Sunday, December 30, 2012

Team Building: Gross and Subtle

Amongst the various programs for learning and development in organizations, team building ranks among the most delivered (jostling for ranking among other popular programs such as interpersonal skills and communication skills). This fact points to the importance accorded to team building in the overall gamut of organization development and performance management. From an idealistic concept that the entire company is nothing but one team (irrespective of diversity of businesses and locations) to a practical concept that teams must be small, connectable and manageable (with shared day to day execution goals), team building takes many configurations. Yet, the fallacy lies in the premise that teams can be built in one or two day workshops and based on lectures and games.

Without debating whether the macro team philosophy or the micro team approach is right (as potentially both are dovetailed), the focus should be on whether the teams can be built in the classrooms or need to be built in the shop floor (denotes, of course, any area of daily work). This is because teams are governed by logical relationships and shared goals on one hand, and by competitive pressures and disruptive pulls on the other. Moreover, teams are both formal and informal in structure and both static and dynamic in operation. In practice, teams are formed vertically and horizontally, cutting across hierarchy and entity. There is, simply, no way by which the challenge of organizational team building can be tackled in limited duration classroom exercises.
Understanding teams
Teams are groups of people brought together to deliver on a common goal. As in a sports team, each member of an organizational team must exist for a specific purpose. As in a sports team, each organizational team must operate as per certain processes. However, unlike a sports team, where the objective is to win over the competing team, organizational teams are not expected or enabled to have direct competition internally or externally. Many times, organizational teams have to compete against an unknown team with an undisclosed goal. A design team, for example, needs to develop a competitive product not because it can see or perceive the design team in the competing organization develop such a product in visible competition but because product development is an intrinsic strategic goal of the management.
Organizational teams are more complex to manage as unlike the sports teams they are less self-reliant. Typically, they require inputs and support from a number of other organizational teams. An organizational team, typically, wins against its own (set) target rather than an external competitive target. Unlike the sports teams, therefore, organizational teams are susceptible to self-modification of goals. Organizational teams have to generally live with the assigned membership and leadership, and would not have the flexibility the sports teams have in terms of selection of team members, captain, coach and manager. Organizational teams, therefore, are designed to deliver with fixed (human) assets (and liabilities!).
Business processes
Organizational teambuilding has to be an integral part of the design of organization structure and business process management. Teambuilding has to be also differentiated from competency building. Competent individuals are the fundamental building blocks of effective teams, and the reverse does not necessarily hold good. Certain industries, particularly consulting, information technology and construction industries, have appreciated the need for aligning team building to business process requirements and the benefit of building teams (from a large talent bench on call) in a customized manner for specific clients and specific processes.
Most industries and most companies, however, are unable to build such flexibility into their business processes and organization structure designs. To be effective and competitive, teambuilding has to be cascaded down from vision, strategy and program setting, selecting the right talent for the right jobs. This would require that, if not a whole company, at least entire departments must be open to continuously organizing and reorganizing themselves in project mode. This, in turn, requires that the temptation of managers to hold on to competent executives must be replaced by an openness to lend and borrow talent across the organization.
Competency grid
Given that the fundamental building block of team building is competency building, the first objective of learning and development is competency development. This, in turn, requires the development of a competency grid that identifies the required types of competencies across grades (say, from executive to functional head) and across projects (say, from design of a component to design of a car). Although, it may appear that there would be a correlation between project progression and grade progression, it is not necessarily true. In line with contemporary technologies, relatively fresh entrants may accomplish more sophisticated jobs. This would actually need to be encouraged than baulked at by established seniors.
Competency building also requires that the C Suite is filled by leaders who are multi-functional rather than mono-functional. This would lead to organizational flexibility in targeting projects and developing talent. Many conglomerate groups in India, including the Tatas and Birlas, have been successful in multi-specialization of their top executives. Even in their case, competency grid development is more by default focused on select personnel rather than by design spread across the organization. The human resources departments have a major role in building the competency grids. This, in turn, requires that that HR executives and managers have a thorough grounding in the technical and business matters.    
Team bonding
Once competency building is accepted as the main plank of successful teams, team building needs to be replaced by concepts of team design and team bonding. The right membership of teams, with each member serving a very specific purpose, ensures that the teams appreciate interdependency and avoid internal conflicts. The team design needs to be accompanied by identification of team manager (essentially for program and logistics administration), team leader (to strategize and develop action plans) and team mentor (to coach the team for higher functionality and motivation). The members of the team could be cross-domain as is the case with the concurrent engineering teams in automobile industry.
Team bonding, in the context of a competent team, has several process nuances. Firstly, the team must understand how the firm and team value chains work. Secondly, the team as a whole must understand how the team accomplishment would impact the overall corporate accomplishment (and impact of non-accomplishment too). Thirdly, the team members must understand how their performance or non-performance would impact the team accomplishment. Fourthly, the roles of team manager, team leader and team coach must be clearly understood. Fifthly, the team should agree on the processes of team working, performance assessment and feedback management. Sixthly, the team must be inculcated with the necessary interpersonal skills to be able to overcome rough edges and jell together.
Multi-step process
As the foregoing explains, teambuilding is a multistep process which is to be fundamentally grounded in competency building. Without competencies to support team performance, mere advocacy of soft skills would be nothing more than patchwork. Teambuilding has to be carried out in real time on the job situations, under expert guidance. Human resource departments need to acquire an appropriate knowledge of business strategies and technical matters to be able to deploy the right tools such as competency grids. Finally, organizations must provide for flexible structures with talent mobility to ensure that teams are customized for effective delivery.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on December 29, 2012               

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