The Tribune - Spectrum

, August 4, 2002

What makes teams succeed
D.S. Cheema

When Teams Work Best
by Frank La Fasto and Carl Larson. Response Books (Sage Publications). Pages 221. Rs 320.

When Teams Work BestTEAMS, which are essentially formal, natural and enduring work-groups have immense importance in today’s organisations as they are the most important single reason why organisations succeed or fail. Groups, or taskforces consisting of volunteers, are of a limited duration and have their own goals but teams are created to achieve specific objectives of the company and incorporate long-term relationships.

Ford Motor Company was, perhaps, the first to use the team work concept to turn around the company. They used the team approach for product development and launched the project Team Taurus, which brought dramatic changes in their profitability.

When Teams Work Best is the result of a study of 600 teams and 6000 team members by the authors. Their first book, Team work: what must go right/what can go wrong, analysed high performance teams. The book under review is a result of their continued effort to find out why teams succeed or why they fail. The authors believe that the word ‘collaborate’ will continue to be the most powerful verb in human history. However, collaboration does not take place without effort. It comes about in a systematic manner in an organisation without conscious hard work. Gone are the days when individual excellence played a vital role in the achievement of the organisational goals. Earlier, organisations were driven by a few individuals who did wonders in their respective fields. This is the era of group excellence, unheard of two decades ago, and more and more people and companies are learning from the success stories of teams.


At the heart of the book are five ‘dynamics’ of team work and collaboration which are explained in five separate chapters. These five ‘dynamics’ are based on the authors’ research and conclusions that emerge from the analysis of the quantitative data and the responses of the 6,000 team members. These may be explained as fundamentals which need to be clearly understood and efficiently managed to ensure that team work and collaboration succeed. Yet, like all fundamentals, they are easy to understand but difficult to implement.

The five chapters of the book are the outcome of answers to five questions relating to the functioning of teams.

The first question is: What makes a good team member? It is the attributes of individual team members which help teams succeed. The answer to this question has been found by seeking an assessment of team members by others in the teams. The first chapter, devoted to the answer to this question, explores each ‘teamwork factor’.

All team members look for core competency in their colleagues. Work knowledge has two aspects — experience and the problem-solving ability. To perform a task a person needs to have the knowledge to do that job as well as the skill to perform it. The theoretical knowledge which forms the scientific base, suitably meshed with practical skill, provides the experience. But experience alone cannot solve the problems that come in the way of a team reaching its goal.

The second question which is answered in the second chapter is: What makes a productive team relationship? In order to answer this question the authors have asked the team members to assess their team mates. They have identified characteristics of good and bad relationships. Good relations are constructive for both the parties involved, are productive and are characterised by mutual understanding. When team members were asked, "What behaviours are most important in a team relationship?" most of them said openness and supportiveness.

The third factor is the team problem-solving ability. The result of random sampling of 1,400 team members made the authors conclude that there are three key factors which differentiate between effective and ineffective teams: The degree of focus of team members on their effort, the quality of the organisational climate in which they operate and the extent to which they have good or bad communication skills. Staying focused on goals is of vital importance to the team effort at problem solving, a ‘positive climate’ promotes team effort, while a ‘negative’ one is dysfunctional and effective communication is directly related to effectiveness of teams.

It has always been known that leaders make a major difference in the performance of teams. The fourth chapter answers the key question: "What are the areas of team leadership competence?"

Effective leadership has been found by the authors to be a function of six qualities: Ability to focus on the goals, to create a collaborative climate, to build confidence, to demonstrate adequate technical know-how, to set priorities and to manage performance. As far as leadership is concerned, technical competence and collaborative inputs have an inverse relationship, i.e. the more the leaders can rely on technical competence, the less they have to rely on broad-based collaborative inputs.

Internal environmental factors of the organisation play a vital role in determining the effectiveness of teams. The authors bring out these organisational dimensions: The management practices followed by the organisation; organisation structure which supports quick decision-making and systems/rules-regulations/procedures which drive the teams towards results. Organisations have their own unique culture and climate which either helps or impedes the achievement of organisational goals.

Though the authors have analysed team members, team relationship, team problem solving, team leadership and organisational environment in the context of the USA, yet it must be remembered that the basic features of teams remain the same worldwide. Human nature and behaviour essentially remains the same in spite of differences in the social, economic and technological environment in which different people operate.

To that extent our organisations can learn from the experience of the authors. However, it must be kept in mind that the inferences drawn from all studies like the studies carried out by authors, however detailed and objective these are, must be related to the actual operating environment. No management study can provide any cut and dried formulae for achieving organisational goals. The studies are only descriptive in nature and not prescriptive in any way.