Teams and collaborative environments

By Pilar Pazos-Lago

Teams are becoming ubiquitous for most organizations, with some of them having a full team-based organizational structure. For instance, the General Electric plant in Durham, NC is a great example of an organizational structure that is fully based on teams. The teams form the structure of the plant and manage their own performance. The plant manufactures commercial aircraft engines and it employs approximately 320 people. Everyone in the plant is part of a team and all teams are self-directed.  Jet engines are produced by these teams who are given just one basic directive: the day that their next engine must be loaded onto a truck and they basically manage the rest. People in this plant are highly motivated and committed feeling full ownership of the processes. This is by no means a traditional structure found in manufacturing settings and is more the exception than the rule. However, many companies are moving towards some kind of team-based structure that promotes higher levels of involvement and commitment in response to a turbulent environment that requires flatter, more adaptable and flexible organizations.

In this type of organizations it is critical to understand what drives performance of a system made up of multiple teams.  We know a lot about evaluating single teams; however, team-based organizational structures call for a new paradigm that looks at multiple teams and their interactions.  Some strides are being made in the area of multi-team systems but we need to know more about how teams integrate their efforts to meet organizational goals.  Autonomy, trust, efficiency, lateral communication and learning become critical elements in these kinds of environments.  The problem lays often in finding the balance between these elements.  Many organizations have failed to implement team-based structures due partly to the unwillingness of management to release control to the teams over the decision-making process.

Based on your experience, what can leadership qualities and behaviors promote an environment conducive to success in a team-based structure? How should team performance be assessed and rewarded in a team-based organizational structure? How can we promote autonomy without sacrificing efficiency?