Ensuring effective teams

Well-functioning teams require a common vision, well-established rules for engagement, and good interpersonal trust (Photo: The patriot jet team - Flickr - Ian Abbott)
Well-functioning teams require a common vision, well-established rules for engagement, and good interpersonal trust (Photo: The patriot jet team – Flickr – Ian Abbott)

Teams are an important element of many organizational initiatives. This post looks at a three phase approach to setting up effective teams. It outlines a number of key aspects that underpin success in each phase, and provides some key tips for effective teamwork.

The use of learning and team approaches within organizations is well accepted as an integral component of many such initiatives. There are a variety of factors that drive this acceptance. Predominantly they stem from the reality that many activities are just too large for individuals to handle alone. Another is that teams are more effective at addressing complex issues, and learn more rapidly than individuals. Moreover there is ample evidence that harnessing the potential power of a team can have a dramatic effect on an organizations’ ability to simultaneously meet targets, innovate,  and improve employee job satisfaction and engagement.

When a team is functioning efficiently (be it a work team, sports team, or community group) the group dynamics and sense of belonging and acceptance can bring out the best in people. Groups can work together to enhance understanding, creativity and problem solving. Most of us have enjoyed being part of an effective group or team. However, while teams may be a necessary part of successful organizational change their presence certainly doesn’t guarantee success. As most of us can also testify, teams can equally provide inefficient and/or frustrating environments in which to operate.

In order for team initiatives to be successful, there must be a unified effort by company leadership, adequate direction and support for the team initiative itself, and ongoing measurement and adjustment of progress towards the desired change. A team based approach to supporting a sustainability initiative can be usefully thought of as comprising 3-phases. The starting phase is about establishment, then there is a focus on team operation, and the final phase emphasizes evaluation and adjustment. The three phases are not necessarily linear. Each phase is a work in progress, with overlap into each of the other phases.

Getting started

Management can support the process by recognizing and agreeing the need for change, and helping align the right people to the team. in wider contexts this phase draws heavily on stakeholder mapping and analysis techniques. The team will also need resources in terms of time/facilities for meetings, administration support, costs for research and information gathering and access to organizational decision-making. There are a number of aspects to ensuring the right balance of skills in the team including:

  • Identifying people and selecting those that are willing to participate, rather than calling for willing volunteers.
  • Looking to select both representatives of the key areas of operation in the organisation, and those with good networking skills to feed information from the group to the rest of the organisation and vice versa.
  • Limiting the size of the team (5-12) unless it is highly structured and has clearly identified individual functions.

Team operation

It is essential to convert the group of assembled participants into a team with a common vision, well-established norms of behaviour and a good level of interpersonal trust. So some form of self-led or externally facilitated team-building can be useful at the start. There are several practical aspects to getting the job done including:

  • Developing roles, particularly for facilitation, chairing, administration and resource provision; and determining a method of rotating these if necessary.
  • Undertaking basic research, including a literature review, to become informed.
  • Developing procedures for diagnosing, analysing, and resolving team work problems and conflicts.
  • In addition it is useful for teams to understand the kind of process in which they are involved and be able to look for ways to move through the stages of group development.

Evaluation and adjustment

Monitoring and evaluation are vital if organisations are to judge whether change efforts have succeeded or failed. Conventionally, it involves measuring performance against pre-set indicators – often with the help of outside experts. Often too, this is done at the end of the project cycle. However, monitoring and evaluating in this way does not help improve ongoing projects, nor can participants learn from ‘surprises’.

Alternative approaches to monitoring and evaluation have emerged because of a growing recognition of the limitations of this approach. These are usually more participatory and focus also on the process of reaching the final results, rather than just assessing whether the group reached defined objectives. This approach encourages monitoring of intermediate indicators of progress, and therefore can serve to guide and motivate the team as it proceeds. It also facilitates an understanding of the link between team process and results. Evaluating the process in this way enables determination of issues such as:

  • How well the team are able to adapt the approach and goals to their particular context.
  • Whether others in the company participate and have a role in shaping the process and design of the project.
  • Whether there has been a positive move towards desired outcomes.

The participatory nature of these reflections encourages the use of monitoring and evaluation as a social learning tool and allows the perspectives of different team members to be articulated. It also provides information to feed into project design, enabling the team to rethink and adapt goals and methods during the project according to emerging issues.

