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A Metaphor for a Worldwide Paradigm Shift
Creating Learning Organizations Through Core Competence in Community Building
Softstuff: Work Teams in Technical Organizations
From Chaos to Community at Work
Discovering a Generative Path to Organizational Change
Dialogue and Organizational Transformation
The Wisdom Council
Rediscovering the Circle: Community in Balance
A Sense of the Whole: The Essence of Community
The Quest for Collective Intelligence
Principles for Sustainability
My Journey Toward Hope

A Softstuff Application: Building Work Teams in Technical Organizations

by Barbara Shipka

This document is a revised version of the chapter
"A Softstuff Application: Building Work Teams in Technical Organizations"
in the anthology "Community Building: Renewing Spirit and Learning in Business", New Leaders Press, 1995.
Please do not quote without the permission.

Imagine yourself at a mountain overlook. You are gazing out over a panoramic view of incredibly beautiful, varied, rich landscape -- valley and mountain, forest and village, river and grassland. The range of the view is so vast, so global, that you find it hard to take it all in. Yet, there it all is.

Now imagine you are able to zoom in on one tiny portion of this view. It's an area small and focused enough that you are able to see the individual blades of grass and the individual pebbles at the river's edge. Even though you know other regions of the panoramic vista are different in many ways from this small piece of land, you also know that, at its elemental level, this land has many properties in common with all land as far as you can see -- and far beyond; that, at some basic level, we can learn the nature of all land by deeply exploring one piece.

You also notice that, given passing seasons, the people on that land have a relationship to it that is cyclical; that they have more than one chance to learn how best to support the land and have it support them. The soil isn't right for some particular crop? Fine, next season they can try another. It's an iterative process.

Then, when a few people learn how best to have a mutually satisfactory relationship between human and land, they can move to other small pieces and use the same iterative discovery process to figure out what's best for the new land. Further, given that these people now know more about the elemental nature of land in general than they did when they began to explore the first piece they can potentially assist others in also consciously exploring and learning more.

By focusing on one small area of a much larger landscape, it is possible to learn much about land in general, learn much about the specific and varied assets throughout the landscape, and it is possible to build specific, local relationships that can have a global impact over time.

© Sterling and Stone 1994

It is also an analogy. Community is the expanded landscape. Developing work teams is an elemental aspect of community, an initial and fundamental aspect of the learning process and can be likened to the tiny area or small piece of land.

This chapter on building teams within technical organizations is intended to be a discrete and concrete way to look at the very deep, complex, and fundamental human endeavor of building community. Building work teams and networks of work teams is a means, a form for getting work done, for achieving goals. Exploring team processes also provides an opportunity for people to move into deeper and richer levels of relationship with each other. The development of teams and communites of teams at work provides a platform for accessing assumptions, acquiring skills, and engaging in experiences that can continuously be built upon and further articulated into the fuller process of building community -- anytime, anywhere.

Many people in technical organizations find building work teams to be a baffling, bewildering, often intimidating ordeal. It is not apparent to them that there are frameworks and tools to draw on, predictable patterns that occur, and ways of thinking and being that expedite and inform the process. It is also not clear that building a network of work teams is an ongoing, iterative process rather than an event in time. It is like looking at a painting where a tree is suspended in space and the ground has been left out, forgotten. Until the ground is added, the painting appears surreal.

Thus, of primary importance in working with technical groups, which forms the first part is this chapter, is to assist people in grasping the need for drawing the ground into their paintings. This literally helps them ground their experiences of being together and working together creatively and productively. Then, in the second part, we can focus on how, once the ground is firm, people can design and build appropriate structures to "house" them and their work. Finally, part three points to how, together, people can make the house into a place of safety, caring, and intimacy; into a home .



As mentioned, if the ground is missing, the experience is surreal. In addition, if the ground is not firm, stable, and sturdy, anything atop it lives a precarious and -- frequently -- short life.

Let us explore three critical grounding or foundational aspects of building community through developing team processes in the workplace.


Learning to Tap Into the Potential

Often, very little initial preparation or training is provided to assist people in developing high performance work teams. In addition, those individuals newly entering organizations have to fend for themselves; have to pick "it" up as fast as they can, however they are able.

