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Revisiting Teamwork Fads

September 28, 2014
Sky Divers “What goes around, comes around.”

This well-known expression is intended typically in a negative context. In this post I’m adapting it to fit within the organizational bureaucracy, specifically on the topic of teams and teamwork. I’ve written plenty on teams in the past (see links at the end of this post), given my extensive past work, both within the public and not-for-profit sectors.

What’s unfortunate is that fads on team work, as with numerous other management fads (Management by Objectives, anyone? Or how about Total Quality Management), fade away, only to resurface later, promoted by those who either who don’t have a clue about teamwork or who are trying to make a quick buck.

Let’s take matrix teams (matrix management) as an example. First off, don’t confuse these with cross functional teams, several of which I formed and led in years past and which worked very well when it came to addressing project-specific organizational issues.

My first hands-on exposure to working in a matrix team setting was when I moved to Ottawa in 2000 when I worked for the federal Department of Transportation. Matrix teams were in vogue in the regional office in another federal department where I had worked for many years. I just hadn’t been subjected to them.

At Transport Canada, the split reporting relationships to team leaders proved hugely confusing at times, with the leaders (managers) engaging in frequent conflict over priorities and deadlines. Indeed, I recall watching the leaders argue at times over who had the priority with respect to getting staff to do specific work. To put it bluntly, in a matrix team environment if the leaders don’t have their shit together then tensions rapidly rise, leading to stressed employees, a loss of productivity, delays in getting results accomplished and a loss of focus on customers or clients.

Third post Pic Matrix teams – matrix management can quickly become a lose-lose proposition for all stakeholders involved unless particular attention is paid diligently to team dynamics and that the right individuals are chosen to function as leaders.

In the nineties another fad struck: self-directed teams. I took training courses on this new fad, which to me at the time seemed really exciting. Except that two key criteria must be present if a self-directed team is to have a chance to succeed:

a) the composition of the team: people who want to assume responsibility and to be held accountable,

b) the team’s members are very clear on the inter-dependency of their efforts and, especially, how it connects with the organization’s broader purpose and goals and the context in which the team is operating.

Self-directed teams can be messy creations, but produce longer-term lasting results. However, some situations demand strong individual leadership roles, with more formal team reporting relationships, such as para-military organizations, construction and the financial industry.

Kevins Entrepreneur and social media guru Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby (an independent music online seller which he sold several years ago), recounts in his book Anything You Want his experience with self-directed teams. Sivers took a hands-off approach to managing as his small online business became a huge success. He wanted his employees to manage themselves. However, he came to realize that while good in theory his new management approach caused problems relating to customer service and productivity.

There is no perfect solution to how people should work together, and that applies especially to the concept of teams and teamwork. Check out these links at your leisure to explore the different dimensions of teams: the good, the bad and the ugly.

Are You Frozen by Too Much Collaboration and Teamwork?

Rethinking Teams, Getting over the Guilt Complex

Lessons in Teamwork: Winning Despite Trenchfoot, Leeches and Hunger

Is Your Team Really a Team?

The Five Levels of Teams

How Do You Build Team Performance?

What Kind of Team Player Are You?

The Four Stages of Team Development

Turning People on to Teamwork

The ability to perceive or think differently is more important than the knowledge gained.

– David Bohm

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