Teamwork. Proponents say it can solve corporate ills, inspire employees -- and even thrill co-workers.
"When a team is really aligned it's almost a mystical experience," says Jody R. Johns, a management consultant with GreenLeaf Associates in Baltimore. "It's an intense camaraderie, a feeling of community and fellowship."
Many large and small companies are hustling to develop such productive teamwork. AT&T;, for example, has a self-governing, five-person team that serves as the chief operating officer to Chairman Robert Allen.
At Eastman Kodak, management teams have replaced senior vice presidents to direct manufacturing, administration and R&D; at some divisions.
And at Washington Aluminum Co. Arbutus, a team of 12 executives develops the annual operating plan. Says company president Bob Pickens, "Involvement of people creates ownership, and ownership is an important part of a successful operation."
Getting to corporate nirvana through teamwork doesn't often happen. Most companies are still organized in a pyramid, with the key executive doling out power to subordinates. Because of that competitive structure, not many companies actually succeed in giving their teams the license to be truly innovative.
"Despite all the talk, a lot of managers experience disappointment and frustration with management teams," says Ms. Johns. "Teamwork requires a specific set of skills and knowledge that a lot of people have not developed. And our culture doesn't reinforce teamwork skills. We're more likely to emphasize individual accomplishments and encourage competition."
She says the potential for high-quality decisions is greater with teams than with individuals: Different talents and skills focused on an issue are bound to come up with good, creative solutions. But too often pride, conflict and misunderstanding get in the way of creative thought.
The result, Ms. Johns says: "People working together often settle for what aren't high-quality decisions."
Still, many companies have found ways to create effective corporate teams.
EA Engineering Science and Technology in Hunt Valley has made team-building a top priority. President Ted Lower, who joined the 18-year-old firm last year, wants to tie the success of the environmental service company to every one of its 700 employees.
"Our attack on team-building is comprehensive. We're doing everything we can to get the idea across that everyone matters, everyone counts," he says.
Mr. Lower asked all employees how they wanted to see EA Engineering change and received 7,600 suggestions. He revised the way the company communicates with its employees, starting with its newsletter, which was renamed TEAM. He has opened share ownership in the company to all employees. And he started a new bonus program to tie employee compensation to company performance.
But Mr. Lower is the first to admit that building a team takes more than pronouncements from upper management. "Change
is always painful, and a lot easier to talk about than do. But we'll go backward if we don't."
Want to build productive teams of employees? Here are some tips from consultants and company executives:
* Acknowledge and accept differences among people. Everyone motivated by different ideas, and few people think the same way. One theory developed by psychologist Isabel Briggs Myers describes 16 personality types. Each has a different, but somewhat predictable, way of looking at the world.
"We are aware of negative aspects of difference," says Ms. Johns. "The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator helps you value those differences, even though they drive you up the wall."
Studying different personality types may help a team realize why one team player seems to exert so little energy on every project. He or she might not be lazy, after all -- just convinced that wasting energy is inefficient.
* Develop process skills. Managers and professionals are expected to know task skills that help them identify and solve work problems: defining a situation, gathering and analyzing data, setting goals and priorities.
But process skills help people work with people. Some examples: setting a climate to accomplish a goal, giving feedback, listening, coaching, handling conflict, negotiating and dealing with difficult people.
Washington Aluminum has promised to offer all its employees courses in process skills, such as communications, problem solving, creative thinking and teamwork. Mr. Pickens says more than two-thirds of the work force in Baltimore has signed up to participate in the courses.
* Know where you want to go. The manager who is confused or doesn't understand the ultimate goal is an ineffective team leader, experts say, and a common reason teams don't work. Managers should determine what their vision for the team really is, and communicate that vision to the rest of the group.
* Encourage team spirit. Team spirit rises from excitement about a goal and mutual respect of team members, says Ms. Johns. "It's the feeling that the other members of my team are competent, and feeling that respect in return, feeling that I count, and my teammates are counting on me."
* Make sure everyone understands his or her responsibilities. Company teams are similar to sports teams, Ms. Johns says. "Sometimes people don't understand the game they are playing. Sometimes all it takes is sitting everyone down and talking about expectations and responsibilities."
Mr. Pickens says team members' roles and responsibilities are well-defined and reviewed often at Washington Aluminum. When the management team needs a new member, it identifies specific characteristics that would add to the team's effectiveness. Then, team candidates make self-assessments to describe their characteristics. When a candidate uses the same terms as the team, a match is made.
* Know that teams will not perform until they reach the right stage. Ms. Johns says the life cycle of a team has four predictable stages: forming, storming, norming and performing.
"In the forming stage, there's a lot of reserve and testing, a lot of competitiveness," she says. "In the storming stage, people are taking off the gloves and showing strong reactions. It's much less polite, and there's a lot of conflict and frustration.
"In the norming stage, everyone's saying, 'OK, we've got to work together, how are we going to do it?' In the performing stage, that's where you really get performing."
How fast teams get to the performing stage depends on the individuals, the task and other factors. Sometimes it just stays a committee. But if a team succeeds once, its members have the potential to sow success through everything else they do.
Team success, says Ms. Johns, "creates a commitment that carries them through the dry period when there aren't any highs."