Working in Groups and Teams

�1996-98, Dale O. Anderson, Ph.D

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and DO NOT represent the official position of Louisiana Tech University or the State of Louisiana.

Table of Contents:

Quotes, Introduction, Working as a Group, Working as a Team, Project Teams, References, Links, end,


"Let's not talk about working harder. Everyone is already working their hardest. Work smarter." Dr. W. Edwards Deming, statistician and management consultant [Aguayo, 1990].

"Too many 'leaders' today talk about teamwork, but they define the team as their subordinates -- with themselves, as the leader, set apart. If you're the leader, but you aren't part of the team, then you've got no team. What you have is a bureaucracy. And even if it's a small bureaucracy, it's going to function like a bureaucracy: not very well." Richard Marcinko, the Rogue Warrior [Marcinko, 1996, p. 48]

"Listen to everyone in your company, and figure out ways to get them talking." Sam Walton, founder of WalMart. [Heller, 1995]

"Today, theorists and practitioners are prescribing continuous quality improvement for companies that aspire to world-class products and services. We know that continuous improvement requires vision, leadership, a learning environment, and the empowerment and participation of all people in the organization. And this means change." Preston Townley, President of the Conference Board [Haim, 1992, p. 4].

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America is known throughout the world as a nation of "rugged individualists." This John Wayne image served us well when we had little global competition, but now that we are fighting for our very industrial survival perhaps we should reexamine the implications of that image. Business requires the focused efforts of many individuals, not just the owner or CEO, to be successful. No one person knows everything (although some people think they do). No one person can do everything. No one person has all the good ideas or the necessary skills. It takes the collective efforts of many to be successful in a highly competitive global marketplace.

The current American education system has traditionally been an environment where each student competes for a grade with all the other students in the class (i.e. grading on the curve). American industry, however, is moving away from the "rugged individualist" approach toward a collaborative group/team oriented approach to business. Since engineering education must, of necessity, follow long term industrial trends, student groups and teams are playing a much larger role in the engineering education process. Many of the ways you learned to work in grade school must be unlearned for you to be an effective team member! Students working within a group or team CANNOT compete with one another! This is destructive. The only way for the group or team to perform well is for each member to contribute well. We all must learn to utilize everyone's strengths to benefit the group or team. We all must learn to work together, communicate, and accommodate different personalities and points of view. We all must learn leadership skills to organize our group's efforts and motivate each member to perform well. We all must learn the concept of stewardship and accountability -- each group member is responsible for the group's performance. Normally each member of a team receives exactly the same reward (grade) for the work done!

While competition between companies in the marketplace is the goal of free enterprise, competition between individuals within an organization is usually destructive. The motivation for compulsive personal competition is usually selfish and predatory. It is the law of the jungle where personal survival and advancement at any cost is the one and only rule. It is certainly not built on the finer human qualities like love, friendship, caring, loyalty, etc. A highly competitive person in a management position is most likely to advance his or her own personal interests ahead of those of the organization they work for, and certainly ahead of those whom they supervise. Predatory practices tend to destroy the social fabric of an organization and damage countless lives for the sake of a few. Internal competition has no place in group or team work. Save your competitive nature for the marketplace or the tennis court.

People who work in a collaborative environment should develop the confidence and courage to discuss their own ideas openly, even in the face of disagreement or criticism. All ideas are important, even though only a few are finally implemented, but an idea that is never presented is useless. Disagreement is a healthy and natural byproduct of the open exchange of ideas. It tends to broaden the perspective used to view a particular problem or circumstance. It tends to bring out new ideas and relationships between ideas. However, open personal conflict arising from disagreement is destructive and must be avoided [Badaracco, 1989]. Collaborative work embodies a set of people-oriented values such as listening, presenting one's own ideas, constructive response to others and providing support for others. The compulsive need of one person to be "right" all the time, destroys collaboration.

A group is a collection of individuals working together. A team is a special kind of group in which the members share a common vision, purpose and sense of urgency. A group's performance is the sum of individual efforts. A team's performance is the sum of individual efforts and collaborative results. Table 1 provides a comparison between work groups and teams.

