Building highly effective information systems project teams
an exploratory study
Increasingly, the concept of the team has become the focus of modern management. Indeed, Hayes (1997) suggests that teamworking has been the managerial buzzword of the 1990s. Teams are used more and more in organizations because they have great potential to produce rich, valuable work, outperforming individuals or groups of individuals (Verma, 1997). In the field of Information Systems (IS), there exists great potential for the use of teams. IS work tasks are often both complex and large and are well suited to the team environment.
Not all IS teams perform as effectively as their potential might suggest. Indeed, many teams either fail to meet their performance objectives and goals, or are dysfunctional to the point that team members do not get along with each other well enough to work. Many “teams” produce work products more as groups of individuals where the whole equals the sum of the individual parts.
These teams (or work groups) are missing some of the important effectiveness characteristics that are necessary for creation of a successful team environment. Studies have determined what factors are responsible for teams performing effectively; however, it is not clear specifically which factors drive high team performance at a level above and beyond other factors.
This paper aims to report the results of an empirical study conducted to investigate the problem outlined above.
After examining the literature, this paper describes in detail the research approach used in the empirical study. Based on the literature reviewed three hypotheses are proposed for investigation. Then the research design and process is discussed. The paper goes on to analyze the findings of the study, firstly describing how the findings were established and secondly discussing them in the context of the literature and the problem statement. Finally, conclusions are drawn and recommendations for further research are offered.
According to Hayes (1997), there are two psychological mechanisms that provide the central reasoning as to why humans work well in teams or groups, namely social identification, a tendency amongst people to see themselves as, and need to be part of, a group; and social representation, the situation where people see the views of people in their group as more valid than those of outsiders.
Teams and Groups
A “team” is a group of people working together. So is a “group.” Hackman (1990) seldom uses the term “team,” but when he does, it is interchangeable with “group.” Cleland (1996) maintains that a team is distinctly different from a group:
• Groups emphasize individual efforts within a loosely coordinated substructure of the organization.
• Teams rely on integrated efforts aimed at achieving the goals of the team.
Katzenbach and Smith (1993) concur with this distinction, as does Hayes (1997) when she points out that what is often referred to as a team in an organization is actually nothing more than a working group; lacking the coordination, common objectives and sense of teamwork that make a team.
A team functions through teamwork, which Verma (1997) defines as a distinctive way of working that combines the skills, strengths and energy of team members resulting in performance synergy. Teamwork can be considered the set of norms under which team members operate within the team (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993). Such norms are not exclusive to teams, and do not ensure team performance.
Exhibit 1. The Team Performance Curve
The focus of this study, particularly its research instrument, is on determining how effective a respondent's most recent team experience was, in the context of a number of effectiveness factors suggested by a wealth of literature. Before these effectiveness factors can be examined, it is important to define exactly what is implied by the term effective.
Verma (1997) takes the view that a team's effectiveness is how the team affects all constituents of the environment in which it operates, including the organization, the project and the team members. Furthermore, effectiveness determines the extent to which a team meets its goals, maintains the satisfaction of its members and survives. Hackman (1990) suggests, from the point of view of defining effectiveness as meeting goals, that establishing effectiveness is difficult in an organizational context, where few tasks have a clear right or wrong answer. He offers three dimensions of team effectiveness:
1. The extent to which the team's outputs meet the standards of those who receive, use or review them.
2. The extent to which the work process enhances the team members’ capability to work interdependently.
3. The extent to which the experience of working in a team contributes to the growth and well being of the team members.
Most authors are of the opinion that a team goes through certain phases in its existence (Francis & Young, 1992; Hayes, 1997; Lee, 1998; Robbins, 1996; Verma, 1997). General consensus suggests that a team experiences an initial phase of low productivity where team members become acquainted with each other and norms are established, followed by successively more productive stages as the team gels and works together. A final phase of lower productivity occurs when the team disbands. The survey that forms part of this study was aimed at examining the productive stage of each respondent's team experience, since this is the key work-producing stage of any team.
The primary aim of this paper is to examine what effectiveness factors contribute to making highly effective, high performance IS teams, based on a body of team theory, and establish what differentiates highly effective teams from less effective teams. From a theoretical base, Katzenbach and Smith (1993) offer a useful model of different levels of team performance, the team performance curve, shown in Exhibit 1.
