Doing Teams with Knowledge Workers: The Practitioners' View

by Tracy Gibbons, Ph.D. and Randi S. Brenowitz

This article appeared in Vision/Action, the Journal of the Bay Area OD Network, Fall 1995.


The 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 environment.

The 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 reducing revenue.

The 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.

Theoretical Underpinnings

Three concepts have been useful to us in designing and implementing this O.D. project.

The 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.

The 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.

Rogers' 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.

Integrating 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."

Phase I: Building A Foundation

We 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.

An 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%.

The 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 team
  • access to resources required to accomplish their work, including time
  • content and process support sufficient to encourage and enable their aspirations

The 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.

For 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 issues.

This 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.

Phase II: Team Skills Training

From 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Other 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 organization.

Results to Date

Despite 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.

At 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.

Phase III: What's Next

Predictable 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.

  • As 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 conflict.

  • As 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 and valued.

  • The 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.
  • As 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.

  • We 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

A 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.

The 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.

We 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.

And 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."

We 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 and Crusaders.


For more information on this topic, contact Randi Brenowitz at
650-843-1611 or



Home About Us Services Clients Publications Contact Us

© 2001, Brenowitz Consulting. All Rights Reserved