INTRODUCTION TO LEADING TEAMS
The choice is to work alone to be a little more successful than the next person, or to work together for the great betterment of humanity
— Jonathan Lockwood Huie
Over the past decade, teamwork has received increased attention as more and more agencies have recognized the power of cross-functional collaboration. Agencies are making every effort to bust functional silos and limit individual contributors. Business is too complicated to rely on singular heroes. Agencies that embrace the power of collaboration realize that business problems are often solved when multiple people with different expertise and skills tackle the problems together.
Today, cross-agency teamwork is essential to getting things done, and collaboration and coordination on issues that cut across agency boundaries, such as economic development, job training, or homelessness, are also very important. Efforts like this warrant the involvement and input of many. In fact, cross-functional squads—project teams, functional teams, cross-functional task forces, and steering committees—are everywhere. There seems to be a team for every type of business need.
Because of shrinking budgets and job freezes, teamwork among federal employees is more critical than ever to ensuring the delivery of quality services to the American people. Yet, teamwork is not always apparent in the federal work space. According to past surveys, teamwork and collaboration have lagged behind other indicators when employees’ views on their colleagues’ performance are measured.
The good news is that this trend may be changing. Compared to previous years, teamwork received the second highest score of the ten workplace categories included in the Partnership for Public Service’s (PPS’s) 2012 “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” survey (available at http://bestplacestowork.org/BPTW/assets/BestPlacestoWork2012.pdf). Based on the views of nearly 700,000 federal employees, teamwork was given a score of 64.4 on a scale of 100.
Most of the data used to develop these rankings were collected by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Administered to both full- and part-time permanent executive branch employees, the teamwork category measures the extent to which employees believe they effectively communicate both inside and outside their team organizations, creating both a friendly and productive environment. The conclusion is clear: Without a team environment, work can no longer be done.
GROUP OR TEAM?
Before we introduce ways to promote healthy team dynamics, it’s important to understand the differences between teams and work groups. Is your group a real team, a work group, or something in between? How you approach the development of your team or group will differ depending on the nature of the group, the duration of the project, the project scope, and the targeted project outcomes.
Don’t confuse a group with a team. All teams are groups, but not all groups in an organization are teams.
The difference between a team and a group is that members of a team are interdependent for overall performance. In other words, a team is created when members are committed to a common purpose or set of performance goals for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. Teams recognize and understand each others’ roles and responsibilities and often have higher levels of trust when members can openly express ideas, opinions, feelings, and conflicts.
A group, on the other hand, consists of individual contributors, each vying for individual outcomes. Often grouped together for administrative purposes, members tend to depend only on individual performance and have lower levels of trust, mainly because roles of other group members are not clear and motives can be suspect. Leadership tends to come only from the designated leader, and decision-making is often process-oriented rather than participative.
Teamwork is essential in today’s federal context, where individual perfection is not as desirable as a high level of collective performance. A group qualifies as a team only if its members focus on helping one another to accomplish organizational objectives.
In today’s rapidly changing business environment, project teams have emerged as a requirement for business success; more and more federal agencies rely on teamwork, particularly when delivering projects. Projects range in size and magnitude, and team sizes vary. But regardless of how short or long the project or how small or large the team, all projects are completed through groups, which tend to be complex from a management and communications point of view.
If you can improve group dynamics, you can improve project performance. The stronger the group, the better the performance. Therefore, all project team leaders should consistently facilitate the evolution of project groups into project teams. To achieve project success, everyone on the team must help one another achieve the project goal.
After receiving a project assignment, many managers are quite adept at guiding the project through its lifecycle. Regardless of methodology type, experienced project managers instinctively know how to initiate, plan, execute, and close projects. Launching the project team, however, is not quite as intuitive—especially when the culture of a workplace dictates most work relationships.
HOW CULTURE DRIVES BEHAVIORS
Knowing the difference between a group and a team is important; understanding the influence of culture is critical. People in every workplace talk about corporate or organizational culture, a mysterious phrase that characterizes the work environment but is difficult to define. As someone once put it, “Culture is how everyone behaves when no one is looking.” Yet, even when it cannot be described, you usually know when you have found an employee or team member who appears to fit into your organization’s culture.
Culture should not be confused with an organization’s mission. Culture is the total sum of the values, customs, traditions, and meanings that make a company unique. It can often be identified through the philosophy and leadership style of the agency leaders; in fact, this is a much better indicator of corporate culture than the stated mission of the agency itself. Simply put, culture is about the traditions, ideas, and social behavior of an organization.
