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Inspiring Trend 23 February Feb 2018 0830 23 February 2018

Team Building, when does it really work?

How to improve cooperation and overcome competition in non-hierarchical companies with hybrid and heterogeneous competences

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Leaderless groups that design innovative products. Teams of people with different skills to solve corporate problems. More generally, a move away from hierarchy, with its under-delegation and excessive control: “We have been focusing on team building for 50 years, and yet we are still surrounded by companies whose bosses and team leaders are unable to delegate. And then, there is a strong resistance against innovation. Even small firm are excessively hierarchical. That’s our problem,” says Luciano Pero, Professor at the Politecnico di Milano, in an interview to the Italian newspaper Repubblica, where he points out a new organizational trend emerging within companies - that of adopting a non-hierarchical structure, based on horizontal governance and on hybrid rather than vocational competences.

The Economist also reveals this trend in a special issue on training published in January 2017: an American start-up call Burning Glass Technologies, which analyses the labour market through online job announcements, has discovered that companies, at least in America, do not require specialist, compartmentalised professional qualifications, but rather new, hybrids skills ranging, for example, from philosophical studies to computer programming. Something that has been confirmed by Stefano Micelli, Professor at the University Ca' Foscari, on our very own Morning Future blog: “The goal, for a country like Italy, is to try to build plausible bridges between the humanities and science. Our technicians should have a sensitivity for our cultural traditions. And our managers should appreciate and have an understanding of technical and manual know-how."

Once again, for this to happen - that is, for hybrid to replace vocational competencies - what we need is teamwork; the ability to look beyond one’s know-how and hierarchy, and engender a set of relationships between equals with different qualities. In other words, there is an increasing need for processes capable of contributing to the construction of these new basic business organisation units. In other words, we need team building: “It is in our DNA,” says Renata Duretti, HR manager of Ikea Italy, to Repubblica, “it is one of the fundamental values of our company. Our aim is to build diversified teams, putting together different roles and backgrounds so as to make the best decisions, with the help of managers and co-workers who meet the customers day after day. Our philosophy is to blend together different business functions and perceptions of reality: retail logistics, distribution, purchases, product development”.

What we need is the ability to look beyond one’s know-how and hierarchy, and engender a set of relationships between equals with different qualities.

Despite such examples, team building has not always had the best of reputations. The fault, perhaps, lies with the mocking representations of some popular television programmes and series such as The Office, which reduce this discipline to farcical exercises such as walking over hot coals, group hakas, and other such testosterone-pumping activities. But these are far from accurate portrayals. Despite the stereotypes, team building is a very serious discipline and, according to many manager, one of the most important corporate investments.

Conceived by Bruce Tuckman, the American researcher was the first to propose the forming-storming-norming-performing model of group development: forming is the process whereby the members of a group test their relational context and orient their behaviour based on the goal pursued; during the storming phase, the group starts to collect and highlight the ideas of each individual member based on the work to be done; norming is when a spirit of co-operation emerges, with different personal opinions being valued and project objectives taking precedence over individual ones; at the performing stage, the group is focused on the task and driven by productivity and performance. A later addition, the final adjourning stage precedes the group’s dissolution. It can be either spontaneous or scheduled, and takes place when the group has achieved the objectives it had set itself.

Take, for example, an Escape Room puzzle, one of the most popular team building activities. The group is locked into a room and given a set time limit to unveil a secret plot or carry out specific teamwork. This apparently playful activity actually touches on all the stages of group development put forward by Tuckman: it improves communication between colleagues or between employees and managers (forming), it inspires collective creative thinking with a view to finding an escape route (storming), it promotes troubleshooting skills (norming), and it motivates people, revealing potential leadership skills (performing). The latter aspect is the reason why teambuilding activities are also very useful when selecting human resources. More cooperation and less competition. Thankfully, this, too, is modernity.

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