On teams as complex systems (part 2)

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. 

Katzenbach and Smith (1993) state that “a team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable”.  A systems approach to teamwork is often defined as being a three-stage system, in which inputs are managed through internal processes by the team to produce outputs (Mickan and Rodger). Hackman identifies four broad functions that teams fulfil:

1. Defining purpose

2. Designing the group and securing resources

3. Executing the work 

4. Monitoring and managing the work processes

It should be noted that the first two relate to the ‘input’ stage of the systems model of teams, whilst the second two relate to the ‘processes’ stage. Teams, of course, are both independent units within, and a component part of, the wider organisation.

This systems view of teams corresponds clearly to the value for money models that have been promulgated across the public sector over the years by a range of quality and inspection bodies. We see, therefore, that the ultimate purpose of teams in the public sector has often been defined as to secure value for money for the public purse. In doing so this also illustrates the predominance of financial measures in assessing the performance of teams. We like to buy X number of inputs to achieve Y outputs towards an agreed outcome, as we can monitor performance against those metrics and assess value for money. This is the world that traditional Taylorist commissioning inhabits: buy X number of inputs for Y cost and achieve Z outputs. Divide cost by inputs to get a measure of economy, divide outputs by inputs to get a measure of efficiency. Evaluate whether this whole process achieves the desired outcome for a sense of effectiveness of the team and the processes they run, coordinate or manage. 

Why is this important? To often we assess the success of a team in these terms. To do so is only to evaluate the economy and efficiency of the processes through which a team achieves its purpose. This is important, yes, but it doesn’t recognise that the effectiveness of these processes needs an evaluation of the extent to which the desired outcome was achieved. And this is where it gets tricky when we are dealing with complex social challenges for which, by definition, there is never a definitive resolution: caring for those with dementia, reducing domestic violence, tackling teenage knife crime, improving mental health and so on. 

Pure economic measure fail to take account of the fact that such teams are not operating in a vacuum; rather, they are part of a whole. In a manufacturing setting, this may be a relatively self-contained whole. In a public sector setting, this almost inevitably will be a team operating as part of a wider, dynamic system. 

Hold a neighbourhood policing team responsible for whether there in any repeat offending in the area? Or a GP responsible for the loneliness of a patient? A head teacher responsible for whether a pupil turn up in time for class in the morning? Clearly this is absurd. There are too many intangibles, unintended consequences, conflicting incentives and people involved in the system for this to be the case. Given that an outcome is an emergent property of a dynamic system, it is impossible to hold any one person, team or organisation accountable for it’s achievement. 

Micken and Rodger recognise that this complexity, particularly in the healthcare sector, make it difficult to reach a consensus on the components of a successful team; they suggest instead that “a systems theory approach recognises the relationships and interdependence between and within teams”.

What we can do is seek new and adaptive ways of working as a response to these challenges, and it is into this space that self-managing teams show promise.

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