I am reminded of when I first bought my computer. I was given a few ad hoc lessons -- how to turn it on, open a word processing program, save, back-up, print, shut it down. It didn't seem much different from the fancy electric typewriter I'd been using. Now and then I'd learn something new either because I had to call for technical assistance or because I accidently bumped a key that then offered me big surprises -- some helpful, others disastrous. I was learning accidentally rather than by design. I was using perhaps 5% of the potential of the machine -- and I didn't have a clue as to what the other 95% offered. Many technical people in organizations are accessing the potential of community about as much as I initially accessed the potential of my computer.

Tapping into the potential of community begins with learning some basic principles such as:

  • Processes can be accelerated when learning occurs by design.

  • A "just do it" attitude is inefficient.

  • It is difficult to assess what you don't know.

  • An entire body of knowledge and skill is waiting to be accessed.

  • Like technology, teamwork is here to stay.

  • It is essential to become "team literate&quo;t for tomorrow's workplace.

When I question people about what "team" means, I find they have an expansive range of definitions -- almost entirely based on each individual's past experiences. What logically follows is that those who have had good experiences like the idea of working in teams and those who have not had good experiences do not. To access more of the available potential, deliberate and common definitions and understandings must be developed.


Providing Context

To maintain enthusiasm and motivation during the difficult times -- and all communities, whether work teams or otherwise, have them -- people need to develop a better grasp of "Why teams?" and "Why networks of teams?" Following are four big picture levels of context that are essential to comprehend in order to develop the staying power and commitment required for the evolution and success of team and community processes.

The interconnected, systemic nature of technical work is making it less and less possible for an individual to achieve his or her objectives alone. As technology and goals become more and more part of a whole and as they become more complex and interrelated, each person's work tends to be only part of a much larger service, product, or system. Thus, it makes sense to organize in ways that model and aid the work to be achieved and allow the greatest possibilities for collaboration.

The activity level of work has increased and the pace has accelerated because of technology. As the depth and complexity of tasks and requirements intensify, no one person can be the expert. People need to focus on different pieces of the pie, rely on each other for expertise on other pieces of the pie, and support each other in integrating it all into a whole pie. In order to match the depth and complexity of the emerging tasks, teams of people must formally and informally communicate well, turn on a dime together, and trust each others' expertise and motives.

Expectations of performance are also changing dramatically. The single act of distributing responsibility -- to lessen delays that result from decision making processes that go up the chain and then back down again for implementation -- has changed everything. Additionally, over the last decade many people's expectations of the workplace have changed. They want work to be meaningful and growthful beyond a paycheck and promotions. To accommodate these polar changes, groups of people need to be able to draw deeply on their whole collective -- for creative new solutions, for weathering changes, and for developing the best work possible with the least resource in the smallest amount of time.

Organizational environments provide us with interesting times of flux as giants fall, babes in the woods grow, and businesses of all shapes and sizes work to "reinvent" or "reengineer" themselves in the quest to stay viable. Rules are changing at some very basic levels. Once power is distributed, organizational life becomes a whole new experience. Learning to work in teams and to get work done through teams is great career development.


Working Toward Congruence

Creating a congruent work environment includes continuously searching for and challenging assumptions, consciously aiming for resonance between beliefs and behaviors, naming the truth, and listening carefully to the truth being named by others. Congruent situations feel honest, natural, and balanced.

Building a network of work teams does not easily occur -- if it can occur at all -- where those with position power operate on the principle of "Do as I say, not as I do". For example, it is difficult to believe that teams are the most valued principle for organizing people and work where rewards are almost entirely based on individual performance. This does not mean organizations must solely reward teams either, however. In this illustration congruence can best be demonstrated by rewarding both individual and team excellence -- if that is what is truly desired and valued.

Myths develop in attempts to quiet the dissonance of incongruent messages within work environments. One I frequently hear is that "teams only work well where everyone is equal". In this case "equal&quo;t means people have similar backgrounds, are at the same grade level, and do similar work. On the contrary, it is possible and useful for highly diversified groups of individuals to be very effective teams. In fact, many teams must draw on differences in order to achieve their objectives. Think, for example, of a hospital emergency room team.

Having to appear equal is a tyranny that can lead to mediocrity. Highly talented people with personal authority and natural leadership fear being overbearing and so deprive themselves, their colleagues, and the organization of their best contribution. On the other hand, people who choose to be more low key or who have few aspirations for "getting ahead" hide what they really want out of work -- or apologize for it. Those who have less experience hide their lack of competence rather than being able to vulnerably learn from the more experienced.