The team performance curve shows how the performance of a small group of people working together depends on the approach that they adopt. The model suggests that in increasing order of team effectiveness, groups of people working together may be classified as working groups, pseudo teams, potential teams, real teams and high-performing teams. Each of these categories has specific characteristics that are discussed below.
• A working group is a group of people that work toward common objectives, but do so in a very individual way, such that the group is essentially a sum of individual bests. A working group may produce good work products up to the sum of each individual's effort, but it never has the levels of interaction, cohesion and sense of mutual accountability that teams do. On the team performance curve, the set of five blocks represents the working group as a sum of individual efforts.
• A pseudo team is a group for which there could be a significant incremental performance result, but which does not achieve this due to a lack of focus and effort. The lowest performing type of team, the pseudo team has no interest in common purpose or performance goals—making the sum of the whole less than that of the individual parts.
• A potential team has the need to achieve significant incremental performance, and is actually trying to achieve this. However, this type of team suffers from the lack of a clearly defined goal or purpose and often has not established a collective sense of accountability or identity. A working group may become a potential team with out the painful pseudo team stage—this is shown by the dashed line between working group and potential team on the model.
• A real team is a small number of people with different but complementary skills who are equally committed to a common goal, purpose and working approach (Cleland, 1996; Francis & Young, 1992; Hackman, 1990; Hayes 1997; Katzenbach & Smith, 1993; Verma, 1997). The team is task-oriented, has strong performance norms, strong interaction and communication dynamics and a sense of mutual accountability. Its work products are strongly coordinated, joint products of high quality.
• A high performance team has all the characteristics of a real team. Over and above these characteristics, the members of the team are deeply committed to each other's personal growth and success. This commitment usually transcends the team. A high performance team significantly out-performs all other like teams and also all reasonable expectations, given its membership.
The key point to derive from the above descriptions is that groups of people working together do so in different ways, at different levels of effectiveness. It is clear that there is a range of factors that influence effectiveness (and thus performance). These are examined in depth in the next section.
Team Effectiveness Factors
The survey instrument used in this study establishes how effective a respondent's team experience was. It does this through a set of questions, each of which is aimed at evaluating an aspect or part thereof of team effectiveness. Seventeen aspects of effectiveness are rated. The factors below are sorted in order of their weighting in the analysis of the results.
Larson and LaFasto (1989) observe that highly effective teams have clear understanding of their goals and a belief in the value of those goals. Bodwell (1996) states that goals are clear, simple and measurable units of performance. They exist at an organizational, team and individual level. Katzenbach and Smith (1993) offer six reasons for setting goals: they allow for focus on priorities, they facilitate better management, they result in improved productivity, they offer support for decisions as they are documentable, they assist in the resolution of problems, and they cater for better communication and relationships.
Kinlaw (1993) states that quality communication is appropriate (timely and relevant), concrete (accurate and specific), respectful and team-centered. Verma (1997) and Katzenbach and Smith (1993) both believe that communication with these attributes leads to a clear sense of roles and expectations, better team productivity, better collaboration and problem solving, improved working relationships, greater job satisfaction, fewer destructive conflicts and a sense of personal achievement. Essentially, then, good communication makes for a cohesive, effective team.
The key to effective communication, which in turn leads to better team effectiveness, is open communication, which facilitates real-time problem solving and initiative (Bass, 1982; Rees, 1991; Senge, 1990; Tagliere, 1992; Verma, 1997). The members of a team that displays open communication feel that they can speak their minds to any member of the group.
A team's group spirit must support the team. Essential to this is trust, which Cleland (1996) observes to be difficult to establish and easy to violate. Larson and LaFasto (1989) and Francis and Young (1992) state that trust and a constructive climate rely on honesty, high energy, respect, consistency and openness. Senge (1990) supports this when he suggests that openness is critical in forming a climate of common purpose where team members are not working cross-purposes. Trust is further essential for good feedback (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993).
Trust is closely related to a sense of mutual accountability (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993). Mutual accountability is one of the core fundamental identifiers of a real team. It involves the team being responsible for the actions of the individual and vice-versa. This shows that the team is truly a real team and that the members are focused on their goal, the goal of the team (Bodwell, 1996; Katzenbach & Smith, 1993).
A highly effective team has a strong sense of team identity, where team members identify with each other through being part of the team (Verma 1997). Identity is created through norms and rules. Verma (1997) defines norms as the informal rules, expectations and patterns of behavior that teams establish and that are also accepted by team members. Norms and rules are thus vital effectiveness factors as they govern the team interaction dynamic, which in turn impacts team effectiveness and performance (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993).
