The Truth about Teambuilding>
Getting to the Goal


Keep Your Eye on the Prize

I was fired from my first true project manager job. Though I’ll note that the person who fired me was himself fired a few months later, there were some legitimate beefs. The biggest mistake I made was in not telling the sales staff that what they were asking for in my first assignment was impossible. I wanted to make a good impression and seem cooperative, but of course the project failed miserably and I never really recovered my credibility. I also didn’t understand the PM role in a customer-facing position. Though the project process I applied in each of my projects was appropriate, and worked well in the rest of the projects, I did not adapt it enough to meet the ultimate outcome: a pleased customer. The boss said I was “too process-focused.” At the time I was flabbergasted by the statement, given that he was a PMP® (certified Project Management Professional) trained on the value of PM processes, and yet had zero in place. Projects were inefficient and often missed their targets.

We both might have kept our jobs had we found a better balance between outcome and process. In a study, Harvard-trained business researcher Anita Woolley of Carnegie Mellon University tested 90 three-person student teams by asking each to build a model of a house and pool using building blocks. Without knowing they were being treated differently, some teams first did worksheets focused on roles, task assignments, and brainstorming—process, in other words. Other teams were given the game’s scoring sheet to review instead, and asked to prioritize among the ways to score and set point goals. This put their focus on the outcome. A third set (the “control group”) did neither. Then the teams were put to work for 40 minutes. Among those three sets of teams, some had a new member added about halfway through, others lost a third of their blocks at that point, and a third had no change.

The early focus attempts affected the teams’ discussions throughout the game. Both process or outcome teams talked about outcomes while working, but the outcome teams talked about these at much higher levels—strategic outcomes (“generating as much profit as possible”) rather than tactical (“designing an advertisement”).

For teams with no mid-point change, the extra planning of both process and outcome teams helped them perform better than the control groups, but each focus was equally good. The same was true when a member was lost. But outcome teams did better than process teams when blocks were lost. Having a more outcome-focused and higher-level approach to outcomes helped teams adapt their processes to the change.

The type of planning made no difference when a team member was added late. I’d guess adding a member required no process change, whereas losing materials might.

Woolley’s results were reassuring to me because my approach to teambuilding reflects them. She writes in her article that managers should “pay attention to how they structure early team meetings and the relative emphasis they place on processes versus outcomes.” Based on what the scientific literature had told me, I have teams address both goals and processes. But the order of events relative to this issue is:

  1. Set a team mission.
  2. Set goals toward meeting the mission.
  3. Identify team stakeholders.
  4. Document team and work processes.

Immediately after that, the team dives into process improvement. Written processes are a key step in every quality improvement system like TQM and Six Sigma, and invaluable for improving efficiency and reducing conflict. But my self-directed team method puts the emphasis on what the team is accomplishing and for whom before defining how to get there, and Agile methods like Full Scale agile™ make customer satisfaction the highest priority. As the study shows, and my firing taught me, both the outcome and processes are critical to maximum team performance, but you have to keep your eye on the prize.

Source: Woolley, A. (2009), “Means vs. Ends: Implications of Process and Outcome Focus for Team Adaptation and Performance,” Organization Science 20(3):500.

Tackle Goals One at a Time

When your team is juggling multiple goals, how do you tackle them? Do you:

  • Try to do all of them at once?
  • Split them among subteams or individuals?
  • Take them one at a time?
  • Or, focus on the biggie and hope you get to the rest of them?

Most teams I’ve worked with do it the first or last ways, with the result that they might get that one big goal done and have mixed results on the rest. One common mistake is to take on too many goals, and this is often exacerbated by managers who pile more work on without prioritizing it against the existing goals. In the managers’ defense, though, most teams don’t ask for prioritization. Plus, some set their goals without taking the time to ask stakeholders in every direction what those folks need, so it’s not surprising they soon feel pulled in every direction by demands they didn’t expect.

Based on a literature review, two business professors say that often an organization gives up on its goals and therefore nothing changes. They looked at the problem using a computer simulation that modeled various ways to deal with multiple goals in a complex organization (one requiring higher levels of internal coordination). Using a basic method that has become widely used in a range of sciences from genetics and the physical sciences to management science, they applied equations to describe simple versus complex organizations, the number of goals, and three possible strategies:

  • focusing on one goal,
  • attacking the goals one at a time, or
  • splitting them up among departments (at the team level, the equivalent would be assigning them to different subteams or individuals).

“Performance” was defined as accomplishment of each goal without hurting the accomplishment of another goal. As you would expect, the more goals an organization had in the simulation, the less likely it was that each would be achieved. Complex organizations in the model had a harder time than simple ones up to around eight goals, after which simplicity of organization didn’t help. Organizations with eight goals consistently failed to achieve 50 percent of them.

Each of the strategies was better for performance than tackling the goals all at once. Handling them by either splitting them up or doing them one at a time was better than focusing the whole company on one, with the sequence approach slightly better than the others at four goals and spreading them around much better at eight goals.

In short, they found that in a complex organization that requires internal coordination to achieve goals (like a cross-functional team), having too many goals guarantees failure. No surprise there, but they came up with a number. Specifically, if the organization had eight goals, it always failed to attain four of them, no matter the strategy it chose to address them. This supports my long-held recommendation that a team (or company) have only 3-5 goals for a given time period or project.

The biggest surprise for me lay in the strategies. Focusing on one goal helped performance of all the goals, versus having the whole organization tackle them all at the same time. I can only guess that this works because getting at least one done frees up people to focus on the other goals. However, the better strategies were either to divide them among different people or have the whole organization take them one at a time.

When your team creates its goals for the quarter or year or project, one approach is to immediately assign members or subteams of members to spearhead each. That doesn’t mean other members won’t pitch in, or the subteam won’t bring tasks to the larger group at some point, but it ensures someone is taking full accountability to drive the change. Call it the “divide and conquer” approach.

The other approach is to sequence the goals. If they fall into a logical chain, where you have to do A before you can do B, that’s easy. If not, prioritize them and do them in order. That way the whole team brings its resources to bear on each goal, but if you don’t get through them all, you at least have done the most important.

Source: Ethiraj, S., and D. Levinthal (09), “Hoping for A to Z while Rewarding Only A: Complex Organizations and Multiple Goals,” Organization Science 20(1):4.

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