Making teams more productive is a constant issue for most managers. Productivity is, of course, the essence of what makes businesses competitive, but it is particularly important in times of economic slowdown such as the one we are currently experiencing.
A common pitfall seen in business organizations is the confusion between a “group” and a “team.” With “team” being a buzzword in today’s business world, we often think that any work in which various people work together is, by definition, a team. This is a gross error. We have always worked as a group. A restaurant, for example, is a group in which there is a general manager, cooks, waiters and waitresses, cleaning people, and so on. Each person performs specific tasks given to them by management, and each person is evaluated according to how well he has done the task at hand. They work as a group, but not as a team.
A team is also a collective, but as opposed to a group, decisions are shared, the rules are internally established, and the rewards (or punishments) are shared by all. Companies often actively push team-building since they force people to cooperate with one another, thus getting rid of the usual internal fighting that costs companies plenty. However, not all activities should be handled as teams, because one problem with the team concept is that it usually requires more time as decisions have to be reached as a consensus rather than by the unilateral moves of a manager.
To make teams more productive, you need to consider the purpose of the task at hand. Are you trying to repeat established processes in more efficient ways? In this case, the composition of groups or teams need to be more homogenous, since people who think alike are likely to get results faster. Productivity-oriented teams need to focus on procedures that are either not followed, or followed slowly.
Sometimes these teams may need to recommend changes in procedures, and should work with a measurement mentality. Productivity is, after all, the measure by which we count how much is produced for each labor hour.
Finally, teams that search for a more productive way of doing established tasks should recommend changes only when the change in productivity will be significant. Changes, after all, usually come with much pain, and they are not worth the time and effort if they yield only a mild improvement. The second, and probably more important, role of teams is to generate innovations. These innovations are often oriented to developing new products, but they may also be used to generate major changes in the structure of a department or the whole organization, changes of working climates, and so on.
In developing new products, teams need to be highly creative. Generally, diversity in teams yields creative results, since blending different mentalities and viewpoints makes for an innovative outcome. Managers need to give these teams lots of time and space, since creativity is not a process that can be forced.
While the eventual success of innovativeness will be measured in terms of profits, as any other business process, internally teams should focus on how innovative the results are, since innovativeness is what generates product differentiation with competitors. In my opinion, teams that create innovations should not be involved at all in testing or evaluating how “realistic” they will be once in the market. I would recommend this chore to a different group or team of people, and let the innovative teams continue generating new ideas.
The issue of generating working teams is much more complex than what is indicated in this brief essay. But this summary should provide managers with the basic road to follow in order to make teams more productive and creative.