In truth, no one is equal to any one else in terms of experience and talent. Yet, everyone is equal in that each person deserves to be able to make his/her fullest contribution and to be respected for it. Equality is often confused with "sameness". Fairness and respect -- allowing for a multitude of differences -- need to be the goals.

Another myth that attempts to quiet incongruence revolves around the roles and expectations of managers. Managers, because of rank goes the myth, are supposed to know more about being in networks of work teams and in community than anyone else does, to be perfect models, and to have the answers. Often, however, they have no more experience or understanding of teams and community than do the people who report to them. Everyone is learning together at the same time. On the other hand, many managers believe that if they distribute power they abdicate rights to have an opinion or to veto a group's recommendations. Teams have been known to bully managers with statements like "But you told us we were empowered! You can't have it both ways!&quo;t In truth, it is both ways. Sharing power is not abdication of responsibility or accountability. Leading in a network of work teams is a case of both distributing power to others and keeping it for oneself.



As with designing a house, everything from personal preference and available materials to cost considerations must be factored in when deciding what structure is most appropriate for any given organization. It is critical to approach team and community development with basic questions such as "What's the most sensible and efficient way to get our work done with the people and other resources available?" Far more success results from a simple, straightforward approach than from attempting to fit into a template or, in other words, from seeking to "do it right". Having to follow someone else's formula establishes artificial boundaries and can stifle natural growth and creative potential. When it comes to human interaction, frameworks are more useful for purposes of informing us than for purposes of conforming us.

Structure is a veneer, simply superficial. Form, or structure, must follow function to be useful and meaningful. Function can be defined as a reason for being. In other words, the most effective structures somehow manage to mirror the work to be done and blend it with the skills, talents, and needs of the individuals present. When there is a myth that the form, the outline, of an organization is of primary importance, it is possible to conclude that "if we can get everything very clearly defined and literal then we'll be able to erase the ambiguities" that are inherent in today's workplace. It is not likely. In most cases, work and roles are dynamic not static. Together any group of people embodies a living, growing, and changing system. Thus, about the time things seem to get "pinned down" something changes that affects everything.

Let us consider some critical factors for developing the most appropriate design for a network of work teams.


Architectural Style

Each team and manager needs to decide together what the most appropriate relationship is between them -- based on what makes the most sense for getting the work done, given where they are in the construction process. For team processes to fully function at early stages of development, managers need to more fully integrate themselves with the teams than would be true of being in a traditional, hierarchical structure. Further developed teams can create relationships where the managers attend team meetings as contributing members without being expected to lead, without being deferred to, and without the team missing a beat in its usual, ongoing processes and everyday personality. Or, conversely, in yet more fully developed teams managers can be absent for significant periods of time.


Alignment of Language and Expectations

A recent, high profile template emerging in business organizations is called "self-directed teams". In truth, it is not possible for a group of people to function within a larger system and be self-directed. Each team is a component of a larger system. If I have a self-directed eye or leg, it is a problem for my entire body. The eye and the leg may each have independent tasks and different functions but they serve a larger whole. In fact, that's all they do. No matter what, they are part of the hierarchical system of my body. The term self-directed leaves many people new to working with team processes with dashed expectations because they tend to identify self-directed with "unmanaged&quo;t or "autonomous". While it may appear to an outside observer that a team is operating autonomously, to be truly effective, team structures -- no matter what they are called -- actually require more interdependence and well thought out integration between the team and its managers, as well as between different teams in the larger community, than do top down organizations.


The Blend of Circle and Triangle

As team processes are introduced in technical organizations there can be a tendency to conclude that forming teams means eliminating the hierarchy. Rather than either hierarchy or teams, the focus needs to be on creating the most productive interactions between dynamics of the two forms. The merging of and interplay between the triangle and circle is an evolutionary leap for western culture. The triangle, the hierarchy, has been the primary organizing principle for getting work done at least since the Roman Army. The circle, the team, has been present throughout human history but primarly outside the western workplace. Given the magnitude of the changes occurring in the hierarchical form, how can we expect to "get it" in a couple of years or a couple of tries? This is a deep and powerful change.



