Interdependent people combine their own efforts with the efforts of others to achieve their greatest success.
The first class in the Executive MBA program at the Naval Postgraduate School is a course on managing teams. What my classmates and I learned during orientation week is that the program has a strong team component, and that the NPS has seen improved effectiveness by participants when starting the program with this course. Central to this improved effectiveness is a model introduced by McShane and VonGinow that provides a framework for discussing and evaluating team effectiveness in general. In my own journey to define team effectiveness, I hit upon parts of this framework, about which I’ve written previously. However, seeing it all together in one model brought it home for me in a way that I haven’t achieved on my own. In this post I’d like to share the parts of this model, along with applying the model to my own recent experiences with building and leading effective teams.
The model starts with a description of the Organizational and Team Environment, defined by contextual factors that influence a team’s design, processes, and outcomes at the start:
- Reward systems – how members are at least partly rewarded for participation;
- Communication systems – how the team communicated both internally and externally, which is of special criticality for virtual teams;
- Physical space – the co-location and layout of physical space for the team;
- Organizational environment – the collection of resources, policies, procedures, expectations, and regulations the surround the team;
- Organizational structure – the relationship between the team and key stakeholders, along with the reporting structure; and
- Organizational leadership – the degree of buy-in and support the team can expect to receive from key leaders outside the team.
In my own recent experiences with leading teams to develop strategies for purchasing the goods and services we need for Mission Control-Houston, astronaut training facilities, mission planning systems, and mission operations “plan/train/fly” services, I’ve hit upon all of these. Regular readers of Leading Space will note that I’ve spent quite a bit of my own time over the last few years writing on human spaceflight policy and fiscal matters, and engaging the teams I lead in conversation on how those might impact our workings as a team. (That’s a check in the Organizational environment column.) Through experience, I’ve developed and shared a working understanding of the supporting and stakeholder organizations in our work, which are different than what is typically encountered by the team members. (Check in the Organizational structure column.) I’ve also taken great pains to work with upper management in my organization to outline expectations, timetables and communication mechanisms, and to have the upper management address the team at a kick-off meeting before the team starts work. (Check in the Organizational leadership and Communication systems columns.) I arrange for the team members to be assigned to the team full-time for the duration of the effort, and for us to be co-located in a secure facility affectionately known as “The Bunker.” (Check for the Physical space column.) Lastly, I arrange with management for specialty rewards and recognitions for team members, and provide inputs into their respective performance reviews. (Check for the Reward systems column.) Based on this model, I’m doing well at identifying and addressing all of the contextual factors that can influence the good start of a team. I just need to keep at it and continue to find ways to improve my performance in each.
The next major area of the model is Team Design, consisting of the following elements:
- Task characteristics – a categorization of the work of the team in terms of degree of interdependence: reciprocal, sequential, or pooled;
- Team size – the number of people on the team (theories abound as to the ideal number; the best number is the amount necessary to do the work, and no more); and
- Team composition – the balance between homogeneity (to unify) and diversity (to broaden possibilities).
Regular readers of Leading Space will note that I’ve devoted a lot of effort to the team composition element, one that I’ve determined previously as being critical to team success. The model agrees that it is an important component, but not a sole criterion for success. Team size and task characteristics are important as well, and these are areas that I’ll need to address carefully in the future. For instance, on task characteristics I’ve defaulted to an approach assuming the work requires reciprocal interdependence, meaning that it is highly interactive and collaborative. This is born out by the fact that I led most of the work through long team meetings in a conference room. In retrospect, a significant fraction of the work doesn’t require that approach, and might be better suited to a sequential or pooled approach. Additionally, I’ve tended towards teams with 7 members, because that is the maximum I’m permitted under current guidelines. However, there are clear instances where a smaller team (say, 4-5) is more appropriate. Both of these are something for me to emphasize for future teams.
The third major area of the model is Team Processes, consisting of the following elements:
- Team development – this is the “forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning” lifecycle of a team;
- Team norms – the list of behaviors that the team agrees to exhibit and discourage, developed and agreed to by the team itself;
- Team roles – the functions and positions held by team members that permit the team to perform work;
- Team cohesiveness – the degree of attraction the members feel towards the team and their motivation to remain team members, driven by interactions, feedback, and team “maintenance” functions; and
- Boundary management – addresses who is and is not on the team, and who the other critical “partners” are in other parts of the organization.
Assessing my performance in the area, I see lots of reason to be pleased. With each of the team I lead a team norms development meeting where we establish and agree to the norms of behavior for the team, which are posted in the common area and are enforced by each team member. I’ve also shared the team lifecycle description with team members and use the language during the entire time the team is together, such as “we’re storming!” or “we’re really performing!” As for roles, I strike a balance between initiative of individual team members to tackle what needs to get done, as well as to assign tasks to members based on preferences, aptitude, experience, and natural talents. As for cohesiveness, we spend time talking about non-team related items, whether they are happenings in the larger space community, or about our respective interests and activities outside work. We also routinely get away from the Bunker and each lunch together every Friday. Still, I could do a bit more in this area, such as starting the team with sharing stories about ourselves, which I have seen other leaders use quite effectively. Finally, I haven’t addressed boundary management in my previous teams. This is definitely worth adding to my repertoire.
The final area of the model is Team Effectiveness, which addresses the elements that define team success. These are as follows:
- Achieve organizational goals – obviously, did the team deliver meaningful results?
- Satisfy member needs – were the needs of individual team members met?
- Team growth/learning – did the team members learn something new from the experience?
- Maintain team survival – for continuing teams, do they survive outside challenges and threats?
- Satisfy outside stakeholder needs – obviously, did the work of the team meet expectations?
Assessing my performance in this area, again I’m rather pleased. I’ve focused on achieving organizational goals and satisfying outside stakeholder needs, so nothing more needs to be discussed here. I’ve also put special emphasis on team members learning something new from having been a part of the team, such as learning more about the business side of NASA, or about the other team members. Both will have benefits that extend beyond the lifetime of the team, and carryover into the work when the team members return to their respective parts of the organization. However, I can see room for improvement on satisfying member needs. This starts with a question, up front: what are your needs? From there, continue to monitor and reassess to ensure that individual needs are being met to the most practicable extent.
I continue ahead in the Executive MBA program with a concrete example of a benefit from participation. I would not have received the affirmation of a sound approach to building and leading teams that I’ve built on my own. I also now have several areas for improvement identified by this model, which I will implement right away. Overall, I’m pleased and excited and am looking forward to new discoveries as I continue in the program.