An important aspect of teamwork is feedback. Verma (1997) states that feedback helps team members to monitor themselves and encourages in-depth understanding of problems. He goes on to say that there are two types of feedback, namely feeling and factual. Both of these have positive and negative aspects, but of primary importance is the avoidance of judgmental statements; all criticism should be constructive (Tagliere, 1992). Cleland (1996) identifies giving good feedback as one of the responsibilities of a team leader. Hayes (1997) states that feedback from the organization to the team is important (as well as feedback amongst team members).
It is vital that teams are able to resolve conflicts that would otherwise result in reduced performance, resentment and lack of motivation (Rees, 1991). The ability of a team to examine individual weaknesses and errors without personal attack is crucial to overcoming problems, and members’ growth (Francis & Young, 1992). To a large extent this boils down to good communication patterns based on trust. Rees (1991) states that conflict is a very natural process, but it must be addressed positively when it arises; furthermore, conflict can be a healthy process if constructively managed.
If a team is to fulfill its role in the organization, it must be given the resources to do so. One of these resources is authority, which the team needs to legitimize the actions it undertakes in meeting its goals (Barker, 1998; Hackman, 1990; Katzenbach & Smith, 1993). Hayes (1997) further suggests that teams require six things from their organization: clear targets, sufficient resources, information, training and education, feedback and technical or functional assistance.
In a highly effective team, the individuals can be themselves in such a way that the individuals in it define the team. Katzenbach and Smith (1993) explain that self-preservation and individual accountability, if recognized and addressed for what they are, become a source of collective strength. If not managed properly, individualism can preclude or destroy potential teams.
Rees (1991) explains that a successful group pays attention to not just the content of its work or task, but also to the processes used to do work. Often a team concentrates just on the end goal, not the means to that goal. This can result in hurt feelings, poor performance and impeded progress. Norms and rules are a way to build an effective work method—but are also important to the identity of a team. The norms and rules that affect work approaches are more task-oriented than the broader defining norms and rules that define the team as a whole (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993) (see the description of identity). The correct use of standard methods of work, such as methodologies, also forms part of effective work approaches. Measurement helps to quantify the success or value of rules and work approaches (Bader et al., 1994).
A team requires performance challenges to thrive; a lack of performance challenges means there is nothing to nourish and justify the continued existence of the team (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993). Highly effective teams achieve high performance targets.
Research (Bodwell, 1996; Francis & Young, 1992; Hayes, 1997; Verma, 1997) suggests that the definition of roles within a team is an important factor when examining the effectiveness of the team. Francis and Young (1992) state that in order for the definition of roles within a team to be effective, team members must understand their roles, commit to and perform their roles completely, understand the roles of the other team members, build quality relationships with each other and adapt their roles to a changing environment.
Teams need an appropriate balance of skills and abilities, and one should select the people best equipped to achieve team goals (Larson & LaFasto, 1989). This may seem like an obvious statement, but many managers make the mistake of including individuals in a team simply because they are interested, or because of some organizational relationship that they have with someone already on the team. However, in addition to being technically and functionally skilled, members also require the interpersonal skills to collaborate and work together as a team (Larson & LaFasto, 1989).
Bass (1982) and Hayes (1991) stress a third skill required in a team, namely problem-solving ability, which enables the team to identify and overcome problems that would otherwise prevent them from attaining their goal.
Francis and Young (1992) suggest that in an effective team, the team members develop during the life cycle of the team. One way to achieve this is through training, which Hayes (1997) believes increases skills, self-worth and the self-esteem of team members. But training cannot satisfy the need for learning entirely. Senge (1990) states that an individual should seek personal mastery, which prepares him or her for being part of a group and being receptive to others’ learning, experience, questions and style of thought. The individual is then able to grow within the team by learning from others. Furthermore, the team itself learns in a similar way to the way that organizations learn through knowledge exchange over time.
Effective teams have fun. DeMarco and Lister (1987) suggest that work tends toward order, which tends toward onerous boredom. As a solution they propose introducing small amounts of disorder into the team situation. This supports the unique social dimension of a real team by building trust and encouraging working together, as well as providing stress relief from pressures (Bass 1982). Katzenbach and Smith (1993) state that high performance teams seem to have a better developed sense of humor and have more fun together than teams displaying lower performance or effectiveness.
