Self-Directed R&D Teams: What Makes Them Effective?

Article excerpt

Teams can be used anywhere in R&D, and can function effectively even without training, a study finds. But meddling managers can bring trouble.

OVERVIEW: Teams are used extensively and successfully in every aspect of industrial R&D. Despite little formal training, both the team members and their sponsors find that the team's output usually meets, and often exceeds, expectations. Clear and important goals, clean communications and supportive management are key factors leading to team success. Meddling managers and fuzzy goals tend to lead to failure. Training, team rewards and recognition do not seem to be central to team effectiveness. Teams like their managers to be accessible and to provide resources and support, but not to dictate how the team should function. These requirements can be difficult to balance, but management nonetheless got pretty good grades from the teams in this study, and the teams got pretty good grades from their managers and sponsors.

It probably began in the Stone Age . . . men worked in teams because a wooly mammoth was just too big for one hunter to tackle alone. And today, tens of thousands of years later, teams are ubiquitous; in sports, in entertainment, in medicine, in litigation, in every field of human endeavor. Total Quality Management stresses the use of teams, and there is a large body of experience relating to teams in manufacturing. Does teamwork apply in R&D as well? Or is research best done by the lone virtuoso?

The Industrial Research Institute set out to answer this question in late 1994. Working through its Quality Directors Network, member companies were surveyed about their experiences with the use of teams in R&D, especially with self-directed teams. Some 65 case histories were obtained from about 30 companies in many different industries. The survey was designed to get responses from three levels: the team members themselves, the team sponsors and the quality manager of the respective companies.

The bottom line is remarkably simple: teams work well when you tell them what's important, and get them to take responsibility for delivering it. While issues such as training, recognition and facilitation can make some impact, they are nowhere near as important as clear goals and clean communication.

Conversely, a major cause of team failure is meddling managers, who haven't learned to stay hands-off. As with teenagers, teams like their managers to be there when they need them, to interact meaningfully, but not to give day-to-day direction of the team's activities. Being there to help rather than to take charge is not easy for most managers. So our study focused on teams that were self-directed.

When Is a Team Self-Directed?

Clearly, there is a continuum of autonomy among teams, so definitions are somewhat arbitrary. In the old leader-directed style, the leader (or sponsor, or manager) called the shots. If he was willing to share responsibility for team mechanics, customer interaction and conflict resolution, we would consider the team leader-centered. If he allowed the team complete responsibility for these mechanics, and shared with them such activities as work allocation, recognition, reward allocation, and monitoring costs versus budget, we would regard the team as having shared leadership.

In a self-directed team, the team members have full responsibility for everything except budget, salary and performance evaluation activities, which they share with the sponsor. As you can see from the survey data, relatively few teams actually achieve this degree of autonomy. Some do, however; in fact, three of our teams felt they even shared responsibility for administering the salaries of their own team members.

How Widespread Are Teams?

We found that teams were very popular; three companies had 100 or more, and almost half the companies in the survey had 10-25. Typical team size was about 9-10 people. …