On the changing nature of teams (part 1)

What is the point of the organisation? Leicester and O’Hara state that “organisation is a means of getting things done. But it is also a way of living together. The purpose of any organisational form is to provide a means of collective agency”. This is insightful for two reasons: not only do we see that form should follow function, in terms of purpose, but also that the success of the form is the extent to which it facilitates and enables the group or team to be successful in this endeavour. There are many such ways that organisations have historically been structured and managed to achieve purpose. In recent times, we have seen challenges to the dominant hierarchical organisational paradigm. This blog series explores this in more detail, with a focus on self-managing teams. 

The emergence of different structures and approaches to management is predominantly the result of both a desire to liberate the intrinsic motivation inherent in most workers, and the driving force of technology. The former has been based on the need to maximise the skills, knowledge and experience of staff and a recognition that external motivators – compensation, benefits, status – are no longer enough for many. The latter has been based on a need for faster, more flexible working arrangements, driven by design-led and agile methodologies, and the need to co-ordinate staff and resources often spread across locations and time zones. 

This leads us to ask some core questions. Are different organisational structures being used within the public sector, and, if so, are they enabling the delivery of more entrepreneurial public services? What are the barriers and enablers of such change – the factors that we at the RSA call the system immune response? How do we need to change the existing incentives and accountability mechanisms that dominate the public sector in order to support such change? 

The nature of work-based teams is changing. Traditional teams are established within a largely stable, bureaucratic environment of the organisation. Emergent teams are much more likely to be ephemeral, a response to a need, or coalescing around a new idea or product. We move from the stable structures we see on production lines or in call centres to the dynamic structures through which teams deliver a new tech product or respond to an emergency. 

These changing trends can be summarised as follows:


Traditional Emergent
Social SystemIntact, stable, tightly bonded Composition changes regularly
RelationshipCo-located, face to faceWidely distributed, using tech communications
OutputsGenerated identifyable product, service or decisionHandle much wider variety of tasks with greater complexity tand uncertainty 
LeadershipClearly designated leaderShared leadership responsibilities
AgencySingle organisational/agency contextTeams often draw members from multiple organisations or sources (multi-agency)
EmergenceCreated ‘top down’ by a manager to meet an organisational need / context Self-created, emergent or bottom-up (from self managing teams to social movements)
Based on Hackman and Katz (2010)

In traditional organisational structures, teams or groups tend to be “intact, stable, and tightly bounded social systems. Now, the composition of many groups shifts so often that it can be nearly impossible to pin down who actually is a member” (ten Vregelaar). 

This relates too to the public sector, where bureaucracies were designed to be stable and deliver solutions to problems. Getting people back into work, solving crimes, fixing broken bones; these all benefitted from hierarchy and stability, not only to solve the problem but to do so effectively and efficiently and offer accountability and clear decision-making structure. 

Yet the social challenges these bureaucracies are now required to address are increasingly complex; this complexity highlights the ineffectiveness of traditional, hierarchical approaches. It is the person on the frontline who knows the context, the person and the situation the best: a teacher, a social worker, a town planner, a community engagement worker, a housing officer… for people like these, hierarchical decision-making processes slow down the ability to act and respond nimbly and in a timely fashion to what they see in front of them. By the time authority is sought, and given, the optimum moment to act has often passed, a challenge highlighted in a different context by General Stan McChrystal in his book ‘Team of Teams’. 

We see social care contracts delivered by traditionally-organised teams whose managers can be as concerned about meeting the performance metrics required of the contract as they are about the welfare of the people receiving the home visits. Practitioner burden is the emotional weight borne by those on the front-line who, every time they visit someone, every day, are forced to confront the dynamic tension between meeting the needs of the person and the requirements of the contract. They are fact to face with the person to whom them are providing homecare whilst hearing the tick-tick-tick of the stopwatch telling them they have already spent too long if they are meet all their performance targets. 

It is into this space, and to resolve this tension, that Buurtzorg emerged in the Netherlands. Self managing teams in health and social care seek to empower their staff to do what they need to do when they are with their client in order to meet their needs. It’s ultimately about valuing humanity over bureaucracy. It’s about rebalancing the power dynamic, reducing the hierarchical power and increasing the importance of the individual. It’s a great example of emergent teams. 

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