Easy tips for effective teamwork

A few key elements are worth highlighting because they contribute so strongly towards the environment that the team building approach is designed to support.

  • Create clear goals – members need to understand the goals, believe they are important, expect to accomplish these and be able to identify when they have done so.
  • Encourage teams to go for small wins – building effective teams takes time, and teams should aim for small victories before the big ones. Short term goals build cohesiveness and confidence.
  • Build mutual trust and a sense of belonging – it is important that team members are kept informed and a culture of openness is created where people supported to discuss ideas and problems.
  • Provide the necessary external support – if success is dependent on resources then the organization needs to make sure they are available.

This post supports the related Team building, CoPs and learning groups page.  Other Learning for Sustainability site pages providing links to related resources include Managing participation and engagement, Building networks and Reflective practice.


Participatory action research provides for multiple benefits

The multiple linked facets of participatory action research.

Over recent years we have begun to see the increased use of collaborative and multi-stakeholder processes in a range of sustainability, natural resource and environmental management areas and sectors. Participatory Action Research is emerging as a useful approach to improving the way we learn about and improve the way we manage these processes. This blog provides a brief introduction to action research and how it is can be used, and points to a range of resources that provide more specific information around its use in practice.

Participatory Action Research (PAR) is one of a family of research methodologies (action research, action learning, etc.) which aim to pursue action and research outcomes at the same time. With this emphasis on actively supporting action it differs from more mainstream research methodologies which place more importance on looking in from outside an intervention as a means to understand social and organizational arrangements. In action research the focus is action to improve a situation, and the research is the conscious effort, as part of the process, to develop public knowledge that adds to theories of action that inform similar collaborative processes. In summary, PAR encourages a simultaneous focus on four basic themes:

  • collaboration through participation
  • development of knowledge
  • social change
  • empowerment of participants

The process that the researcher uses to guide those involved can be seen as iterative learning cycles consisting of phases of planning, acting, observing and reflecting. Fundamental, then, to action research is the concept of “learning by doing”. It recognizes that people learn through the active adaptation of their existing knowledge in response to their experiences with other people and their environment – social learning.

The underlying assumption of this approach is that effective social change depends on the commitment and understanding of those involved in the change process. In other words, if people work together on a common problem clarifying and negotiating ideas and concerns, they will be more likely to change their minds if their joint inquiry indicates such change is necessary. Also, it is suggested that this collaboration can provide people with the time and support necessary to make fundamental changes in their practice which endure beyond the research process.

Against this background, the role of the action researcher is similar to many contemporary practitioners aiming to work in a facilitatory manner to help people in communities and organizations to identify and adopt more sustainable natural resource management practices. These practitioners may come from key stakeholder groups, or they may be research or agency staff. However, their most effective role will be to work with a group, often with multiple interests and perspectives, to develop participatory attitudes, excitement and the desire to work together on jointly negotiated courses of action to bring about improvements and innovation for individual and community benefit. While this role is similar to much of consultancy, action research provides a means by which is more rigorous, and which allows for the development of public knowledge to advance the field.

An action research approach looks to build on good reflective practice. Through their observations and communications in the collaborative process at hand reflective practitioners are continually making informal assessments and judgments about the best way to engage. The difference between this and carrying out these activities as part of an action research inquiry is that during the action research process these practitioners will need to develop and use a range of skills to achieve better evaluation and critical reflection. These skills include things such as more detailed planning, more conscious observation, active listening, improved attention to evaluation and critical reflection. A good understanding of social and behavior change theory is also important.

More resources can be found from the main LfS participatory action research page. More links to related material can also be found from the LfS Theory of Change page, and the Social Learning and the Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation sections.


Using rubrics to assess complex tasks and behaviors

Developing rubrics - involve people in brainstorming criteria to be assessed
Developing rubrics – involve people in brainstorming criteria to be assessed

A rubric is an easily applicable form of assessment. They are most commonly used in education, and offer a process for defining and describing the important components of work being assessed. They can help us assess complex tasks (e.g. essays or projects) or behaviors (e.g. collaboration, team work). Increasingly rubrics are being used to help develop assessments in other areas such as community development and natural resource management.