Commitment is mental and physical energy directed at a goal (Larson & LaFasto, 1989). Unless all members of the team are committed to achieving the team's goal, synergy and group spirit will not occur. If any member holds back, it will be to the detriment of the team (Rees, 1991).
Closely related to commitment is cohesion, which Bollen and Howle (1990, in Jones & Harrison 1996) define as “an individual's sense of belonging to a particular group and his or her feelings of morale associated with membership in the group.” Cohesion is derived from the human tendency for social identification (Hayes, 1997), and promotes a high motivation in members to stay with the team and make a contribution. It also makes members more sensitive to each other's needs, which leads to better working relationships and trust, which are vital to effective communication. Other consequences are reduced destructive conflict and better social support of members in stressful situations (Verma, 1997).
Bader, Bloom and Chang (1992) state that a team flourishes in an environment where there is a clear correlation between results and rewards. Verma (1997) stresses that rewards must be aimed at the team rather than at individuals—from his experience teams have failed when rewards have been directed at individual efforts. Rewards given based on individual performance are contrary to the concept of a team (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993), but team based rewards can lead to social loafing (Hayes, 1997).
Verma (1997) suggests that high morale is essential to good team performance. He believes that morale is driven by the job itself, the team, positive management practices and economic rewards and recognition. He goes on to say that morale is tied to motivation, which is key to the desire to achieve, the driving force that pushes teams to reach their goals. Verma (1997) states that motivation is driven by good interpersonal relations, expertise, clear role definition, agreement and distribution of work, a good learning climate, common goals, rewards and recognition, participation and mutual trust and respect. In essence, then, motivation is the sum of most of the factors that contribute to group effectiveness. A motivated group, hence, is likely to be effective.
The literature clearly shows that there are certain effectiveness factors that contribute to team effectiveness. These factors are all present in an effective team, and each has an impact on the overall effectiveness of a team and its performance. A working group (as defined in the literature review) may display some or all of these characteristics, but will not show all of them strongly, since a work group by definition lacks several of the defining characteristics of a team—such as a focus on group deliverables.
The literature does not make clear which factors specifically contribute to creating highly effective teams—teams that are significantly more effective than any other type of team or work group. The intention of this study was to identify certain factors that are significantly strongly present in highly effective teams.
This could be especially vital in the South African context where there is a continual shortage of IS resources.
Problem Statement and Hypotheses
Given the above, the following problem statement was established:
Many Information Systems teams are not performing at high levels of effectiveness.
The intention of this empirical research was to find those specific effectiveness factors which significantly impact the effectiveness of an IS team. An understanding of which factors these are will allow IS teams to improve their performance by better building them into their team dynamics.
This was done by looking at the prevalence of the various effectiveness factors and evaluating which of these exist strongly in effective teams only.
The following hypotheses were tested:
Hypothesis 1: All IS project groups show some level of the team effectiveness factors.
Hypothesis 2: Highly effective Information Systems project teams will display certain team effectiveness factors at a significantly higher level than teams of lower effectiveness.
Hypothesis 3: Teams with low effectiveness levels will display some of the team effectiveness factors at a significantly lower level than teams of higher effectiveness.
The design of the research process was oriented towards obtaining information that would address and facilitate the investigation of the hypotheses proposed above. Of critical importance was the selection of an appropriate survey instrument—Hamilton and Ives (1992) point out that effective research involves “asking the right questions and picking the most powerful method for answering the questions, given the objectives, research setting and other salient factors.”
The research method needed to obtain data that could, initially and after analysis, provide information as to:
• The existence of the 17 team effectiveness factors in each respondent's team environment
• Some indication as to the degree to which each of these factors exists
• The overall effectiveness of each respondent's team and the role the various team effectiveness factors played in this.
For statistical purposes, the research required that the data be collected from appropriate samples—and that sufficient responses be obtained from each sample in order for meaningful results to be obtained.
The research method chosen was a survey. This form of research method, as Galliers (1992) points out, provides for the analysis of a greater number of variables than other research methods and addresses multiple issues while providing the respondent with potential anonymity and time in which to respond.
The survey instrument used was a questionnaire consisting of 32 research questions, two contextual/background information questions and two demographic questions. The questionnaire was based on one designed by the Somerset Consulting Group of Austin, Texas (http://www.somersetcg.com). This survey was used with permission of the designer.
