Are Self-Directed Teams Right for Your Company?

Personnel Journal, December 1993 | Go to article overview

Are Self-Directed Teams Right for Your Company?


Employees at the San Diego Zoo used to have very narrow and very well-defined job responsibilities. Keepers did the keeping and gardeners did the gardening. Employees in construction and maintenance constructed and maintained. This system worked as long as there were clearly defined boundaries between animal exhibits, public areas and horticultural displays.

But in 1988, the zoo began to develop bioclimatic zones, in which plants and animals are grouped together in cageless enclosures that resemble their native habitats. Instead of viewing the exhibits from afar, visitors now walk into and become part of these zones in what the zoo calls an immersion experience. Bioclimatic zones such as the humid, 3.5 acre Tiger River exhibit not only provide a healthier environment for plants and animals, they provide a better way to educate visitors about conservation issues and increase their enjoyment of the zoo experience.

Because the zones themselves are more interdependent--plants are there to be eaten, not just admired--the employees who manage them must work more closely together. This is why, instead of maintaining the new exhibits with employees from traditional functional areas, the zoo has assigned self-directed, multidisciplinary teams to manage the bioclimatic zones.

Tiger River, for example, is run by a seven-member team of mammal and bird specialists, horticulturalists and maintenance and construction workers. The 5-year-old team tracks its own budget, and members are jointly responsible for the display. "Before, the gardener may not have cared about trash on the ground because that was the groundskeeper's job," explains David Glines, who is in charge of training and development at the zoo. But today, the horticulturalist may spend a morning cleaning the paths, helping the birdkeeper chase down some geese and answering questions from curious visitors--without even looking at the plants.

Tiger River team members received extensive cross training, and together, they analyzed the work required, set goals for themselves and gradually built a sense of mutual responsibility and ownership for the exhibit.

Glines says that the move to self-directed teams was a "painful, bumpy road," but that the process is paying off. Zoo attendance is up, despite the depressed Southern California economy. Workers' compensation claims are down, and employees report a much higher quality of work life. As one team member explained, "Until I was cross trained and became responsible for a whole area, I had little regard for other job classifications. Tiger River has taught me to respect and help others for the benefit of the entire Zoological Society. This, in turn, gave me pride, which enriched my work."

Improved performance is increasing the use of self-directed teams, Self-directed teams like those implemented at the San Diego Zoo are getting a lot of attention these days. In a survey conducted by Development Dimensions International, a human resources consulting firm in Pittsburgh, 27% of respondents reported that their organizations currently use self-directed teams, and half of those individuals predicted that the majority of their work force will be organized in teams within the next five years. This interest in self-directed teams is nothing short of phenomenal for such a new concept. The same DDI survey revealed that most respondents have two years' or less experience with self-directed teams. Most surprising, however, is that HR led the move to self-directed teams in only a tiny minority of the organizations surveyed. This finding is significant because the successful implementation of self-directed teams often involves several HR issues, including compensation, labor relations and job descriptions.

Regardless of who is leading the drive to adopt self-directed teams, why are they becoming so popular? "Because they produce extra performance results," explains Jon Katzenbach of McKinsey & Co.

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