Teamwork and Process Management

Written by Ian James, Aug 9, 2013

Teamwork and process - communication, coordination and workflow of teams can be greatly enhanced by treating teamwork as a process.

Group of men covered in mud struggling to cooperate.

What is teamwork?

Teamwork is about working together as a group toward a common goal. We all know it has a huge impact on success. Even small improvements can produce dramatically better outcomes. But how do you make those improvements? If you have ever looked at the research you will know that the conventional advice is a laundry list of things to do:

  • Establish clear goals
  • Ensure there is a good balance of the necessary skills and resources
  • Communicate well
  • Develop trust
  • Manage conflict
  • Hold people accountable
  • Etc.

There is nothing wrong with any of these, although I would argue that some are outcomes of good teamwork. And working on an outcome to improve it is like treating the symptom not the cause. But my real problem with advice like this is that it does not have an underlying basis for a coherent plan of action to transform teamwork. It is a collection of exhortations.

Teamwork and process

But another way you can view teamwork is as a process. In my experience, successful teams develop patterns of behavior that are understood and practiced by team members. Over time, unspoken rules about who does what and how things in general will be handled start to emerge.

These general expectations become the “rules of engagement” and define, sometimes without being explicit in any way, how the team operates. They are the guides to action for a team, the defaults. So, even when faced with a new task or even a crisis, no time is wasted in deciding what roles people will play or how team members will interact.

Now, these are internal team processes. They are about behavior within the team, how the team habitually makes decisions, hands off work between one another and communicates. So, I am making a distinction here between business processes that teams follow to get tasks done and the internal team processes of the team itself.

The Less Well Oiled Machine

It is interesting that the metaphor (or cliché, more accurately) when a team performs well is that the team works like a “well oiled machine”. In a newly formed group, or a group where teamwork is poor, these norms of behavior will be less well established and there will be more uncertainty in the predictions individuals make about what they should do. So now things have to be spelled out. There are no defaults of team members’ behavior. So, to mix metaphors a bit here, for this “machine” there is less oil and more friction.

Improving team processes improves the team

Even though the patterns arise naturally, it does not mean they are written in stone. New patterns can be learned. And so it is here that there is the opportunity to improve teamwork that is not based on the conventional advice. If we can identify and reform these behaviors we can transform teamwork for the better.

Unstructured Processes Demand Better Teamwork

This is a particularly powerful approach when dealing with unstructured processes. Structured processes are the kind you can map out in a diagram. They are predictable and repeatable. Think assembly lines.

Unstructured processes are very different. They are unpredictable, rarely repeated processes. And that is a far bigger test of teamwork than routine interactions. Unstructured processes don’t have the support of precedent or design built in. By definition, they are un-plannable. In the absence of established processes, the team falls back on the default behaviors.

Train for chaos

Organizations like the military know this very well. In tactical encounters, there is no rote “process” to follow. Quite the opposite, things are chaotic and extremely stressful. Combat troops must learn to prevail in the confusion of a firefight. They learn patterns of behavior so thoroughly that they can be applied in any situation without a moment’s hesitation. A well-trained infantryman will know what he is supposed to do and can also predict what his team members will do in a wide variety of situations.

The same should be true for the sometimes chaotic environment of a business organization. The conventional approaches to improving teamwork do not recognize this.

As an alternative but practical method for tackling teamwork for unstructured processes, check out this link to Unstructured Processes.

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