The questionnaire was designed to assess the effectiveness of a specific team experience—requested to be the respondent's last team experience. Respondents’ answers provided an indication as to the strength of each of the 17 team effectiveness factors in their teams.
The response options to the 32 research questions existed as options in ordinal form in accordance with a five-point Likert scale. The following response options were provided: “Never,” “Rarely,” “About half the time,” “Usually” and “Always.” A “Don't Know” option was also provided. This was intended to eliminate problems of respondents not understanding questions. Responses of “Don't Know” were excluded from analysis and weightings were adjusted accordingly.
The three informational questions were aimed at establishing environmental factors that might affect the team; these questions addressed team size, organizational use of teams and the percentage of work done in teams in each respondent's organization.
The research sample consisted of 232 individuals from the Information Systems field. This sample comprised four groups, all of which participate in IS project teams as part of their normal occupation. Three of the sample groups originated from an academic environment and the fourth and largest group consisted of selected IS professionals.
Administration of Survey
It was decided to place the questionnaire and its accompanying explanatory cover letter on the World Wide Web (http://www.dis.uct.ac.za/survey/), as this facilitated lower administration costs and minimized the data collection effort. It was also hoped that an Internet-based questionnaire would have some novelty value and thus a higher response rate than a traditional paper-based questionnaire. The data was captured automatically into a SQL database, and then extracted into a spreadsheet.
All questionnaires received were fully completed. This was enforced using web-form validation.
Respondents were sent a letter via e-mail requesting their participation and then giving them the location of the questionnaire on the web.
The questionnaire was validated in terms of style, structure, logic, and readability.
Statistical Analysis Procedures
The results from the completed questionnaires were statistically analyzed using the statistical functions provided in Microsoft Excel.
The data was separated into quartiles (based on the ranked assessed team effectiveness MAP score). Analysis was then performed—initially using an F-test at the 5% significance level. This established the similarity of variance. Based on the F-test results, t-tests were conducted. The significance levels used for the t-tests will be explained in the Overview of Results section. The t-tests were used to establish which factors significantly differentiated the highly effective and poorly effective team quartiles from the others.
Survey Response Rate
Sixty-five responses were received from the 232 potential respondents approached (27%).
Overview of Results
Surprisingly, very few of the effectiveness factors were found to be displayed at a statistically significantly higher level in highly effective teams than in teams of lower effectiveness. Similarly, very few factors were found to be displayed at a significantly lower level in low effectiveness teams than in higher effectiveness teams. This suggests that all forms of team experience most of the factors in varying degrees of strength; and that certain factors are especially responsible for significantly greater or lesser effectiveness. The findings related to each of the three hypotheses are outlined below.
All IS Project Groups show some level of the team effectiveness factors.
As previously noted, since the instrument's ordinal rating system started at 1 for the response “Never” and ranged to 5 for “Always,” the lowest possible score for any factor was 20% (1/5). Thus, any factor that had a score of 20% was never experienced by the team of that respondent.
From examination of the results, it was apparent that some respondents never experienced some of the effectiveness factors in their groups:
• One person never received or experienced feedback.
• One professional and one student never experienced fun.
This means there are three of 66 respondents who did not experience all of the factors at some level. Hence, Hypothesis 1 must be rejected; however, issues related to this are mentioned in the Discussion of Results section.
Highly effective IS project teams will display some of the team effectiveness factors at a significantly higher level than teams of lower effectiveness.
To test this hypothesis, the whole sample was segmented into quartiles based on the MAP score. Quartiles were chosen so that there would be an equal number of responses in each segment to enable comparison of the differences between adjacent quartiles. The basic aim of segmentation into quartiles was to broadly identify the high performing, low performing and intermediate teams found in the sample.
The quartiles are quite distinctly different, though for most factors the differences are of a similar distance. This suggests that each quartile is broadly, similarly, different from the others—as would be expected given that the quartiles are based on mean differences. However, it was apparent that for the High and Low groups some factors were quite dramatically different from the quartiles below and above respectively—such as the relative strength of feedback for the High group and the relative weakness of identity for the Low group. It was these significantly different factors that this study aimed to focus on and isolate; but statistical proof over and above simple inspection was required. The statistical tests that were performed, and their conclusions, are outlined below.