Even if the ground is firm and the building design wins awards for having superb architecture, success toward developing work community is not assured. Three additional ingredients are also important to consider.


The Nature of Human Relationships

First, in establishing team processes or in deepening them, the most essential ingredient is the energy already present . It is essential to attend to and develop the existing passions and interests and/or dissatisfactions and desires for change. In human systems, no matter where we begin, we will touch all aspects. Relationships are an intricate web where everything is connected to everything else.

Secondly, for a collection of individuals to become a team, it takes everyone to say "Yes". The range of positive contribution can be from cheerleader to devil's advocate. However, the person who does not find positive ways to serve the whole can have tremendous negative power. Even though building teams and community may not always be easy, it can be fulfilling and enjoyable when everyone is sincerely invested in working together. In groups where one or two don't "buy-in", the entire group flounders.


Viewing Human Processes Along a Continuum

One can see a profound relationship between what is changing in the world and what is changing in our minds. Western science is leading the way in helping us see that things are not always as they seem; that there are myriad shades of gray between black and white. Developing a field of view in addition to a point of view becomes paramount when focusing on human relationships. This can be hard work and is truly a growing edge for technical people whose life work supports binary systems based on 0 and 1.

But, technical or otherwise, developing the skill to perceive shades of gray takes both time and practice for anyone. Three specific suggestions are:

Create new solutions and further develop current methods, mechanisms, and structures so that they become stronger, more resilient, flexible, fluid, and effective in meeting the honest needs of the environment; be open to continuous change as needed in order to move from the current state to the vision of an ideal state.

Recognize and then continuously remember all teams are a complex web of human relationships; that in human relationships progress is made by moving through a series of iterations attempting to come closer and closer to an ideal. We are in a continuous state of learning about ourselves, each other, and what makes our relationships work best, function most fully.

Establish constant reminders that it is the journey itself and the inns along the way that are primary and that offer learning and meaning. In human relationships perfect or final destinations are elusive illusions. Each of us is headed toward an unique individual destination and, for particular periods of time, we travel a road together. Building a network of work teams is a dynamic, ever changing, ever evolving expression of human interaction. Attempts to &quo;tachieve" or solidify community in time, space, membership, or other physical attributes cause its tender, vulnerable ever shifting nature to crumble or shatter.


Ensuring Conditions for Success

For teams to flourish and for the possibility of deeper community to evolve, certain conditions must exist. Some of these conditions are:

  • a clear, shared vision and purpose
  • ongoing support and commitment
  • a value for everyone as a learner
  • encouragement of risk-taking and experimentation
  • the discipline of inquiry, of living in unanswered questions
  • an aspiration of collaboration toward synergy.



In climbing Everest an expedition team may spend perhaps eleven months preparing to best assure that the one month climb goes as successfully as is humanly possible. By the time the climb occurs, the team members have built up significant trust in each other. They know each other so well that they can anticipate each others' moves and operate with speed, precision, efficiency, and compassion. These same principles apply to teamwork and the interdependent relationships within communities of people climbing the mountains in today's marketplace.

Once the ridge of the Marketplace Mountains is reached, however, another much higher mountain range still exists and must be crossed. It is the incredibly high and seemingly endless mountain range of our global predicament. The magnitude of what faces us is overwhelming. It appears there are no conventional planning or climbing techniques to help us surmount these mountains. We cannot "fix" the symptoms of social disintegration and violence, of environmental degradation and overpopulation by staying within the confines of the problem solving frameworks of our past.

Community can provide the sanctified space for us to explore our minds and discover deeply held assumptions that contribute to our current predicament. Then, that same blessed space can be used to draw out the unlimited creative potential of our collective consciousness. Community offers us possibility that is simultaneously ancient in its origin and futuristic in our life's experience.

Business, being the most functional, powerful, and dynamic infrastructure that currently exists, provides both the stage and the purpose for learning how to work together creatively. Birthing networks of work teams and further developing them into communities that are safe, compassionate, and resilient allows us to achieve business success on a specific, small plot of land. It also offers us the possibility of evolving together in new ways; of trailblazing toward unprecedented breakthrough learning and creativity that may offer new hope for regenerating the entire vista of our ailing and only home.

by Barbara Shipka

The Business Transformation Book Café is a project of Vision Nest Publishing
Last updated by webmaster, April 23, 1997 .