Teams with Knowledge Workers: The Practitioners' View
Tracy Gibbons, Ph.D. and Randi S. Brenowitz
article appeared in Vision/Action, the Journal of the Bay
Area OD Network, Fall 1995.
San Francisco Bay Area is a virtual laboratory of knowledge worker
organizations. Increasingly, our field is recognizing that interventions
which succeed with process-intensive organizations that do repetitive
work are inadequate for those whose focus is knowledge work--which
requires creativity, inventiveness, speed, and collaboration.
We are two experienced practitioners, one internal and one external,
who have together implemented major change in a knowledge worker
client organization is a product line division of a Silicon Valley
company. Its purpose is to define, design and deliver highly specialized
and integrated electronic components for original equipment manufacturers
(OEMs). Of its population of 275, the vast majority (including
the marketing people) have engineering or other technical backgrounds.
Like many other Valley companies, the workforce is ethnically
diverse and management is predominantly male. Because of its markets
and customers' changing requirements, this division is unique
within its corporate environment. It is continually faced with
the need to bring a variety of complex products to market ever
more quickly. Creating these products requires significant interdependence,
cross-functional and organizational collaboration, and integration
(both technically and interpersonally). At the same time, increased
technical complexity raises production costs while commoditization
division's vice-president wanted an organization that could meet
these challenges while evolving to face others that would arise
in the future. The overriding requirements for increased interdependence,
sharing of resources, and faster cycle times led us to create
a team-based, high-performance organization. Our strategies emerged--and
continue to emerge--from sources including in-depth interviews;
the literature of organization change, systems theory, and team
development; previous experience; and the effect of other company
events occurring during this time.
concepts have been useful to us in designing and implementing
this O.D. project.
Morton Salt Box Theory. On the familiar blue cylindrical box,
there is a picture of a little girl in a yellow dress, carrying
an umbrella and a box of salt. The box under her arm has the same
picture on it, which features the same picture, and so forth.
In this infinite regression, the picture stays the same, while
its size changes predictably. This is a way of understanding patterns
of organizational behavior: if you verify a pattern at one level,
you can depend on seeing it at other levels. This diagnostic tool
reduces the need to see a particular pattern everywhere before
drawing conclusions and moving forward. The opposite principle
also holds true: once you create and diffuse a new pattern, it
will also recreate itself on levels other than the initial one.
Iceberg Model of Emergence. Only a small part of any iceberg is
visible above the ocean's surface. If the water level drops, more
of the iceberg's topography will be revealed, improving the likelihood
of successful navigation. While you may know that you are near
an iceberg (and therefore which chart to use), you cannot know
the exact navigational course until you are closer and can read
more variables. Doing work that, in effect, reduces the "water
level" makes it easier to determine subsequent interventions.
Model of Change Adoption. Everett Rogers predicts that the likelihood
of a change effort being sustained is based on the percentage
of the target population that has embraced the change over time
(see Figure 1). When 5% have adopted a change, it is said to be
embedded; it will not go away even though it may never be completed.
When 20% of a group has changed, completion is said to be inevitable--the
effort cannot be stopped. This model suggests that there are advantages
to introducing an intervention systematically to carefully selected
sub-groups, building acceptance as quickly as possible to 5% and
then 20% of the organization.
these three models helped form our strategy. We thought of the
essence of the desired change as a new picture on the Salt Box,
and we wanted to systematically implement instances of congruence
with this new picture by leveraging critical opportunities. In
this hierarchical organization, the first 5 % to embrace the change
had to include the managerial staff, since they had leverage over
both the formal and informal reward systems. The next groups of
"early adopters" had to succeed in a visible and salient
way. As the work progressed from there, it was continuously monitored
and assessed against the characteristics of the new "Salt
Box" and the emergence of new "facets of the iceberg."
I: Building A Foundation
began with the vice-president and his staff. In a hierarchical
organization, those who control the reward mechanisms must adopt
a change and model it before others will follow. We coached the
vice-president to articulate his vision, enabling him to lead
the staff in crafting the division's mission, vision, charter,
and operating principles (which we call foundation statements).
These comprised the picture that continues to be on the Salt Box.
Four activities during the following year- and-a-half provided
the staff with opportunities to work in ways that were more participative
and collaborative--in effect creating, recreating, and reinforcing
the picture (model) on the box.
First was the joint creation of the foundation statements, and
when they were completed, each director began the process of team
development with his or her staff in order to begin modeling the
new behavior at the next level of the organization.
Second was drawing the next layer into discussions about the direction
of the division and the relationship between the parts and the
whole. Each director's staff was encouraged to become a team responsible
for its business rather than a group of functional managers. Each
of these staffs set working agreements that were congruent with
the foundation statements.