When comparing the means of samples statistically, it is necessary to determine what comparison test to use based on whether the samples’ variances are similar or not. To do this, F-tests were run comparing the High quartile with the other three quartiles. Based on a significance level of 5%, only the High quartile compared with the Medium-High quartile for the factor goal had the same variance (p = 0.9514). Consequently all t-tests except this one were run assuming different variances.
t-Tests were run comparing the High quartile with the other three quartiles. Even at a significance level of 85%, none of the quartiles could be considered to have the same means. This was not surprising, since teams of increasing Effectiveness were expected to show increasing levels of the effectiveness factors. However, this was a necessary step before testing Hypothesis 2.
Next two-sided t-tests were run comparing the difference between the High and Medium-High quartiles (Upper difference) and the difference between the Medium-High and Medium-Low (Mid difference), and Medium-Low and Low (Lower difference) quartiles. Upper differences that were significantly different to both Mid and Lower differences indicated factors that increased significantly more over from the Medium-High quartile to the High quartile than the increase represented by the Mid and Lower differences. This was to test whether the increase from Medium-High to High was significantly more than the increase from Low to Medium-Low and Medium-Low to Medium-High; and thus establish what factors especially contributed to high team effectiveness.
Only one factor, feedback, showed a larger increase significant at the 10% level (pupper-lower=0.0522, and pupper=mid=0.0007). At the 25% level, commitment was significant (pupper-lower =0.2187, and pupper-mid =0.0210). However, an examination of the results shows that commitment for Medium-high (94%) is greater than the result for High (88%), thus commitment is clearly not higher among very highly effective teams. Learning was significant at the 30% level significant (pupper-lower =0.2864, and pupper-mid =0.0121). No other factors were significant below a level of 40%. This suggests that feedback is the major factor that distinguishes very highly effective teams from those of lower effectiveness, but learning also plays a significant part.
Thus, Hypothesis 2 (highly effective IS project teams will display some of the team effectiveness factors at a significantly higher level than teams of lower effectiveness) cannot be rejected.
Teams with low effectiveness levels will display some of the team effectiveness factors at a significantly lower level than teams of higher effectiveness
This hypothesis was tested in a similar manner to Hypothesis 2.
First F-tests were run comparing the Low quartile with the other three quartiles, to determine what form of t-test to use for comparing means. Based on a significance level of 5%, no quartiles had the same variances, thus all t-tests were run assuming different variances.
t-Tests were run comparing the Low quartile with the other three quartiles. Even at a significance level of 85%, none of the quartiles could be considered to have the same means. As before, this was expected, since less effective teams were expected to show lower levels of the factors.
Two-sided t-tests were performed comparing the difference between the Low and Medium-Low quartiles (Lower difference) with the difference between the Medium-Low and Medium-High (Mid difference), and Medium-High and High (Upper difference) quartiles. Factors which show significant differences when comparing the Lower and Mid, and Lower and Upper differences are indicative of factors that are particularly lacking in teams of low effectiveness. This lack is greater than would be predicted by extrapolating the decrease from High quartile value to Medium-Low quartile.
The Lower difference of only one factor, identity, was different from both the Upper and Mid differences at a significance level of 10% (plower-mid=0.0689, and pupper-lower=0.0882). Trust was significant at the 15% level (plower-mid=0.0321, and pupper-lower=0.1021), as were performance (plow-mid=0.0430, and pupper-lower=0.1083), appropriate skills (plower-mid=0.0414, and pupper-lower=0.1127) and managing conflict was significant at the (plower-mid=0.1003, and pupper-lower=0.0566). Fun was significant at a level of 25% (plower-mid=0.2388, and pupper-lower=0.1067). Unlike the High difference tests, there was no distinct break where factors became significant, so factors less significant than 25% were not discussed.
Following this decision, it appears that team identity, trust, conflict, performance, skill and fun are significantly less present in low effectiveness teams when compared to more effective teams.
Thus, Hypothesis 3 (teams with low effectiveness levels will display some of the team effectiveness factors at a significantly lower level than teams of higher effectiveness) cannot be rejected.
Discussion of Results
All IS project groups show some level of the team effectiveness factors.
It is somewhat surprising that there were some respondents who did not experience all factors at some level. However, there were only three such respondents, so these may be outliers. Another possibility is that these responses were from people who were in work groups as opposed to teams. Due to their individual focus, not group focus, work groups may not experience the social closeness of teams. This could explain the complete lack of fun experienced by two respondents.