Table 1. Characteristics of Groups and Teams [Katzenbach, 1993]
Oversight Manager Management Coach
Leadership Centralized
Group leader
Team facilitator
Accountability Individual Collective & individual
Purpose Predefined by management
Very specific
Limited self-direction
Predefined by management
General constraints
Latitude for self-direction
Operation Discuss, decide & delegate Discuss, decide & collaborate
Meeting style Efficiently run
Well structured
Manager talks most
"short & sweet"
Loosely structured
Everyone contributes
"long & loud"
Decision making Present some views
Majority opinion
Collaborative problem solving
Everyone contributes
Work-products Individual Collaborative + individual
Measures of Effectiveness Direct external assessment of individual performance Indirectly by influence on others
Direct internal & external assessment of individual performance & team work

The transition to a collaborative environment is not usually smooth or easy. Most changes in work environment meet with much resistance. The more dramatic the change, the more intense and vocal the resistance. The following are some factors of resistance to change [Bralla, 1996, pp. 74-75]...

One of the biggest startup problems of a collaborative approach is that over the years some highly skilled people tend to become jealous of their skills and information and are reluctant to share them with team members. This parochial attitude is counterproductive in a concurrent engineering environment. Patience, training and successful examples may eventually overcome this mentality.

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Working in a Group

Work groups are pervasive in most organizations. They are established and controlled by management and have clearly defined goals laid out for them. The work group approach to engineering has several distinct advantages:

Work groups speed up the engineering design process because they facilitate interdepartmental cooperation and communication. More potential solutions can be generated and evaluated in a shorter period of time. A broader perspective on the design goals can be achieved. Good work groups share information, perspectives, and insights to facilitate and reinforce individual performance and accountability. Usually the performance of the work group affects the rating, advancement, etc. of each member (i.e. each member gets the same grade for group work).

The members of a work group should be carefully selected by management. There are specific personal roles that should be present in a work group to facilitate technical innovation (see table 2). More than one of these roles can be taken by a single individual. Care must be taken to choose people who are able to or can learn to work together. Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler Corp., has said "...the worst threat to a company, I'm convinced, is when you take a chance on someone who winds up being in over his head. He doesn't know how to admit he can't cope, and as he screws up he ends up screwing up everybody around him. On the other hand, you have to be able to gamble on unproven talent, or everything stagnates." [Iacocca, 1988, p. 80] This is where managers earn their money. They must know their people well enough to understand their personalities, strengths and limitations.

Table 2. Roles in a Work Group [Dieter, 1983]
Sponsor The person or group that supplies the funding, personnel, facilities and equipment. In a company, this is typically upper level management.
Group Leader The person who coordinates individual efforts, facilitates progress, "carries the ball" and reports to management. An entrepreneur!
Idea Generators Creative individuals.
Gatekeepers People who facilitate communication with those outside the group or with sources of information.
Consultants People, possibly outside the group, that perform essential services.

Every work group should have a leader. An authoritarian approach to group leadership is disastrous and defeats the whole purpose of the working group approach. Groups are intended to bring multiple points of view to bear on a particular problem, not to simply reflect the particular opinion of the leader. Group decisions should be made by majority opinion, not by the dictates of the team leader.

Work groups should be rather small to be effective (usually 3-7 people). An odd number of people facilitates voting. Large groups behave more like an audience than a work group. Group members should be able to freely communicate their ideas with one another, and draw in other resources as needed.

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Working in a Team

"A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable." [Katsenbach, 1993, p112]

A team is NOT just a group of people. A group's performance is the sum of individual efforts. A team's performance is the sum of individual efforts plus collaborative results. The concept of teamwork is not new (it is common in school athletics), but it has recently gained steadily in prominence in business as more and more companies are converting to the Deming style quest for quality (i.e. quality is prerequisite to market share and profit). Teamwork embodies a set of people-oriented values such as listening, presenting one's own ideas, constructive response to others, providing support, recognizing the interests and achievements of others. The team approach to engineering has several distinct advantages:

Teamwork speeds up the engineering design process because it facilitates interdepartmental cooperation and communication. More potential solutions can be generated and evaluated in a shorter period of time. A broader perspective on the design goals can be achieved.

Team building requires that management actually know the personality, focus, capabilities, likes, dislikes, and resources of each individual being considered for team membership (what a novel thought). Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler, said "Business, after all, is nothing more than a bunch of human relationships." [Iacocca, 1988, p. 74] The following are commonly encountered team member participation styles [Parker, 1994, pp. 112-3]:

Building a functional team is a process that requires considerable planing and care by management. Not all good people are team players. The following are tips for successful teams [Parker, 1994, p. 5]:

Teams should NOT be created solely by managerial dictate. Individuals should be given the opportunity and privilege to join the team. Once the initial membership of the team is set, the team should then have the freedom to request additional members as needed or let members drop out without repercussion. Many successful teams are actually self forming! The strength of a team lies in the differences of its members, not their similarities. A broad perspective and a wide variety of skills and resources can only be obtained with a cross-functional, multidisciplinary team. If two members of a team are usually of the same opinion, then one of them is redundant!