Third was the reorganization of the division to enable more efficient
and collaborative use of human and technological resources and
to incorporate an additional business into the division. Though
not without a fair amount of struggle, the new organization looked
quite different from the old, and for the first time ever, directorates
were positioned to share resources and come together to standardize
on common design and test tools and methodologies.
Fourth, we held a Future Search conference that included participants
from all parts of the division, corporate stakeholder groups,
and customers. Its significance was threefold: (1) it brought
together, for the first time, the division's major constituents
to discuss its future; (2) it widely communicated direction; and
(3) its fundamental processes--openness, inclusion, and participation--conveyed
commitment to the operating principles.
additional key event was the Corporate Communications Survey.
This was a coincidental, real-time opportunity that we were able
to incorporate into the intervention. The division's results revealed
three areas for improvement, which fit perfectly with the direction
that had been set in the vision and operating principles. In their
follow up plan, the Steering Committee (the re-named division
vice--president's staff) chartered three teams to address aspects
of the infrastructure: increasing teamwork, improving communication,
and aligning goals and rewards to business outcomes. In a clear
example of the Iceberg Model of Emergence--establishing these
teams provided us an opportunity to create a model for cross-organizational
teams, and to increase commitment toward 20%.
Team Skills Development Team (TSD) became that model of how team
members could collaboratively achieve high performance. A number
of important elements were introduced here:
a team sponsor who was a member of the Steering Committee
considerable responsibility and accountability for a vision,
project plans, strategies, and deliverables delegated to the
access to resources required to accomplish their work, including
content and process support sufficient to encourage and enable
group, a diagonal slice of the division known to be good team
players, invested heavily in what has come to be known as the
Team Start-Up and Orientation Process. They created and kept team
agreements, even when it required them to confront their sponsor,
the Steering Committee, and the consultants.
example, during the 1993 reorganization, the TSD sponsor and OD
consultants were constantly being called away for off-site planning
meetings. This forced the TSD team to cancel many of their meetings,
delaying their schedules. When the sponsor and consultants finally
became more available and were ready to re-start the team, they
were faced with apathy and the team's unwillingness to engage
in the process. When asked why, the team members said they were
unhappy with how the reorganization was being handled, it did
not fit with the new operating principles and how "it was
going to be different here." They felt they were being asked
to create team skills in the division without real commitment
from senior management for team behavior. They filled seven flip
chart sheets, and the sponsor presented their frustrations to
the vice-president and the Steering Committee. The Steering Committee
agreed with the team, asked for their help in fixing the current
situation, and promised to handle any future reorganizations differently
(which they did when another reorganization became necessary the
following year). Only then did the team feel listened to and understood,
and willing to re-engage in the TSD process. The team then felt
they could take on any task now that they really did have the
support of the division management. They kept subsequent commitments,
met deadlines and dealt with the difficult content and interpersonal
has become one of the "critical events" in the team's
history; it is now part of the whole division's mythology. Together,
everyone involved--the team members, consultants, and sponsor--created
and shared the experience of being a high performing team. This
team did indeed become the model for those that followed, and
many from TSD seeded new teams, providing key leadership.
II: Team Skills Training
the earliest stages of this intervention, we understood that a
training component would be necessary in order to sustain the
organization's changes. Although our informal diagnosis of the
group's training needs was similar to those of most team-development
training programs, this step was instrumental to both the team's
development and the establishment of credibility among employees.
Thus, we chose to facilitate a process whereby the organization
would determine its own training needs and process. The original
plan was to survey only a sample of the division, but the TSD
Team ultimately decided that both the information and the participation
were important enough to ask the entire organization to complete
the survey. The survey was promoted at a division-wide meeting,
and the cover memo explaining the survey and restating the TSD
goals was signed by the vice-president.
survey results showed that the training needs included goal-setting,
conflict resolution, roles and expectations, communications, collaboration,
consensus building, and meeting management. Respondents also expressed
a desire for additional training for team leaders. Using these
results, the Vendor Selection sub-team created an RFP and began
the search for a training vendor. Two final candidates were asked
to present proposals and demonstrations to the entire TSD team.
model chosen included 24 hours of classroom training, completed
in 4-hour modules every other week over 11 weeks. We conducted
a pilot round and two additional rounds for the remainder of the
organization. Classroom training was generally conducted with
intact work groups, including the Steering Committee who attended
the pilot. In the end, every member of the division completed
TSD training. With a summer hiatus, the cycle took a full year
to complete. We were concerned about sustaining the training's
momentum for this long, but the positive aspects of this design
seemed worth the risk. In retrospect, this was the right decision.
TSD concepts and vocabulary were being reinforced regularly during
the year and quickly became part of the organization's language
and norms. The training served to systematize and normalize the
TSD team model.
features of the training included team and team-leader coaching
by the trainers during the TSD training weeks to reinforce the
concepts being learned in the classroom and team-meeting facilitation.