This does not mean that only these three respondents were the only ones in working groups. Respondents from working groups may display all of the effectiveness factors at some level, although likely not to a great degree. Unfortunately, the questionnaire does not provide any way to distinguish between working groups and teams—and furthermore, some of the questions could be misinterpreted by respondents, resulting in what was actually a working group appearing as a weakly effective team.
Highly effective IS project teams will display some of the Team Effectiveness Factors at a significantly higher level than teams of lower effectiveness.
The results of this hypothesis indicate that very high levels of feedback distinguish a highly effective team from those with lower effectiveness. This is not unexpected, since feedback is required for teams to evaluate and improve their performance. Feedback also helps teams improve their work approach since problems can be identified and corrected—if there is a culture of open communication. Similarly, highly effective teams show high levels of learning.
The fact that medium-high effectiveness teams had higher levels of commitment than the high effectiveness teams suggests that highly effective teams have a different sense of commitment to teams at lower effectiveness levels.
It is surprising that some of the other team factors such as having concrete goals and open communications, which are considered by most authors (including Katzenbach & Smith, 1993; Verma, 1997; Hayes, 1997) to be crucial to teams, do not show up significantly. A possible explanation for this is that the presence of these factors increases at a relatively constant rate as the team's effectiveness improves. This suggests that at some point a sharp increase in feedback is necessary for further increases in overall effectiveness. Also, when all factors are present at a very high level, as in highly effective teams, an environment for highly effective learning is established—Francis and Young (1992) point out that a positive team learning environment requires commitment, unselfishness, openness, challenge, constructive confrontation, functional sharing and interpersonal understanding.
Low effectiveness teams have some factors at a significantly lower level.
The investigation into this hypothesis suggests that there are several factors that are only present at extremely low levels in low effectiveness teams. It may thus be possible to identify low effectiveness teams simply by looking for teams with very low levels of these factors (team identity, trust, conflict, performance, appropriate skills and fun). As suggested by Katzenbach & Smith (1993), pseudo teams have very low effectiveness and very low performance levels. This is supported by the findings that suggest that teams with very low effectiveness will perform much worse than would have been predicted by the relatively steady decrease from highly effective teams. This links appropriately with the sharp decrease in suitable membership or skills. If a team is radically short of skills, it is likely to experience a drop in performance.
Norms and rules arising from a sense of team identity dictate how team members interact with each other. If such interaction structures are not in place, it is likely that conflicts will arise as team members with different norms interact with each other. Low effectiveness teams were also found to have very low ability to manage and resolve conflict. Groups that experience conflict often and do not resolve or manage that conflict will spend a lot of time fighting rather than working productively. There is thus another link back to the very low performance levels in low effectiveness teams. Low levels of team identity and conflict resolution ability are likely to be found in groups that have not experienced a very effective formative phase in the team lifecycle (Verma, 1997; Hayes, 1997).
Trust relates both to performance and conflict resolution. Individuals must be able to rely on each other to perform as expected in accordance with their roles in the team. When conflict occurs, team members must expect criticisms to arise and be able to trust each other that these are intended constructively for the benefit of the team.
The final aspect that was very lacking in low effectiveness teams was a sense of fun and enjoyment of the team experience. This is not surprising if the group is not achieving its performance objectives, and constantly experiences conflicts that remain unresolved. This is supported by the fact that there is a significantly low level of trust for low effectiveness teams.
All of the other effectiveness factors are also found at lower levels than in more effective teams. However, for these factors, the difference was relatively constant throughout compared to the overall difference in effectiveness.
Summary of the Findings
The conclusions drawn from analysis of the data are both statistically and empirically accurate, and are supported by existing academic literature on the topic of teams. As expected, nearly all responses reflected that IS teams, no matter how effective or ineffective, do display the team effectiveness factors identified in the literature.
It was determined that the high performing teams drawn from the sample displayed only significantly higher levels of feedback and learning—though the levels of all the other factors were higher, the differences were proportionately higher in accordance with the effectiveness of the other quartiles. This was a somewhat surprising result, but is very interesting. It would seem that the significant incremental difference between highly effective teams and lesser effective teams lies in the concept of a feedback loop. The high performing teams received high levels of feedback (from each other and the organization), which allowed them to learn and grow—helping to make them especially more effective and able to reach high performance targets.