In a recent paper we describe how rubrics are being used to help collaboration in an integrated research programme – Bridging disciplines, knowledge systems and cultures in pest management.

Although the format of a rubric can vary, they all have two key components:

  • A list of criteria – or what counts in an activity or task
  • Graduations of quality – to provide an evaluative range or scale.

Developing rubrics helps clarify the expectations that people have for different aspects of task or behavior performance by providing detailed descriptions of collectively agreed upon expectations. Well designed rubrics used for assessment increase the reliability and validity and ensure that the information gathered can be used to help people assess their management efforts, and improve them. It is different than a simple checklist since it also describes the gradations of quality (levels) for each dimension of the performance to be evaluated. It is important to involve program participants in developing rubrics and helping define and agree on the criteria and assessment. This broad involvement increase the likelihood that different evaluation efforts can provide comparable ratings. As a result, the assessments based on these rubrics will be more effective and efficient.

Involving people in developing rubrics involves a number of steps.

  • Defining the task to be rated. This can include consideration of both outputs (things completed) and processes (level of participation, required behaviors, etc.).
  • Defining criteria to be assessed. These should represent the component elements that are required for successful achievement of the task to be rated. The different parts of the task need to be set out simply and completely. This can often be started by asking participants to brainstorm what they might expect to see where/when the task is done very well … and very poorly.
  • Developing scales which describe how well any given task or process has been performed. This usually involves selecting 3-5 levels. Scales can use different language such as:
    –   Advanced, intermediate, fair, poor
    –   Exemplary, proficient, marginal, unacceptable
    –   Well-developed, developing, under-developed

More resources on rubrics can be found from the main Learning for Sustainability rubrics page –Rubrics – as a learning and assessment tool for project planning and evaluation. More material can also  be found from the indicators page. Other related PM&E resources can be found from the Theory of Change and Logic Modelling pages.


Complicated or complex – knowing the difference is important

Birds flocking photo - Photo by Alastair Rae, Wikipedia - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Red-billed_quelea_flocking_at_waterhole.jpg
A flock of birds can be seen as a complex adaptive system (Photo: Red-billed quelea – Wikipedia)

Understanding the difference between complex and complicated systems is becoming important for many aspects of management and policy. Each system is better managed with different leadership, tools and approaches. This post explains the differences, and provides an introduction to management tools and leadership tasks best suited for complexity.

A major breakthrough in understanding how to manage complex multistakeholder situations and programs has come through the field of systems theory. Systems thinking is a way of helping people to see the overall structures, patterns and cycles in systems, rather than seeing only specific events or elements. It allows the identification of solutions that simultaneously address different problem areas and leverage improvement throughout the wider system. It is useful, however, to distinguish between different types of systems.

Simple, complicated or complex

According to a classic report in healthcare by Sholom Glouberman and Brenda Zimmerman – Complicated and Complex systems: What would successful reform of Medicare look like? – systems can be usefully seen as lying along a broad continuum from ‘simple’ to ‘complicated’ to ‘complex’.

Simple problems (such as following a recipe or protocol), may encompass some basic issues of technique and terminology, but once these are mastered, following the ‘recipe’ carries with it a very high assurance of success. Complicated problems (like sending a rocket to the moon), are different. Their complicated nature is often related not only to the scale of the problem, but also to their increased requirements around coordination or specialized expertise. However, rockets are similar to each other and because of this following one success there can be a relatively high degree of certainty of outcome repetition. In contrast, complex systems are based on relationships, and their properties of self-organisation, interconnections and evolution. Research into complex systems demonstrates that they cannot be understood solely by simple or complicated approaches to evidence, policy, planning and management. The metaphor that Glouberman and Zimmerman use for complex systems is like raising a child. Formula have limited application. Raising one child provides experience but no assurance of success with the next. Expertise can contribute but is neither necessary nor sufficient to assure success. Every child is unique and must be understood as an individual. A number of interventions can be expected to fail as a matter of course. Uncertainty of the outcome remains. The most useful solutions usually emerge from discussions within the wider family and involve values.

