Building a Winning Scientific & Technical Team

By Dr. David E. Gootnick, Ph.D. and Dr. Margaret Mary Gootnick, D.B.A.

The authors are partners in David Gootnick Associates, a New York-based training firm, providing team-building workshops for many international organizations. Their workshops include, “Building a Winning Scientific & Technical Team” and “Effective Leadership of Scientists, Engineers & the Technical Team.”  In addition, they have written numerous books and articles on human and organizational effectiveness, including the bestselling management book, “Action Tools for Effective Managers.”

Teamwork is an unbeatable tool in many endeavors: the natural sciences, social and behavioral sciences, sports, business and education. There is little doubt about the impact of high-performing teams, with teamwork, in part, responsible for miracle drugs, breakthrough technologies, Olympic medals, and conquests of space and sea.

Winning teams synergistically harness their members’ talents and energy, so 1 plus 1 equals at least 3 (and often much more). In short, when a team is working well, the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Fact or Fiction

It is in recognition of these realities that scientists and engineers, executives and educators, and physicians and politicians, have praised the concept of teamwork and proclaimed it as their personal “style.” But too often the story ends there.

Despite the fact that real teamwork succeeds, there is abundant evidence that this revered phenomenon is mainly a myth in our everyday lives. Most employees can quickly recall a dozen negative teamwork stories for every positive one. And, in almost every corporate setting—whether research and development lab, manufacturing site, sales branch office, or administrative center—it seems the traditional individualistic and hierarchical cultures continue to haunt us and block the teaming process. In these situations, 1 plus 1 equals 1 (if you are lucky) and the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

A new challenge complicates the issue: the marketplace now tells us that only “world-class” organizations can prosper in this new global economy … that we must continuously improve quality and reduce our cycle times … that we must, in short, improve in every possible way.

Now is the time to face the fact that only genuine, world-class teamwork can help us successfully focus on our priorities and effectively navigate our course from here to the future.

Negative Team Environments

As we’ve said, the mere statement that you belong to a group called a project team, program team, task force, committee, quality action team or process improvement team does not prove that you are part of a world-class team (or any team at all). The truth is that the structure, processes and dynamics of most groups in today’s businesses discourage true teamwork. That’s why we’ve developed the following assessment instrument.

Negative Team Assessment

You are probably a member or leader of several permanent or temporary teams. For each group to which you belong, answer yes or no:

  1. At meetings, there is plenty of talking but little listening.
  2. People often feel discouraged or depressed.
  3. Very little concern is shown for the views or feelings of others.
  4. There is little or no shared understanding of goals, problems, actions, processes or results.
  5. Members tend to confine themselves to their own jobs.
  6. The boss is seen as an issuer of edicts and dispenser of discipline.
  7. Policies, rules and regulations are used to control people and keep them in line.
  8. Task assignments are given arbitrarily and without consideration for individual ability or interest.
  9. People do not support each other with the necessary resources or assistance.
  10. Little or no personal or team development is provided from inside or outside the group.
  11. Group leadership is dominated by the boss.
  12. The group has low cohesiveness and morale.

If, for any group, you answered yes at least four times on the Negative Team Assessment, it’s likely that this group isn’t capable now of achieving world-class results. But if a group lacks negative team characteristics on this assessment, you have the right to be proud, especially if your perceptions are shared by others within your organization.

World-Class Team Environments

Achieving world-class team status is a major accomplishment, and not one that can be wished into existence. Such an achievement proves that you have committed, as a group, to look at your team structure, processes, attitudes and behaviors, and have systematically identified and removed the obstacles to success.

Positive Team Assessment

As before, consider each group on which you serve as member or leader, then mark yes or no:

  1. Individuals are committed to the success of the team. ____
  2. Trust, openness and honesty are important attributes. ____
  3. Leadership is shared, with members assuming leadership roles as their expertise indicates. ____
  4. Members understand the whole system of the team and many possess several skills needed to accomplish team goals.
  5. Strong internal support and cooperation exist among team members. ____
  6. The team regularly reviews its practices in pursuit of continual improvement. ____
  7. Flexibility allows the team to meet new challenges. ____
  8. Members are informed about team activities, problems and accomplishments. ____
  9. Members actively participate in meetings and share meeting leadership roles. ____
  10. Differences of opinion are openly discussed and worked through to the team’s satisfaction. ____
  11. Individuals know the “right things to do” on the team and assume initiative. ____
  12. The team has a deep sense of pride in its accomplishments and in membership. ____

If you checked yes 10 or more times, congratulations! Your team is either world-class now or is quickly moving in that direction. But again, make certain your perceptions are shared by others in your team.

“Going for the Gold” with Team Building

If you want to meet the challenges of a global marketplace with successful teamwork, here are five immediate steps to take:

  1. Establish your team’s mission, and get up-front commitment of all team members to this key statement.
  2. Decide as a team on which 5 to 10 things you all value in working together, such as quality, customer satisfaction, rapid response, technological superiority or full information sharing. Then agree to encourage each other to observe these values in your daily work.
  3. Strive for the maximum amount of team decision-making.
  4. Regularly search for opportunities to improve your teamwork and the products, services or information of your team.
  5. As a team, reach for your goals by learning the team-building process together. Then, all members of the team can join in driving this critical effort and helping to assure world-class team results.

Questions and Answers on Teamwork

High performing teams are the lifeblood of modern research. They provide the essential ingredients and support systems for enhancing membership focus, motivation, cooperation, information sharing and synergistic results. Let’s look at some common questions about teamwork in R&D labs:

Question: Will I sacrifice my identity and individuality by joining a team?

Answer: Quite the contrary! An effective team provides you with recognition for your contribution and leadership. It is an exciting forum for sharing your opinions and assuming responsibilities valued by the team.

Question: I’m the senior executive charged with implementing the quality strategy in my organization. After two years of quality training, I still don’t see the results promised when we started this venture. Why not? We all believe in the principles of quality and the importance of maintaining customer focus, but something is missing.

Answer: Something important is missing—and it’s probably teamwork. Our research proves that organizations have repeatedly launched headlong into quality programs, only to realize years later that they’d skipped the first step. Before a quality program can have a fair chance of real success, the company must have a team culture with a supporting structure. Without such a culture, quality training efforts tend to end up as a series of planned scripts, buzz words and temporary programs.

Question: I recently started the team-building process with my group and have already seen some tremendous gains in productivity, quality and cycle times. The only problem is that we’ve started to get snide remarks from two other groups within our organization. What’s happening?

Answer: You are on the right road with clear improvements. Stay with it. In regard to resentment from others in your organization, our research shows that the vast majority of teams that launch successful team-building initiatives are shown great respect and even emulated by other groups. There are occasions, however, where achievement and excellence in this vital area beget jealousy. We suggest that your team view these snide remarks as opportunities to approach the two groups and share with them your process and even your accomplishments. After all, that’s what teamwork is about. You may be surprised at their appreciation.

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© 2015 David Gootnick Associates, New York, New York.