On different types of teams (part 3)

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. 

Having discussed, briefly, the purpose of teams and the factors underpinning the notion of the organisation, the team and the individual, we turn now to consider how their interactions result in different team structures. Hackman identifies four basic team structures which exist along a continuum of authority – from the most to the least restricted in terms of the teams ability to exercise authority:

  1. Manager-led teams
  2. Self-managing teams
  3. Self-designing teams
  4. Self-governing teams  

We will look in more detail at self-managing teams in the final article.  First, it’s worth a brief mention of the others. Manager-led teams exist within a traditional, hierarchical organisation model. They are largely the result of Taylor’s extant ‘scientific management’ paradigm, itself over 100 years old. This built on Adam Smiths insight that separating tasks enabled specialisms to be developed and the efficiency of work improved. In doing so, work was made more repetitive, boring and, arguably crowded out intrinsic motivation as workers themselves became cogs in the machine. Although scientific management was born in a world that no longer exists, it pervades many of our services and organisational structures. Charles Leadbeater, in his article ‘the DIY state’, sums up this ‘factory’ approach to the design and delivery of services best:

“The hospital-focused health system emerged in response to the contagious and acute diseases born by urbanisation and industrialisation in the 19th century. The aim was to provide a place where trained people—doctors and nurses—could repair people who were ill, a bit like a garage repairs a broken car. Now this system of diagnosis, prescription and monitoring has to face a challenge for which it was not designed: an epidemic of chronic disease in a society in which people live far longer. But a health system in which expertise is kept inside hospitals does not allow us to diagnose diabetes early enough”.

Manager-led teams, Hackman suggest, simply do the work, whilst a single ‘head of’ takes responsibility and is held accountable for the team’s overall performance. This mirrors Taylor’s separation of worker from manager. Examples range from the COMPSTAT meetings in 2000s New York where precinct where Bill Bratton held his staff accountable for their teams performance, to the sacking of a head of children’s services for a child protection failure within their department. In sport, of course, often the most visible of all result-based industries, the manager or coach carries the can for their team’s failures on the pitch. 

Moving towards teams with more autonomy we find they each add another of the core team tasks identified by Hackman, and illustrated below. Self-managing teams add responsibility for managing processes, self-designing teams add responsibility for structure and securing resources, and self-governing teams set overall direction. 

It is worth noting that self-governing teams are sometimes described as self-directed teams in the literature. There is a further category of teams that is increasingly described in the literature, that of the self-organising team. They do not readily map to Hickman’s framework, but are worth being aware of. Self-organising teams tend to be emergent. They have five broad characteristics: 

  1. They have no centralised control
  2. They continuously adapt to their environment (context)
  3. They have an emergent structure
  4. They act on feedback, both positive and negative
  5. They are resilient: the system adjusts and repairs

Agile and design-led methodologies of fail fast, test and iterate, get feedback on the fly are all used by self-organising teams. They are often found in tech companies where people have autonomy to develop and work on a project of their choosing, within certain parameters. For example, if you are unable to wrap a team together around your idea or proposition, your idea is likely to flounder; conversely, if it is compelling you will find resources drawn to it. The best analogy here is of a self-organising team operating like a flock of birds taking off; you can’t predict with any certainly the route they will follow or the form they will take, and they are continuously evolve as they head on their way. 

We can start to understand how, in different types of teams, the organisational, team and individual context and characterists are both shaped by, and shape each other. 

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