to foster tight bonds". Business schools have recently altered their curriculums to emphasize "team-focused learning" and reflect the enlarging demand for employees who can adeptly navigate group dynamics. Rozovsky met with her four teammates daily, and found that despite their shared experiences, the study group was stressful. She recalls feeling constant pressure to prove herself to the group, whose dynamics "put her on edge". Rozovsky later joined a team as part of "case competitions". Rozovsky found this experience to be completely different from her study group, with members coming from different backgrounds. Everyone got along and worked well together in a fun and easygoing environment that they created and socialized prior to meetings. No team memberes were worried about other team members judging their suggestions. Rozovsky couldn't figure out why her experiences with the two groups were so dissimilar: she had friendly one-on-one interactions with the study group members, but when the group gathered, tension would arise. On the other hand, her competition team members seemed to have gotten along better as a group than as inidividual friends. Psychologists, sociologists, and statisticians are now studying work habits and team composition, like Rozovsky's, in order to find out how to make employees more efficient and productive. Valuable firms have concluded that "employee performance optimization", the practice of "analyzing and improving individual workers," is not enough. Studies show that managers and employees' time spent on collaborative activities have increased by 50% or more over the last twenty years. Studies also show that groups tend to innovate faster, find better solutions, report higher job satisfaction, and increase profitability. It is imperative for companies to ensure effective teamswork if companies want to beat out their competitors. After graduating from Yale, Rozovsky was hired by Google and assigned to Project Aristotle, where she studied the habits and tendencies of Google teams to figure out why some teams failed where others didn't. The researchers for Project Aritstotle reviewed academic studies regarding team functionality and scrutinized the composition of Google's groups. The researchers drew diagrams to display overlapping membership and looked at things like gender balance and group longevity, but were unable to find patterns that indicated an impact of team composition. Rozovsky and her colleagues continuously came across research that may provide insight to her previous conundrum: "group norms". Norms are the behavioral standards that can be unspoken or openly acknowledged. Norms can have a heavy impact on the way individuals act, but when the group gathers, the group's norms will often override individual inclinations. Project Aristotle's researchers began looking for group norms in their collected data and concluded that understanding and influencing group norms was the answer on how to improve Google's teams. Now they just needed to figure out which norms mattered the most. In 2008, a group of psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, M.I.T. wanted to find out if there was a collective I.Q. that emerged in a group setting and is distinct from any individual. The researchers found that the right norms could raise a group's collective intelligence, while the wrong norms could be detrimental. Although not all successful groups behaved in the same ways, two behaviors were prominent: equality in distribution of conversational turn-talking (members spoke in same proportion), and average social sensitivity (intuiting how others feel based on tone of voice, expressions, etc.). These traits are aspects of psychological safety: a group culture defined by the Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson as a "shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking". The concept and research of psychological safety led Project Aristotle to particular norms that are critical to success. After identifying the most critical norms, Rozovsky and her colleagues had to fgure out how to formulate communication and empathy into an easily scalable algorithm. In late 2014, Project Aristotle publicized its research to select groups in the hopes of prompting employees to come up with ideas of their own. After one of Rozovsky's presentations, the group met Matt Sakaguchi, an ex-SWAT team member who currently manages technical workers at Google. Sakaguchi's previous team did not get along too well, and he wanted his new team to be different. Partnering up with Project Aristotle, Sakaguchi distributed a survey to his team which produced results that indicated a disconnect between members' work and overall impact. At a requested off site gathering, Sakaguchi related psychological safety to emotional conversations and began opening up to his team members. The experience allowed team members and researchers to realize that in order to feel psychologically safe, individuals must be able to share personal thoughts and feelings, and not just focus on efficiency. Google's intense data collection did not lead to any new thinking, but actually confirmed what was already known: in the best and most successful teams, members listen to each other and show sensitivity to feelings and needs. Google did however demonstrate the usefulness of figuring out how to create psychological safety faster, better, and in more productive ways. Project Aristotle's data proved that success is often built on experiences and supported giving people a common platform and operating language.