Management implications

These differences have important implications for management. Complicated systems are all fully predictable. These systems are often engineered. We can understand these systems by taking them apart and analyzing the details. From a management point of view we can create these systems by first designing the parts, and then putting them together. However, we cannot build a complex adaptive system (CAS) from scratch and expect it to turn out exactly in the way that we intended. CAS are made up of multiple interconnected elements, and are adaptive in that they have the capacity to change and learn from experience – their history is important. Examples of CAS include ourselves (human beings), a flock of birds (e.g. the picture above), the stock market, ecosystems, immune systems, and any human social-group-based endeavor in a cultural and social system. CAS defy attempts to be created in an engineering effort, and the components in the system co-evolve through their relationships with other components. But we can achieve some understanding by studying how the whole system operates, and we can influence the system by implementing a range of well-thought-out and constructive interventions.

Getting people to work collectively in a coordinated fashion in areas such as poverty alleviation or catchment management is therefore better seen by agencies as a complex, rather than a complicated problem – a fact many managers are happy to acknowledge …. but somehow this acknowledgement often does not translate into different management and leadership practice.

Indicators of progress in managing a complicated system are directly linked through cause and effect. However, indicators of progress in a complex system are better seen as providing a focus around which different stakeholders can come together and discuss, with a view to potentially changing their practices to improve the way the wider system is trending. Understanding this difference has important implications for management action as the table below highlights. In many cases people continue to refer to the system they are trying to influence as if it were complicated rather than complex, perhaps because this is a familiar approach, and there is a sense of security in having a blueprint, and fixed milestones. Furthermore, it is easier to spend time refining a blueprint than it is to accept that there is much uncertainty about what action is required and what outcomes will be achieved. When dealing with a complex system, it is better to conduct a range of smaller innovations and find ways to constantly evaluate and learn from the results and adjust the next steps rather than to work to a set plan.

The art of management and leadership lies in having an array of approaches, and being aware of when to use which approach. Most situations will have simple, complicated and complex system types present, and there may well be multiple systems involved. What is important is distinguishing between system types, and managing each in the appropriate way. Table 1 looks at different leadership roles that can be employed depending on whether one is dealing with a complicated or complex system.

Table 1: Different leadership roles for different systems

Complicated systems

  • Role defining – setting job and task descriptions
  • Decision making – find the ‘best’ choice
  • Tight structuring – use chain of command and prioritise or limit simple actions
  • Knowing – decide and tell others what to do
  • Staying the course – align and maintain focus

Complex adaptive systems

  • Relationship building – working with patterns of interaction
  • Sense making – collective interpretation
  • Loose coupling – support communities of practice and add more degrees of freedom
  • Learning – act/learn/plan at the same time
  • Notice emergent directions – building on what works

As Irene Ng points out in her Complicated vs Complex Outcomes post we have spent the last 100 years doing complicated rather well. “We can pat our backs on putting the man on the moon, doing brain surgeries etc.” We are now moving to a world where learning and innovation are becoming key outcomes, and delivering these requires new skills and capacities. As Irene Ng so eloquently puts it, “We can determine complicated outcomes. We can only enable complex outcomes. We can specify complicated systems. We can only intervene in complex systems.”

Look for leverage points

In complex situations it is useful to move beyond thinking of “a change” that will fix the system, and instead look for a number of “leverage points” that may be adjusted to improve the system. Encouraging the development and implementation of new work practices, for example, may require changes in rules (e.g. laws, protocols and tacit norms), changes in relationships, networks and patterns of behavior (e.g. how conflict is handled, how mistakes are managed, how power is used), and the use of a range of tools (e.g. databases, checklists, guidelines). One-size fits all approaches are unlikely to work in complex adaptive systems. The way solutions are visioned and delivered locally must reflect the values, contexts and cultures of each different community of stakeholders.

The key for those working with these complex adaptive systems is to support ongoing reflection and collaboration among the different people and groups involved. Future visions and common goals need to be openly discussed and negotiated, and tentative pathways forward charted. Over time good practice in these areas will lead to creative collaborative and partnering arrangements that support ongoing innovation and sustainable development.

For more information

More information on tools and methodologies to implement systems thinking can be found through the linked LfS pages on  systemic design,  systems thinking tools and conceptual modellingTheories of Change and associated outcomes models are useful tools which help managers to go beyond linear paths of cause and effect, to explore how change happens more broadly and then analyze what that means for the part that their particular agency or program can play.

[An earlier version of this post was originally posted on the Learning for Sustainability sparks for change blog – 3 March 2013]