A natural team is composed of a manager and those employees who directly report to that manager. The natural team is a MANAGEMENT team who's primary responsibility is oversight and operation of the everyday activities assigned to the team.

A project team is composed of a variety of people who can help plan and implement a particular project -- usually a quality improvement project. A project team should be composed of representatives from all affected groups and should include a mix of management, staff and line workers. This usually requires an adjustment in attitude for all team members, since line workers have the same say in team decisions as managers!

A product team is a long term project team composed of a variety of people who are concerned with a particular marketable product. Their responsibility is to oversee current product production, design the next generation product, and plan future improvements in the product line to satisfy anticipated customer demands. The product team is probably one of the most effective tools in modern product design.

A process team is a long term project team composed of a variety of people who are concerned with a particular internal process. Their responsibility is to oversee the process and improve it. The quality circle for a particular process should be part of the process team.

Management should write a team charter that outlines the specific goals and expectations of the team without over-constraining them or trying to over-control them. This should be a win-win contract that benefits team members as well as the organization. Some principles of effective teamwork follow [Clausing, 1993, p. 46], ...

Management can and should keep track of team progress because accountability is an important part of the team's stewardship, but meddling by top management simply to assert their ego or power should be kept to a minimum because it impedes progress.

Oversight of teams must take the form of coaching -- teaching the necessary skills and facilitating the work -- not command and control. The team must be free to determine its own processes and work products, not be constrained to simply do what it is told. Once a project team has been formed, it is given stewardship over the project with bounds set for its authority. Stewardship involves responsibility, authority and accountability. From then on, the project team has primary responsibility for the success of the project. Management can and should keep track of team progress because accountability is an important part of the team's stewardship, but meddling by top management simply to assert their power should be kept to a minimum because it impedes progress.

Each team should have a facilitator who has primary responsibility to build a complimentary team from people with differing outlooks and skills, reduce dysfunctional friction, foster mutual respect and cooperation among the team members, and facilitate team activity. Team decisions should be made by consensus. The following are suggested ground rules for team meetings [Stone, 1995, pp. 122-123]:

Team leadership is a shared responsibility that is not vested in any one individual. The various responsibilities of leadership are entrusted to those who are most capable of performing them. Leadership roles can change whenever the team decides to change them. Every member of a team should have periodic leadership training.

Teams work better if there is a strong cohesiveness within the group. This can be accomplished by spending time together initially in the planning stages, eating working lunches together, socializing, developing a team identity, etc. You don't necessarily need to become best friends for life, but you do need to be able to tolerate each other well enough to be productive. The following are some ways to get people to like you [Carnegie, 1981, p. 112]...

Personality conflicts need to be identified and dealt with. Team celebrations of accomplishment are a good way of building strong team relationships.

Teams should empower people to be the best that they can possibly be. The six conditions of empowerment are as follows [Covey, 1991, p 197]:

  1. Character -- integrity, maturity, and abundance mentality.
  2. Skills -- communication, planning, organization, and synergistic problem solving.
  3. A win-win agreement for each project -- a clear mutual understanding and commitment between management & team members that defines desired results, guidelines (constraints), resources, accountability, and consequences.
  4. Self supervision -- self-control, genuine concern for others, team mentality, CQI.
  5. Helpful structures and systems -- designed & operated to facilitate innovation, not impede it.
  6. Accountability (self evaluation, peer review & CQI).

Team members must not compete with one another. Instead they must learn to collaborate on everything.

The strength of a team lies in the differences of its members, not their similarities. Team members must believe in their results, be prepared to present them to each other and to management in a good light and defend their decisions. Disagreement is a natural consequence of open discussion and should not be feared. However, disagreement cannot be allowed to produce conflict. The following are some nonconfrontational methods of persuading others [Carnegie, 1981, pp. 200-201]...

As with any activity involving people, teamwork is not a foolproof solution to all problems. Teams that are carefully selected and well trained tend to succeed most of the time, but there are some potential problems with teams that must be dealt with [Clausing, 1993, pp. 45-46]...

Teams need to learn how to tactfully remediate these problems.

