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By Elisa Mendzela

Groups are not necessarily teams. Yet many people refer to almost any work group as a team.

This type of fuzzy thinking can create confusion and the frustration of unmet expectations.

A group comprises a bunch of people thrown together for administrative purposes. Members of a group see themselves primarily as "hired hands." For example, they help to meet the group's objectives, but not to plan them.

A team, on the other hand--

* possesses a common vision and purpose that members help develop and in which they take pride,

* contains members who feel responsible for the team's work, not just for their individual contributions,

* senses the value added by the team to the wider organization,

* strives for improvements, and is future-oriented,

* develops sound internal relationships,

* displays interdependence and trust,

* encourages open and honest communication to air differences constructively,

* develops a common understanding of individual roles,

* respects diversity of team members,

* matches people to required outcomes in order to maximize team effectiveness, and

* allocates leadership roles to maximize benefits.

A team could therefore be described as "people with complementary skills, committed to a common purpose and approach, who work together effectively and hold themselves mutually accountable."

Teams have the potential to tap synergy. Teamwork is like a salad: Individually, each ingredient may be tasty and fresh, but they will certainly not add up to a gourmet experience. Put together in the right way, the ingredients enhance one another to produce startling results. Each ingredient retains its character and strengths, but contributes to a more exciting and effective overall result.


Teams can be an efficient way to organize work. The potential benefits are immense. Teamwork can break down departmental barriers, provide developmental challenges, free up management, and improve customer service. The combination of these factors should have a positive effect on the bottom line. However, this all sounds very tentative so far --"should," "can," and "potential."

The reason is that few teams achieve anything approaching these benefits. A recent U.S. study established that 60% of teams fail. We've all heard the success stories--organizations introducing teams which have overcome mediocrity and sometimes the threat of extinction.

Recently we have heard about some direct results of teamwork in the U.S.:

* 30% increases in efficiency at Colgate-Palmolive,

* improved performance at Kodak (handling twice as many calls with double the accuracy), and

* reduced costs and increased profitability at Texas Instruments (revenue up by 50% with reduced customer return rates).

Personal experience and an increasing body of evidence paint a very different picture. Why do many whirlwind romances with teams end badly? They fail for many reasons, most of which stem from demands for quick fixes.

Ask Questions

When considering a team-based approach, start by asking questions:

* Why would a team approach be

* What is unsatisfactory about the current situation?

* What are possible causes and

* Will your organization really support a team approach?

The last question is fundamental, and must be answered honestly. If the organization's culture and climate are not open and flexible, you will struggle hard to establish effective teams.

Many organizations are hierarchical. Some are autocratic, based on command and control. Team members may become confused by anomalies between rhetoric and hierarchical reality. Using their initiative may be seen as overstepping the mark, or even as threatening the hierarchy. An example is a team-leader who sent a "discussion note" to managers at different organizational levels. The note listed ideas which originated at his team's breakthrough problem-solving session. For the first time the team had focused on developing a range of potential solutions, rather than dwelling on problems encountered. Unfortunately, one manager complained to the team leader's manager.

The team leader was told that in [the] future he should go through his manager, who would review ideas and (perhaps) circulate them. Understandably, the team leader and his team decided future problems belonged to the manager, not to them.

Teams often fail because they are established for the wrong reasons, as a substitute for poor management, or due to unwillingness to tackle the real problem. An effective team cannot compensate for a poor manager.

To Succeed

For teams to succeed, people need to feel that they played a part in determining a result. This is altogether different from imposing teams on people.

Team leaders must involve the team in determining objectives, structures, methods, and membership.

What sort of team do you want? At one end of the scale of team-types stands the traditional one with a designated leader who solicits ideas from members and reports to a manager. At the other end is the self-directed, self-managing team to which all decision-making has been delegated--without a leader. The appropriate team type is one that reflects what you, your people, and your organization can best support. Seek a good fit with the type of work to be done;
the organizational climate, cultural
issues, and the readiness of those involved.

Create realistic expectations. Don't expect people who have been--

* told what to do all their working lives,

* discouraged from using their initiative, or

* rewarded for hoarding information and expertise

suddenly to spring into cooperative action, use their initiative, and make team-based decisions. It won't work!

Move at a realistic and sustainable pace. Teams cannot succeed if people guard their patch jealously and see helping others as a loss to themselves. Try confronting this negative behavior rather than ignoring it.

Sell the benefits of collaboration. If necessary, reiterate the benefits--but also make it clear that collaboration is not optional.

If a person cannot or will not change, take action. Do not ask a team to "work around" the problem. Help your team to understand what "team" means in their particular context to avoid misunderstandings. Spell out likely differences in team members' actions and behavior. Outline specific scenarios illustrating the likely differences. Point out opportunities and possible pitfalls.


Sometimes you may wish to develop a team to deal with a particular project. Team members may be drawn from all parts of the organization, or from just one area. Learn enough about them as people to maintain and build the team. Several staffing and organizational issues may need to be dealt with before the team can be effective. For example, some team members may rank higher in the organization than others but must nevertheless work cooperatively. Someone in a formal management role may need to report to someone who is not. Encourage the team to air issues.


Teams tend to go through developmental stages. Here is one developmental model:

Forming--the new team members demonstrate mixed attitudes: excited, optimistic, reserved, skeptical, and

Storming--members argue about actions and methods: They are testing boundaries and each other.

Performing--members become synergistic, effective, and cohesive.

Not all teams go through the whole developmental process, and the sequence may vary. Many things will affect the team's development--for example--

* the diversity of team members,

* how well they have known each other,

* how they have worked together in the past, and

* how clear they are about their roles.


Teams change, too. A traditionally structured team may take on increasing responsibility and become more autonomous. Membership changes will have an impact, which the team will need to manage.

New team members usually take a while to fit in and contribute fully. Departing team members leave holes which may be difficult to fill. Strive for diversity in your team. Too often we recruit people similar to ourselves or with attributes the organization values highly. Any organization needs variety to gain maximum value from all opportunities.

Try to enlist both conceptual thinkers and meticulous, detail-conscious people. Combine focused individuals who are eager to reach closure with others who
enjoy tangential thinking and open-

Help your team become self-aware. Ensure that it is alert to areas where it lacks skills. Together, seek strategies to overcome or minimize weaknesses. Keep track of process (how the team works) as well as content--what it produces.


Teamwork requires sophisticated skills and abilities. Too often teamwork is imposed on staff without adequate preparation. Apart from technical/professional expertise, team members will need a variety of interpersonal and managerial skills, including--

* setting objectives,

* monitoring and measuring performance, and

* influencing, negotiating, and collaborating to gain the best result.


Reward systems can either help or hamper good teamwork. Consider how to align performance rewards to a team-based environment. You may wish to acknowledge both the team and individuals within it. Ask team members for their ideas--some teams decide such matters for themselves.

Best Approach

The best approach to teamwork reflects the organization's culture, its people, and the level of trust achieved. In the battle for better performance by organizations, there are no guaranteed solutions. Creating and maintaining teams is not an easy option.

Careful thought, communication, and preparation are necessary to ensure your team succeeds. The risks may be great--but the potential rewards are even greater. *

Elisa Mendzela is principal/consultant with Mendhurst Associates Limited, Wellington. She has worked with organizations in New Zealand, Europe, the United States, Africa, and the
Pacific. Her work focuses on
developing teamwork and leadership skills, managing diversity, and
facilitating team-based problem-

Reprinted with permission of Chartered Accountants Journal of New Zealand.

Michael Goldstein, CPA
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