Magazine article Management Today

Teaching Teamwork

Magazine article Management Today

Teaching Teamwork

Article excerpt


Strategy workshops are one of the best ways in which to learn the skills of working as a team. Peter and Cynthia McCowen note how to avoid that muddled staff meeting or the boardroom discussion which ends with pistols at dawn. Better, they say, to use conflict positively

No doubt about it, there's safety in numbers. In these days of sharpening competition between increasingly well organised players, team performance is usually just as important as individual performance--and frequently more so. This point needs to be made at the outset, because, over the past decade, management development has tended to concentrate on individuals, and to neglect the benefits that can accrue from team development.

It is astonishing how often, even today, managers are left to learn their team management skills through a process of trial and error. Moreover, the higher up the organisation you go, the greater the reluctance there seems to be to examine and improve the performances of teams. Although team management may sometimes be considered an appropriate skill for first-line supervisors, it is often the case that the most important team, the board of directors, does little or nothing to improve its own performance.

One way of training management teams at all levels is the strategy workshop. Pioneered over, the last half-dozen years or so, this form of training combines some aspects of corporate or departmental planning with the development of team skills. It can thus be much more than a training exercise. Workshops have been concerned with planning investment policy, for example, with exploring new European markets, with refining product development policy, or with tightening up project control. The fact that the task itself is genuinely important helps to concentrate participants' minds. But a workshop invariably has the additional purpose of improving their effectiveness as a team.

Since a strategy workshop is concerned with the mechanics of team operation, it is vital that all members of the team should be present, including the boss. It is also important, given that a workshop is likely to be an intensive experience both because it has a training objective and because it deals with real issues, that it should be conducted away from day to day distractions and work pressures. Ideally, the team should be assembled in accomodation that is both private and reasonably comfortable--and for a period of about three days. This is long enough for substantial progress to be made, but not long enough for fatigue to set in. If more time is needed, it is preferable that the team should return for a follow-up workshop at a later date.

Not only should the issues be serious, everyone present should have some interest in the outcome. At the very beginning, all members are asked to identify the topics that are most important to them, and the consequences that would indicate success. These subjects are used to put together an agenda which should ensure the full commitment of all participants. Thus the real dynamics of the group will begin to emerge.

It may soon appear, for example, that there are serious gaps in the skills possessed by members of the team, or in the roles that they are allotted. Not infrequently, teams are made up of people whose skills and backgrounds are altogether too similar. Good marketing and product development skills are often in short supply.

A good deal of energy is sometimes wasted by people pulling in opposite directions. This may happen because they are not clear about what they are trying to achieve. Or there may be confusion about the urgency of reaching a conclusion. Such problems readily come to the surface when the progress of the discussion is analysed in a workshop environment. The most serious difficulties arise when the team gets locked into disagreements that it cannot resolve, perhaps because conflict between two dominating personalities prevents any useful decisions being made. …

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