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You Can Lead a Team to a Goal, but You Can't Make It Succeed

Work groups have become a vital tool in maintaining corporate agility. But without communication, they can end up being just talk.

June 08, 1998|GREG BECKMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It usually starts in the hallway. Sarah from engineering and James from marketing commiserate about a mutual problem. Pretty soon, Juan from production wanders by, joins the conversation--or gripe session--and suggests a solution that might work but has some rough edges. Suddenly there's a new task force on "Smoothing Out the Rough Edges."

These types of work groups form, dissolve and reshape themselves continually in today's workplace. Workers from various departments and disciplines must collaborate to keep the company competitive.

But how does one organize such groups? Who should lead them? Where do the ideas come from that can keep these agglomerations from crumbling? When no one is in charge of a project, how does it ever get finished?

Experts and workers in the field agree that the keys to developing good cooperation are communication, including everyone in the process, making sure each person has a valuable role, and keeping others informed of the group's progress.

Because business is changing so rapidly, says Jeanne M. Liedtka, associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business, "the trick today is not, 'Can I make the best widgets?' It's 'Can I continue to adapt to the needs of the people who buy my widgets?' "

That means responding quickly to market conditions. The traditional "command and control" organization can't adapt as easily as one with less structure and more creativity. As corporations learn this, the kind of task force created when Juan, Sarah and James confer in the hallway becomes the norm rather than the exception.

A new book offers direction on how to lead these ad hoc groups. "Getting It Done" (HarperCollins, 1998), by negotiation guru Roger Fisher and engineering executive Alan Sharp, sets out a step-by-step method of leading a group toward its goal. Subtitled "How to Lead When You're Not in Charge," it also shows the middle manager or lower-ranking employee ways to influence organizational decisions by asking productive questions, offering his or her thoughts and acting on those thoughts to serve as a model for others.

These skills are part of what Fisher and Sharp call lateral leadership.

"We have seen people . . . who have all the authority they could want try with little success to make things work," they write. "If those with full authority find it difficult to improve the quality of collaboration among their subordinates, how can you--one of those subordinates--expect to change the behavior of your fellow workers?"

Their answer is that you can develop skills that encourage coordination and collaboration. They tell how to go about solving problems and working with groups. The foundation of their system is laid with the four steps of a "circle chart." The steps are:

* Data. First gather enough data to define the problem. What are the symptoms that show there is a problem? Are deliveries late? Are payroll costs too high? Fisher and Sharp recommend using an "observation checklist" to help focus the group's efforts and lessen personal biases.

* Diagnosis. This is where you define the problem. Using the data, establish conclusions. Each member of the group may have differing conclusions based on the same data, because each uses different reasoning. Communication and discussion of these conclusions and reasoning will help formulate a stronger group understanding of the problem.

* Direction. Invent creative approaches to the problem. Set up a brainstorming process: Generate options, evaluate them, then decide on a plan.

* Do next. Agree on specific actions to carry out, being careful to let everyone participate. Who will do what? Where? When? How? Get out there and lead by taking some positive action.

The authors' overall goal in this process is to get everyone thinking systematically about how to solve problems.

Microsoft uses some of these principles when developing its new products. As detailed by Michael A. Cusumano in the Sloan Management Review last fall, the software giant encourages coordination by requiring documentation of the "daily build" and immediate repair of bugs.

Small groups have autonomy and responsibility for their work, including setting their hours. Rigid rules are few, but they ensure that groups working on the same project know what the other groups are doing.

Orange County engineer Jon Miller, who has worked in the computer business for 15 years, knows the way these hallway work teams develop--and can founder if not handled properly. His guidelines for making one succeed:

* Have a written agenda or mission, and have someone in the group (usually the team's leader, whether anointed or chosen by the group) track the agenda.

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