Dynamics of Team Formation
Casciaro, T., Lobo, M.S. (2005). “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks.” Harvard Business Review, June, 92-99. 8 Author: Wohlenberg, Danielle Irene; Editor: Uk, Bolary
Informal social networks play a large role in resolving tensions and is crucial for success. These networks pose both positive and negative effects, and there are ways for organizations to learn how to emphasize the positive effects.
Competence and likability are the two most important factors in employees, and to determine how they matter, the Harvard Business Review completed social network surveys at four different organizations, and studied more than 10,000 relationships. The goal of this study was to see if their would be consistencies among organizations and cultures, and if the findings would remain consistent with different measures of likability and competence. The study accounted for various biases and determined that among all organizations people wanted to work with the “lovable star” (the person who is competent and likable).
Managers commonly report preferencing competence over likability but the study determined that reverse is true in practice, but would look “unprofessional” to profess.
The bias that everyone has different preferences in who they like plays a relevant role because people tend to like people who are similar, familiar, reciprocal, and attractive. However there are positive and negative effects of “liking” the person you work with. “The objective is to then leverage the power of liking while avoiding the negative consequences of people’s affect-based choice.”
This study recommends to 1-manufacture liking in critical relationships, 2-position universally likable people to bridge organizational divides, and 3-work on the jerks. This can be accomplished through “peer assist” knowledge management process, where environments are fostered for peer collaboration. There can also be less-formal Friday afternoon get-togethers.
Distrust and animosity can hinder these efforts and sometimes “intense cooperative experience” can be facilitated by organizations. In addition when there is an employee who is a “lovable fool” (likable but incompetent) this employee should be identified so that they can be used to bridge gaps between diverse groups that may otherwise not interact.
This study determined that likability is a very important trait in employees, more so than competency. Likable individuals can be a great asset to an organization and help to foster a positive work culture. When individuals are identified who are good connectors and likable, it is important to position them strategically and to take measures to keep them in the organization. It is also necessary for organizations to identify the “jerks” and reward good behavior, punish bad behavior, and assess their contributions, and reposition if necessary.
When Teams Fail
Holmes, A. (2006). Maine's Medicaid Mistakes. CIO. Author: Kim, Chung Myung; Editor: Berkley, Njeri N
In October 2001, the state of Maine made a $15 million dollar contract with CNSI to create new generation of end-to-end system to process Medicaid claims and payments. It was expected to process claims much faster, cost efficiently, and accurately than its old Honeywell mainframe. From the beginning, it suffered from serious problems as a result of several mistakes. The contractor hired to develop the system (CNSI) had no previous experience in devleoping Medicaid claims systems. No training or testing was done before the switch to the new unproven technological platform, and the transition was done without any backup system in place. Furthermore, when the state of Maine issued an RFP for creating its new system, only two companies Keane ($30 million) and CNSI ($15 million) turned in their proposals. When contracting this type of project, government and agencies are supposed to expect more bids within the similar price ranges, however, Maine only had two proposals with totally different bidding price. As a result, CNSI, which did not have any experience in creating Medicaid claim processing system won the bid. CNSI was given 12 months to finish their project, but it was oblivious that they were not going to meet the given deadline. Only 65 people from DHS IT staffers and CNSI representatives were assigned to the project and did not have any Medicaid experts within the team, so they had difficult time communicating with those Medicaid experts in the Bureau of Medical Services. For the next two years, DHS IT staffers and CNSI workers worked intensively writing codes, but they still could not meet the extended deadlines, so they decided to reduce the testing procedures. They only went through 10 providers and claim cases, and there was no training for the staff to answer providers’ questions.
When they finally opened their new system to public, the system had sent 50 percent (24,000) of the claims into the ‘suspended’ files within the first week, which is much higher than the previous system’s 20 percent rate of sorting into suspended files. Inadequate training and technological glitches resulted in the state owing health care providers about $310 million in Medicaid payments and misprocessed or unprocessed claims had reached almost 647,000. Although, state of Maine finally hired XWave, an integrator and management consultant to resolve the issue, the decision that state of Maine made to spend over $25 million new system that is not any better than previous system is questionable.