Go Team! Fostering effective collaborations is a matter of discipline and drive

Greg Bigley

Education is a team sport at the Foster School of Business. Across programs, students produce projects, tackle problems and deliver presentations in teams. They collaborate to compete in case competitions and create business plans. They team up to run all manner of student organizations.

Why is this? We asked resident expert Greg Bigley to explain the Foster approach to effective teamwork. Bigley, an associate professor of management and the Longbrake Endowed Professor in Innovation, has taught intensive team building workshops in many of the school’s masters programs since 2001.

Why does Foster focus so much on making a team-driven difference?

One reason is that teams are the structural building blocks of a large and increasing number of organizations. And many surveys—as well as our own MBA Career Management team—indicate that recruiters want to hire people who can work well in teams.

OK, but why are organizations so reliant on teams?

Teams potentially can provide many benefits. For instance, teams can help improve decision-making in organizations, especially in situations where stakes are high, time is short, and situations are complex or ambiguous. Likewise, teams can help boost organizational innovation and problem solving. The distinguished psychologist Richard Hackman spoke of the potential of teams to “generate magic, producing something extraordinary, a collective creation of previously unimagined quality or beauty.” He was talking about synergy, that musty old term that means creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts. That’s a main reason organizations often lean on teams: to produce magic. But Hackman goes on to say that social science research has consistently shown us that teams typically underperform relative to their incredible potential.

Why do teams so often fail to reach their potential?

Teams underperform for a number of reasons. For instance, people often erroneously presume they know enough about how to work effectively in teams, perhaps simply because they’ve been in many group-type situations during their lives. But the knowledge and skills required for the teamwork that produces extraordinary results in modern, complex organizations do not come naturally to most people. People have to work at developing themselves to perform well as part of a team.

Another reason teams underperform is that most of us put on teams have an intense bias for action: let’s just get to work. We’re reluctant to spend enough time building the team, even if we possess useful knowledge and skills to do so. This bias is driven by, among other things, conflict aversion, over-optimism regarding the team’s inherent prospects, and impatience about getting the task work of the team done—so that upfront team building is believed to be a relative waste of time.

Finally, many people assume that their team will be able to handle any problems down the road, simply cross that bridge when they come to it. The fallacy here is that there is no bridge to cross when problems arise—as they inevitably do. The most difficult point to construct a bridge is when you most need one—such as when the problem is major and time is short.

Is teamwork a learnable skill?

Yes. Absolutely. There are some fundamental principles on which good teamwork is based. And the Foster School is dedicated to helping our students acquire these. Teamwork requires certain skills that must be developed.

How do you teach teamwork at Foster?

Students are assigned to learning teams when they enter most of our graduate programs. These programs usually kick off with a required teambuilding workshop. I ordinarily conduct a three-part workshop. Part one introduces the remarkable promises and challenges of teamwork. Part two covers the fundamental building blocks of effective teamwork. And part three is mainly about how to apply the key principles covered in the workshop to the specific issues faced by each unique learning team.

The students emerge from the workshop with a “living” team contract that encapsulates the teamwork principles we’ve discussed and to which each team member has explicitly committed. We ordinarily revisit the topic of teams periodically throughout the duration of a graduate program to help students update their contracts, make necessary course corrections, deal with unforeseen challenges, and the like. Our students have many opportunities at the Foster School to further develop and put into practice their teamwork knowledge and skills, such as class assignments, case competitions, business plan competitions, and initiatives of student-run organizations.

What hopes and fears do people have about teams?

A perennial top concern is that others on the team won’t pull their own weight. People worry about being exploited by slackers. A key hope is that the team will produce synergy—that is, the “magic” mentioned by Hackman.

What are the keys to achieving synergy?

Extraordinary teamwork is not easily achieved through a few simple tips or quick fixes when problems arise. It is the product of a deliberate and disciplined process that relentlessly builds the capacity for collective effectiveness. Students enrolled in the programs in which I teach use the Team Performance Model, which I developed as a diagnostic framework for initially building and further developing their teams. It applies to teams in any situation—from a b-school study team to a corporate board. On the basis of this model, the team-building process begins by identifying key stakeholders and their expectations. The team then decides what needs to be done to deliver the greatest value to stakeholders. Next the team determines how its intangible resources—people, structure and culture—must be configured to support the set of processes that deliver stakeholder value.

Can you expand on these intangible resources?

Sure. “People” refers to the knowledge, skills, abilities, motives, attitudes, and so forth of the team’s members. “Structure” includes rules, roles and a statement of purpose. “Culture” consists of the values, assumptions and beliefs that the team members share and make it unique.

The model sounds pretty formal. Should it be?

Yes. Teams put themselves in a better position to function effectively when they sort out the main issues up front in a dedicated process. I recommend that any team write a charter or a contract that states its stakeholder expectations, core purpose and values, operational goals, processes, rules and roles, among other things.

What comes after the contract?

The team contract should be regarded as a living document. As such, it should be revisited and revised periodically throughout the life of a team, as team members learn more about themselves and the task environment; as their knowledge, skills or preferences evolve, and as the task environment changes. The best teams are the ones that are centrally concerned with individual- and team-level development and improvement, and that have good protocols promoting honest discussions about performance: what went right, what went wrong, what needs to be maintained, and what needs to change.

How does this approach help a team deal with internal conflict?

There are several different, major types of internal team conflict that this approach can help manage. For instance, people can become extremely frustrated by and resentful of one another, due to work style differences or personality conflicts, which are all “people” issues. Frustration and resentment can lead to an adverse process of mutual disrespect. When the potential for such conflict first becomes apparent, the team is strongly advised to identify and define what respectful and disrespectful behaviors look like for that team. The team is further counseled to develop a specific set of rules and roles to promote respectful behavior and prevent disrespectful actions from occurring. Rules and roles are “structure” concerns.

How can organizations promote more effective teams?

I recommend that an external manager should require that a team undergo a formal team-building process up front. In addition, and as part of this process, the manager should provide the team with overall direction, a few key objectives and the necessary tools and resources to succeed. But the manager should also explicitly give the team a degree of autonomy to build itself by authorizing and encouraging members to shape the team purpose, append the list of team objectives and establish key rules and roles on the team, and to identify and acquire tools and other resources to perform well. A measure of autonomy promotes buy-in, and otherwise increases the odds that the team will achieve, as Hackman said, “something extraordinary.”

How can an individual become a better team member?

A first-rate team member engages teammates and teamwork enthusiastically, offers opinions clearly and confidently but not obstinately, strives to maintain attitudes of trust and respect toward teammates, and so tends to remain reasonably understanding and flexible or responsive about teammates’ needs.

Bonus question: Can you offer advice on more constructive meetings?

The best teams have highly productive meetings. Here are some classic tips for getting the most out of meetings:

  • Establish the objectives, plan the agenda, and set the time limit in advance.
  • Distribute the agenda in advance.
  • Select a discussion facilitator to help keep discussions focused and on track with respect to the agenda and appropriately paced with regard to the timeframe.
  • Start meetings on time.
  • Summarize accomplishments.
  • Identify and record next steps.
  • Spend five minutes evaluating the meeting process to improve it.
  • Distribute minutes promptly.