Finally, it was ascertained that team identity, trust, conflict, performance, appropriate skills and fun were the factors significantly lacking in the lowest performing teams in the sample. This does not mean to say that these were the only factors absent in low performing teams: most of the other factors showed low levels as well—but these six factors were significantly lower in the low effectiveness teams.
Limitations of the Study
The research covered in this paper is focused on teams and uses an instrument that assumes a team as opposed to a work group. Unfortunately, the questionnaire provided no means of identifying which respondents were from work groups as opposed to teams. There was thus no way of excluding work groups from the analysis to see what effect they had on the results. Although the response rates for all of the groups questioned were above 40%, the sample size taken was too low to extrapolate results to the whole of the IS field.
The use of teams to accomplish work tasks is becoming increasingly more important and more common. The reason for the increased use of teams is that organizations today need to be continually more competitive in order to survive. Becoming more competitive requires an increase in productivity and also a change of the business focus to a customer driven focus, with total quality at its core (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993).
Teams fulfill these needs in two unique ways. Firstly, teams are inherently more productive than the sum of the individuals working in them; and secondly, the team dynamic is one that supports and promotes learning and behavioral change. This is also done more effectively and efficiently than is possible either by an individual, a group or an organizational unit (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993).
Thus the use of teams is a most desirable, useful and effective tool with which to accomplish work tasks.
A review of the literature concerning teams shows that there are 17 team effectiveness factors that contribute to the overall effectiveness, and thus the performance, of a team. In order for the team dynamic and performance to exist, these factors must be present at some level. The literature further states that these factors must all exist strongly in order for a team to be highly effective.
Another important point identified in the literature is that many teams do not achieve the levels of effectiveness that their potential suggests. Typically this happens when one or more of the effectiveness factors are not strongly present.
Thus, the problem that many Information Systems teams are not performing at their potentially high levels of effectiveness was identified. The intention of this empirical research was to find those specific effectiveness factors which significantly impact the effectiveness of an IS team.
Once these crucial team effectiveness factors are known, they can be used to enhance the effectiveness of existing teams by concentrating on improving on and building these factors more strongly into existing teams.
The research was done through the investigation of three hypotheses, which aimed to examine the prevalence of the various effectiveness factors and evaluate which effectiveness factors exist strongly in effective teams only. Similarly, the factors that were particularly lacking in low performance teams were identified, so that these factors could be addressed in teams experiencing very low levels of effectiveness.
Feedback and learning were identified as the factors that increased far more in the most effective teams than would be expected based on the trend in the lower effectiveness teams. It seems that the link between these factors is that feedback allows the team to correct its errors or inefficiencies by learning from its mistakes.
At the other end of the scale, six factors were identified as those that are found at a much lower level in low effectiveness teams than would be expected based on the trend from more effective teams. These factors are performance, trust, appropriate skills, the ability to manage and resolve conflict, a sense of team identity, and fun. This suggests that very poorly effective teams lack a team identity—a set of norms and rules governing team members’ interactions. Without this, conflicts arise. However, since low effectiveness team members also lack trust in each other, they are not able to resolve these conflicts. The net result of all these factors is low overall team performance levels. This environment is not only unproductive, but unpleasant as shown by the low levels of fun such teams experience.
Knowledge of these factors is important for organizations that use teams, as they can identify and address factors that are keeping teams at low levels of effectiveness. Similarly, they can concentrate on factors important for leveraging a team showing medium effectiveness into a highly effective team.
Knowledge and understanding of the key team effectiveness factors identified in this study can help organizations to improve their productivity and thus their competitiveness through strategic leveraging of teams’ effectiveness.
Recommendations for Further Research
The results of this paper suggest several avenues for further research. This study showed which factors were crucial to low and high effectiveness teams. However, it would be useful to know at what level these factors start playing such a crucial role. This information would not only help to identify when teams are in danger of being very low on effectiveness, but also when teams are close to being very effective, so that they can be helped up to that level.
A further extension of this research would be aimed at distinguishing work groups from teams, and the different levels of teams, such as pseudo teams and high performance teams, as identified by Katzenbach and Smith (1993). If organizations could distinguish their work groups from their teams, then they could provide more appropriate support to each. Work groups need support in different areas from teams because of their individual focus. Efforts could also be made to convert working groups into teams to take advantage of the higher performance potential in teams.
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Proceedings of PMI Research Conference 2000