Integrating Social Systems - team, energies, likes, dislikes

Teams are fascinating. They are everywhere, at work, at home and present in almost any enterprise with a social or people interface, yet highly misunderstood. 

A team is an intriguing social concept. It’s one of the most commonly observed amongst a vast populous of workplaces of all kinds, not just engineering. Every organisation wants an employee who is  a team player and can work in a team. Have you ever wondered if this general acceptance of team is a acceptable or do we need to question it? Surprised? Well, lets talk in bit more detail, while thinking like a systems integrator.

We see teams as scoial systems.

A social system is the patterned series of interrelationships existing between individuals, groups, and institutions and forming a whole.
- Wikipedia

For this discussion, we will consider two scenarios.

First, we will go only as back the early golden days of industrial revolution (not so golden when you take into account all the fruits of invasive capitalism - pollution, economic divide and rise of global economics) where corporations needed masses of individuals to work together, for very long times, under challenging conditions and still produce the result, a profit for their employers. This end goal took a priority, priority over individuality of the workers, over the their individual beliefs, over their familial priorities and over the general happiness of any individual worker. These workers were expected to be a team, but were probably only contributing as individuals.

For the second example, let’s look at the amazing sports of cricket, 22 individuals toiling for 5 days for a test match, often in burning heat, freezing cold and rain (talk about English cricket), again working to achieve a common goal, a victory. The rules are set and there is an umpire providing an instantaneous feedback to all players.The players are also needed to be a team. 

The contrast between above two examples is ‘who benefits from the end goal’. In the first example, the workers got a compensation, a salary, enough to be content and to go about their ‘day to day’ lives, on certain occasions they got more. But it was very difficult for them to relate to the end goal of company, its success, survival and profits. Their individual skills, likes and dislikes, priorities were all averaged out as a populous and there was a very little personal takeaway for individuals as a ‘win’.

Where as in second example, when the players played for the victory, the contributions were clearly visible and all participating individuals had a purpose based on their skills and aspirations. Individual wins were as visible as the win of the team.

In a nutshell, in the first example the 'system' was merely present and focus was on individual functions. In the second example, a 'system' was present and focus was on 'a collective function which was bigger than the sum of individual functions'. 

What makes a good team then? Learning from above examples we can answer this question a bit more assertively.

Diversity of Skills

First and the most important necessity for existence of a good team is ‘diversity of skills’. People with similar interests and different level (or type) of skills perform well as a team. 

Visibility of Contribution

A good team makes the contributions visible. Those who contributed more and those who were unable to contribute much are easily differentiated.

Recognition

Those who excel at the tasks are distinguished from the ones who don’t. Team roles are legible and the team structure is easy to understand and remember. People who perform well are recognised and rewarded.

Shame

Extensive stratification or the possibility to avoid focus is not available for those who were unable to perform. Team members face guilt and shame in situations where they were unable to contribute to the team goal the required level. This is as important as rewarding the people.

Opportunity for co-learning

Those who were unable to contribute are accepted and offered a more suitable role within the team, one that allows to learn and contribute better in future. 

Ownership of the goal

A good team owns its own goal, which may be related to the organisational goals but must be related to personal goals of the individuals.

Availability of impartial feedback

A process driven feedback is always impartial and not subjective. Yet better is to have an individual nominated to be a ‘team coach’, someone not directly related to the function or goal, but is aware of dynamics, pressure and progress, to provide open feedback to entire team. 

The team manager, in his role must ensure that above elements are nurtured and developed through the duration of the project. Interestingly enough, if any of above elements are unavailable or missing, a better performance could be derived through breaking up the team and allowing individuals to contribute as individuals. It's really important to understand the 'team' may not always prove to better than an individual and to get a great team going is really one of the toughest yet most rewarding challenges in the word of management science.

AUTHOR

VIJAY PATIL
B.Eng, MSc, CEng, MIMechE

Vijay is a Principal Systems Engineering Consultant. He is an expert systems integrator with wealth of experience in system architecture, requirements management, validation and verification. He has delivered complex and safety critical projects in the Aerospace and Railways industries. He has developed skills through extensive hands on work in manufacturing, design, analysis and test roles and really liked for his amicable personality and can do attitude.

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