Leaders drive culture; often, they impose values and standards of behavior that specifically reflect the objectives of the organization. In addition, there is an extant internal culture within the workforce. Work groups within an organization also have their behavioral quirks and interactions, which to some extent affect the whole system. Hence, project teams can establish their own team culture, although doing so is difficult if the team culture does not somehow align with the overall culture.
Throughout their lifecycles, organizations tend to follow common evolutionary paths in their culture type, resulting in both advantages and challenges to organizational success. Taking the time to identify your organization’s cultural type will help you leverage your team dynamics.
In structural dynamics, an operating system is the implicit set of rules for how individuals govern boundaries, behavior, and relationships. In other words, how people interact with one another defines the culture in which they operate.
How people interact with one another defines the culture in which they operate.
Let’s consider how human system types drive behavior across an organization. David Kantor is a systems psychologist and organizational consultant who has made significant contributions to organizational development theory and practice. Kantor’s typology and communicational domains include four types of systems 1 :
Each of these systems contains characteristics and behaviors that either promote or impede business results, and each organization typically has a natural inclination toward one system or another, based on the industry in which it operates and its leadership style. Let’s take a closer look at each.
A closed culture can be described as “structured.” It has stability, instills high levels of accountability, and is procedure heavy. It typically contains strong leadership, is hierarchical in nature, makes quick decisions, and has efficient work processes in place. In other words, it is highly structured and productive. However, a closed culture can also be viewed as dictatorial, autocratic, and authoritarian. Table 1-1 shows how Kantor describes a closed culture.
Many closed systems operate with a high level of precision, maintain very specific performance metrics, and have a clear chain of command in place.
|Enabled (functional)||Disabled (extreme)|
|Clear chain of command||Efficient work processes|
|Strong leadership||Commitment to goals|
|Quick decisions||Predictable service|
|Efficient work processes||Specific performance metrics|
|Commitment to goals||Tyrannical leadership|
|Specific performance metrics||Secrecy|
|Resistance to change|
|Lack of innovation/creativity|
|Rule-bound and bureaucratic|
Many governmental agencies function as closed systems, largely because they are the most efficient means for getting work done. Closed systems have clearly defined roles and responsibilities and formal authority via job titles, rank, or seniority. According to Kantor, a closed system regulates the life of its members, particularly through tracking individuals’ time and activities during the workday, monitoring inclusion and exclusion at meetings, and strictly adhering to corporate policy.
A closed system values tradition and calls for loyalty from its members. In exchange for their adhering to policy and procedure, members receive stability, security, and predictability.
In a closed system, policies, rules, and processes are highly valued and consistently maintained; all of this is driven by strong values and lengthy tradition. The search for maximum productivity through repetitive and efficient processing, however, limits receptiveness to new information, innovation, and change. Longstanding organizations that operate solely as closed systems are vulnerable in today’s complex world because they eventually lose their creative edge or ability to embrace change easily. While closed systems often exhibit excellent communication, they ironically place limits on speech. In other words, communications regarding policy and procedures are well managed; the opportunity for staff to freely express their ideas and opinions, on the other hand, is infrequent.
Organizations that operate solely as closed systems are vulnerable in today’s complex world because they eventually lose their creative edge.
Additionally, closed systems have difficulty accepting new members; this is particularly challenging in today’s globalized world, where organizations must rely on outside partnerships or alliances to achieve results. Highly disciplined organizations that rely on strict process and policy welcome outsiders only reluctantly and are quick to sever ties as soon as it is possible; this prevents strong, productive bonds from developing among team members.
An open culture, described as “collaborative,” is known for its open and constant communication. It relies heavily on teamwork and is adept at problem solving. An open system balances the good of the whole with the individual. Unlike a closed system, it requires open and regular communication to obtain results. Collective decisions are arrived at by consensus, and newcomers are warmly welcomed. Yet, those who peer in from the outside might also view this culture as “all talk, no action.” Table 1-2 shows what an open culture looks like.
|Enabled (functional)||Disabled (extreme)|
|Inclusivity||Can’t make a decision|
|Diversity||Too many meetings|
|Empowerment at all levels||All talk, no action|
|Direct communication||Only vocal few reach “consensus”|
|Negotiated outcomes||Lack of strong leadership|
A common policy of open systems is allowing employees to take as much time off as they want, whenever they want. Extended vacations, trips to the movies, or watching a child’s afternoon soccer game are all allowed, no permission required.