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The Project Team

Once formed, the project team has primary stewardship over their specific project. Stewardship involves responsibility, authority, and accountability. Table 3 lists skills that mechanical engineer's need to be good project team members. One of the first things the project team must do is work out a detailed schedule, division of labor and budget within the guidelines set by management. Everyone on the team should be expected to contribute a fair share of the effort. The team facilitator will naturally perform most of the organizing and reporting functions, therefore his or her involvement in other tasks will be somewhat limited compared to everyone else. Once the project plan is in place, stick to it. Remember that delay by any team member tends to propagate through the entire project and slow everyone down.

Table 3. The top 20 skills ME's need [Przirembel, 1995].
(NOTE: the concepts common to both levels are boldfaced)
Entry Level Experienced
1. Teaming <<< NOTE! 1. Communication
2. Communication <<< NOTE! 2. Teaming
3. Design for Manufacture 3. Design for Manufacture
4. CAD systems 4. Design Reviews
5. Professional ethics 5. Design for Cost
6. Creative thinking 6. Design for Performance
7. Design for Performance 7. Design for Reliability
8. Design for Reliability 8. Manufacturing processes
9. Design for Safety 9. Systems perspective
10. Concurrent Engineering 10. Concurrent Engineering
11. Sketching/drawing 11. Creative thinking
12. Design for Cost 12. Project management tools
13. Statistics 13. Leadership
14. Reliability 14. Design for Assembly
15. Geometric Tolerancing 15. Professional ethics
16. Value Engineering 16. Design for Commonality (DFA?)
17. Design Reviews 17. Design for Safety
18. Manufacturing processes 18. CAD systems
19. Systems perspective 19. Product testing
20. Design for Assembly 20. Reliability

A product team should develop and follow a product realization process (PRP) tailored to their specific situation and needs. That PRP should span from the identification of a new need or market opportunity to full scale production and marketing. The PRP will determine the schedule time line and identify necessary tasks.

All project teams are subject to critical internal and external review. The internal review process should be frequent self-evaluation for the purpose of continuous improvement. The external review will require the team to periodically justify its existence!

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Aguayo, Refael, 1990, Dr. Deming: The American Who Taught the Japanese About Quality, A Lyle Stuart Book, Carol Publishing Group, New York. (ISBN 0-8184-0519-8, LOC T156.A35)

Badaracco, Joseph L. and Richard R. Ellsworth, 1989, Leadership and the Quest for Integrity, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA. (ISBN 0-87584-200-3, LOC HD57.7.B33)

Bralla, James G., 1996, Design For Excellence, McGraw Hill, New York. [ISBN 0-07-007138-1, LOC TS171.B69]

Carnegie, Dale, 1981, How to Win Friends & Influence People, Pocket Books, New York. (ISBN 0--671-72365-0)

Clausing, Don, 1993, Total Quality Development, ASME Press, New York. [ISBN 0-7918-0035-0, LOC TS176.C537 1993]

Covey Stephen R., 1991, Principle-Centered Leadership, Simon & Schuster, New York. (ISBN 0-671-74910-2, LOC BF637.S8C67)

Dieter, G., 1983, Engineering Design, McGraw-Hill, New York

Heller, Robert, 1995, The Leadership Imperative, Truman Tally Books, New York. (ISBN 0-525-93900-8, LOC HD70.U5 H433)

Hiam, Alexander, 1992, Closing the Quality Gap, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ. (ISBN 0-13-138413-9, LOC HD 62.H53)

Iacocca, Lee & Sonny Kleinfield, 1988, Talking Straight, Bantom Books, New York. (ISBN 0-553-05270-5, LOC HD9710.U52127)

Katzenbach, Jon R. and Douglas K. Smith, 1993, "The Discipline of Teams", Harvard Business Review, Cambridge, MA. (ISBN , LOC HF5001.H3)

Marcinko, Richard, 1996, Leadership Secrets of the Rogue Warrior, Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, New York. (ISBN 0-671-54515-9)

Parker, Glenn M., 1994, Cross-Functional Teams, Josey Bass Books, San Francisco, CA. (ISBN 1-55542-609-3,LOC HD66 P435)

Przirembel, et. al., 1995, Integrating the Product Realization Process (PRP) into the Undergraduate Curriculum, ASME International, New York. (ISBN 0-7918-0126-8)

Stone, Florence M., 1995, The High Value Manager: Developing the Core Competencies Your Organization Demands, AMACOM, New York. (LOC HD38.2.S765)

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Links to Related Articles:

Conflict Resolution, Engineering Management, Stewardship and Accountability,

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(This article was last updated 28 September 1998 by Dale O. Anderson)