Additionally, every team has a designated OD resource whose role
is to provide ongoing support to the team and leader, reinforce
the goals of the team development program, provide continuity,
and enable a successful experience for team members without creating
dependency. Four other sessions were designed specifically for
managers and team leaders: a day on Systems Thinking and three
half-days on the changing role of managers/team leader in a team-based
one major and two minor reorganizations during this time, the
results from Phase II are remarkable. Meetings have improved dramatically,
with increased focus and participation, and shorter time required
to reach consensus. People are taking more responsibility for
the well-being of the division and its business. Teams and individuals
are making proposals and taking initiative in ways that were unheard
of before the intervention. We have made significant progress
on the redefinition of the organizational culture, and there have
been some major unexpected personal transformations.
the same time, there has been a tremendous increase in employees'
expectations of managers and team leaders. Not everyone has accepted
the changes, and the level of mastery of team skills varies. Core
work teams just starting up are more likely to be successful at
working together collaboratively than teams that were already
in the midst of a project when they attended TSD training. Some
of the people who frequently cross the boundary between this division
and other organizations struggle with "currency exchange,"
and people on the other side don't always embrace our way enthusiastically.
Still, we are pleased with the changes that have occurred.
III: What's Next
issues emerge when dramatic changes are made in the way work is
approached. The following issues will serve as the basis for Phase
III of the intervention.
the water level drops around the iceberg, exciting challenges
continue to emerge. Management/leadership development continues
to be a major concern. We have dramatically changed the role
expectations for our management staff, and they are floundering,
unsure of how to operationalize these new concepts. They know
that they can no longer dictate and control, but they are unsure
of what to do instead. Some have chosen to abdicate all authority
to the teams. When coupled with the team members' increased
expectations of the leadership, this causes disappointment and
individuals work more closely in teams, cultural, gender, and
functional diversity becomes more salient. Things that can be
easily ignored when polite contact is the norm must be dealt
with when people join a team and become interdependent. As we
encourage the expression of diversity and increased participation,
we must also create processes whereby diversity can be understood
reward and recognition programs need to be realigned to reflect
better he team-based organizational model. The Reward and Goal
Alignment Team is exploring these issues but has quickly bumped
up against Corporate boundaries.
the division grows, it faces the problem of integrating new
people into the organization. Newcomers feel they have come
to a foreign land, with a foreign language, culture, and currency.
A team has been chartered to create an assimilation program
that will assist new hires.
also face the ongoing challenge of creating a team-friendly
organization infrastructure that enables inter-team communication:
processes for proposals and approvals, decisions on when to
create a team and when to assign staff work to an individual,
and the effective use of teams to do core work. We need to make
structural and behavioral changes to support increased risk-taking.
Implications for OD Practice and Practitioners
key reason this intervention has been successful is the partnership
developed between the internal and external OD consultants and
the internal HR person. The inclusion of HR was critical as many
of the changes created in the culture needed to be reinforced
by changes in HR procedures. The role of the HR generalist underwent
significant change during the transition to a team-based organization
and, consistent with our theoretical model, it was advantageous
for the HR person to be involved in that evolution. The three
of us became a high-performing team ourselves, modeling this behavior
for the organization.
two OD consultants provided what became known as "seamless
service." Although our personal styles are quite different,
our core values are consistent with the division's Operating Principles;
they are part of who we are, not just what we put on for a living.
Our common theoretical framework--a systems perspective--enabled
us to build a high level of mutual trust. This allowed us to work
interchangeably with teams which was essential to keeping the
intervention on track during continuous change.
believe that our success in doing this work in an Engineering
organization was based on what we now call the "Peace Corps
Model of OD." Peace Corps workers live with the indigenous
population. They are required to learn the language of that population,
and they use only those tools that the population can learn to
use. They respect the accomplishments of the natives. They are
not chartered with changing the religious truths of the population.
so it is with OD work in Engineering organizations. We had to
become experts in the language and culture of intuitive, analytical
personality types while also comprehending the fundamental differences
between manufacturing process and engineering work. We worked
with intact, cross-functional, and cross-organizational teams,
acknowledging the difficulty of this type of work. We were usually
willing to modify our processes when necessary without sacrificing
our core values or the division's Operating Principles. Remembering
that this group of people is known for their ability to find "bugs"
and flaws, it was essential that we, and the vice-president, "walk
our talk" at all times. We provided continuous support, coaching,
and reinforcement to the organization and were respectful of tight
deadlines and the stress of "scheduling invention."
contrast the Peace Corps model with that of Missionaries and Crusaders,
who scorn local beliefs, abrasively replace local customs, and
feel superior to the natives. The subtle but important distinction
is easily noticed by engineers. While retaining a healthy amount
of cynicism, they are willing to work with and respect the ideas
of the Peace Corps--but they are ever vigilant against Missionaries
For more information on this topic, contact Randi Brenowitz
650-843-1611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.