In exchange for that freedom, employees must meet strict standards for success. Salespeople are evaluated on deals closed; consultants, on billable hours; and other employees, by customer satisfaction measures. Called “results only,” the policy allows workers to take unlimited vacation time as long as they are performing according to expectations and are reaching their goals. The leaders of organizations that foster an open culture believe that the more power they give their people, the more responsibility they will assume.
There are few true open cultures within the federal system, as defined by Kantor. The question is, will federal agencies really become more fully transparent, participatory, and collaborative, as the Obama administration’s Open Government Directive promises? The directive requires staff to
• Take initiative in sharing information and create more extensive opportunities for public involvement throughout the decision-making process and especially in relation to “core mission activities”
• Embrace and experiment with new Internet technologies to open access to information, elicit public feedback, and increase accountability to the public
• Regularly collaborate and partner with people and organizations outside government
• Generally “strive to incorporate the vales of transparency, participation, and collaboration into the ongoing work of their agency.” 4
A recent survey of existing attitudes toward the principles of the Open Government Initiative indicates that a lot of work remains to be done. The Directive, as with any type of culture change, relies on a top-down approach and commitment from the highest levels. However, according to the PPS’s rankings, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had the highest score in work–life balance among middle-sized agencies, suggesting that it has achieved great strides in adopting attributes of an open culture. The work–life balance category measures the extent to which employees consider their workloads to be reasonable and feasible and their supervisors to support a balance between work and life. The data suggest that while advancements are being made to provide a more equitable work/life balance, federal entities still have a long way to go.
A random culture, according to Kantor, is one that can be described as “individualistic” and may be considered the rarest of the four. It is an environment that supports responsiveness, creativity, and entrepreneurship. A company with predominant random attributes is nimble and full of fresh ideas. Members are highly energetic and embrace the ability to change. There is explicit trust among team members and boundless energy. Organizations are comfortable with chaos and thrive on change. When behavior is extreme, however, the organization can become reactionary and can lack real direction. Table 1-3 shows how Kantor describes a random culture.
|Enabled (functional)||Disabled (extreme)|
|Competitive||Duplication of effort|
|Flexible||No mutual problem solving|
|Respectful of individuals||Crisis-oriented|
|Innovative||Hard to get closure|
|High-energy||Lack of direction|
The Department of Transportation (DOT) has ascended to a top-ten spot in the PPS survey, primarily due to IdeaHub, an internal online community that enables DOT employees to build and share ideas, experiences, knowledge, and best practices in a collaborative environment. More than just a suggestion box, IdeaHub allows each of DOT’s ten operating administrations to pursue projects suggested by their employees while facilitating collaborative communication and idea generation that impact the entire department. The site allows exploration around
• Budget savings and increased productivity
• Increased worker engagement and satisfaction
• Greater collaboration within the department
• Increased and unfiltered information across the department.
The site launched in August 2010, with some 1,500 employees visiting the site and contributing ideas within the first 24 hours. Today, IdeaHub has garnered over 2,400 ideas and 33,000 ratings on those ideas; 7,500 comments have been submitted by DOT employees. More than 100 employee-submitted ideas have been adopted by DOT. To date, DOT has also sponsored four idea challenges that have focused employees’ collaborative brainstorming efforts on issues ranging from environmental sustainability to emergency preparedness. The site has become a model for similar programs in the federal government.
IdeaHub has changed the way management and staff interact, evolving a traditional, top-down management environment into a collaborative and interactive one. Increased collaboration among these groups has altered the culture of the department and has increased employee engagement.
A synchronous culture can be described as “aligned.” It has strong values, high levels of harmony, and a strong sense of direction. A synchronous system is driven by teams, has minimal process and exhibits explicit trust among team members. The environment is one that demonstrates encouraging, supportive feedback and in which members are encouraged to speak freely. Table 1-4 shows how Kantor describes a synchronous culture.
|Enabled (functional)||Disabled (extreme)|
|Strong purpose and vision||Cult-like|
|Aligned values and beliefs||Inbred|
|Harmonious interactions||Discounts individual differences|
|Low maintenance||Minimal communication|
|Efficient and effortless teamwork||Low tolerance for ambiguity|
|Implicit and understood roles||Early closure on problems|
The Peace Corps is a small agency that understands the power of teamwork. Tracing its roots to 1960, when then-Senator John F. Kennedy challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries, the agency has more than 210,000 volunteers serving 139 host countries. Its mission is to promote world peace and friendship The principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration lie at the heart of the agency’s work. Volunteers work side by side with host country partners, engaging with the communities around them. When volunteers return to the United States, they share their experiences with others, explicitly through Third Goal programs (where returned volunteers share their Peace Corps experiences and information about host country cultures) as well as through their everyday interactions with fellow Americans.
Employees at all levels engage and discuss innovative approaches to ensure continuous improvements in several ways. Officers at headquarters and overseas engage employees in planning future activities during annual strategic planning retreats and through the preparation of office strategic plans. The Office of Innovation, within the Office of the Director, strives to create a culture of innovation by sharing best practices and identifying opportunities to solve problems across agency functions.
Collaboration is key for the Peace Corps. The agency is continuing to seek ways to increase strategic partnerships with international and local nongovernmental organizations and community-based organizations. Volunteers and staff work with host country partners to fulfill the mission of the Peace Corps. Employees engage colleagues across organizational units to share promising practices, develop solutions to problems, and foster a climate of creativity and innovation. Both formal and informal working groups are created as new challenges arise.
STRIKING A BALANCE
There is no “right” culture, but every organization has a tendency toward one of the four systems described above (Figure 1-1). Kantor suggests that balanced systems are the most agile and are most likely to maintain success when facing adversity or the need to change. He also believes that cultural tension is most prevalent between open and closed cultures. In fact, organizations that try to move from one to the other too quickly will certainly encounter significant challenges.
This is an important point, because many organizations experience cultural change at some point. The catalyst driving this cultural change might be one of a variety of factors. A change in leadership and the merger of organizations are the most common drivers of cultural change. Organizations with strong and adaptive cultures foster effective succession in the leadership ranks. In large part, the culture both prepares successors and eases transition.
Culture must be made real through actions and team learning; it is much more than slogans and empty promises.
When organizations want or need to change their culture, they can do so in a number of ways. The first is to lead by example. Leadership is critical in codifying and maintaining organizational purpose, values, and vision. Leaders must set the example by living the elements of the culture—the values, behaviors, measures, and actions. Values are meaningless without the other elements.
Leaders must set the example by living the elements of the culture—values, behaviors, measures, and actions.
Federal managers need to bust functional silos in a lasting way. On project teams, this means we must embrace participant involvement and contribution, and at the same time eliminate functional identities that stymie team performance. This suggests that project team leaders must maintain a sensitive balance among team members. Subject matter experts are recruited to the project team for a reason, but their functional knowledge must blend with that of the other experts on the team for the project to be successful. Keep in mind, however, that internal forces—the introduction of new people, new processes, and new ways of doing things—also play a role in organizational and cultural change.
People must be open to learning new cultural norms and recognize that learning new behaviors does not require them to become someone they are not, but to improve on who they are. Just as each of us has probably gone through some type of exercise to increase our awareness of who we are and how we naturally behave, we should also take time to reflect on the culture in which we operate.
People must recognize that learning new behaviors does not require them to become someone they are not, but to improve on who they are.
Complete the following sentences when assessing your organization’s culture:
1. My preferred system type is _____________________________ because _____________________________
2. The system I have the most difficulty with is ________________________ because _____________________________
3. The system type I want to belong to is ________________________ because _____________________________
Keep in mind that different cultural attributes exist across all sectors. Not all governmental structures operate in a closed system, for example. When considering a new opportunity, it is imperative you assess the culture of the organization as you assess the position. Likewise, it is equally important for you to identify the different cultural attributes of your team members. It is highly likely many of your teammates come from different operating systems, even if they come from similar sectors.
Every organization has a unique cultural identity and operates in its own way. This reality should always be considered when launching a team, particularly when you are combining a group of diverse individuals who come from different organizations (combining internal and external resources). We’ll explore how to launch a team in part I.
• Culture is driven from the top of the organization.
• All organizations have a predominant culture type that, if extreme, can cause dysfunction rather than promote results.
• Not all organizations within a sector or industry share the same culture.
• Project managers have the capability to establish the “right” culture within their project teams.
1 David Kantor, Inside the Family: Toward a Theory of Family Process (San Francisco: JosseyBass, 1975).
2 Adapted from Kantor with permission.
4 Executive Office of the President, Office of Management and Budget. Open Government Directive (Washington, DC: 2009). Available at www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/assets/memoranda_2010/m10-06.pdf.
5 Adapted from Kantor with permission.
6 Larry L. Constantine, Family Paradigms: The Practice of Theory in Family Therapy, (New York, NY: Guilford Press, 1992).
7 Adapted from Kantor with permission.
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