Project Management Institute

Lone wolf teams

reconciling the need for collaboration with the need for individual accomplishment

Issue Focus: Information Systems

This focused issue is a contribution to project management literature by the Information Systems Specific Interest Group (SIG) under the direction of Lois Zells. The first article, Lone Wolf Teams, provides a framework for considering changes in software projects, on the one hand, and on any project, on the other hand. Understanding the components of the cultural change can increase your effectiveness on any project.


William D. Stinnett, Human Productivity Center, Inc., Phoenix, Arizona

Although the title, Lone Wolf Teams, implies a paradox (perhaps an oxymoron), I believe that just such structures are desirable and even required to produce coherent, high quality products in highly technical industries. The more complex the products become, the greater the need for teamwork: no one individual can master all the disciplines needed to create the whole product. Those who will ultimately benefit most from participation on well designed and well trained teams are the people who have the specialized skills and the internal motivation to achieve on their own without the watchful eye of a supervisor. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of software development. The benefit is no clearer anywhere than in the efforts described in Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine, or the development of Apple's Macintosh, or our first man on the Moon. Yet as striking as these and many other examples are, for the most part, we remain participants in efforts that are far from spectacular and are, in fact, often more frustrating than satisfying.

Selective perception controls the reception of information, double binds are transmitted messages that instruct others to withhold information.

Teams and teamwork have become cliche—along with quality circles, participative management, just-in-time, concurrent engineering, and a host of other terms. This has occurred not because these were bad ideas. Indeed they are profoundly good ideas. But these terms and the programs they represent are in decline because of poor execution. As an example, senior management may be briefed about the process for improving performance in the organization. In the briefing, they may learn that successful execution depends upon the conscientious application of seven (five, nine, fourteen,...,...) principles. The managers may examine the seven principles and the supporting activities and decide, “We like numbers three, five and six. Let's do those.” The program fails, of course, and the idea is discredited. This routine may be cyclical. That is, it maybe repeated each year (each quarter?) until employees become so cynical that any attempt to improve the business will be rejected.



These obstacles to accomplishment are so prevalent-not because people are mean or stupid, but because of bone-deep assumptions we make about how the world works. We have certain ways of thinking about how an organization works as well as about why people behave in the ways they do, and about what may or may not be accomplished through teamwork. These ways of thinking may blind us.

Anything that does not fit into that way of thinking maybe rejected. Thus, we create a self-reinforcing, self-limiting cycle. These ways of thinking have been referred to by many words. Paradigms, mental models, mind set, and psychological set may be used to describe the phenomenon. Whatever word is used, the consequence is that we may persist in repeating behaviors that do not produce outcomes that satisfy our needs. This happens for individuals, groups and whole organizations. These assumptions may be organized into sets that become systems of thought that can become rigid and frozen and bring to our thinking process all the hazards of a closed system (sort of a do loop of the mind).

To create an organization that can compete effectively in today's world, leaders and workers need to learn” to lead and communicate in new ways.

There are also powerful psychological forces that work to protect these systems of thought from cogent inquiry, examination, and challenge. Two of the most powerful are selective perception and double binds. Both are communication processes. Selective perception controls the reception of information, double binds are transmitted messages that instruct others to withhold information.


The human mind is governed by the very real limits of our senses. Since we cannot process all the sensory input available to us, we must make decisions. For groups and organizations, selective perception serves as a highly useful metaphor for this process. We make decisions with regard to what we will be exposed, to what portion of that we will attend, what portion of that we will actually perceive, then how much of that we will remember. The residual is experience. Thus, selective perception acts as a series of filters, reducing the total range of possible experiences down to a manageable chunk. The criteria we use to make these choices are determined by previous experiences. All of our culture, attitudes, values, learning, background, self-esteem, mood, biases, and desires combine to help us choose. All of this is absolutely necessary for our survival and done with little or no conscious awareness on our part. The risk is that these filters may work so well that the only information that is allowed in is that which confirms our current theory of the world. Disconfirming information may be systematically ignored or discarded. In groups this has been referred to as “groupthink,” so named by the psychologist Irving Janis.

The importance of this knowledge to organizations is that since it is important to make business decisions and product decisions based upon reality, it makes sense to minimize the bad effects of selective perception. Since it is impossible for individuals to overcome the effects of selective perception by themselves, it is necessary to engage the assistance of others. Certainly, we may tell ourselves that we will “keep an open mind” about an issue, and while that is a useful thing to do, we literally cannot see beyond our own assumptions (the end of our own nose) unless those assumptions are made explicit. And that can be done only through dialogue with others.


The second phenomenon, the double bind, makes getting outside assistance terribly difficult. A double bind, as explained by psychologist William Glasser, is a message composed of two contradictory commands (“Do this! Don't do this.”) sent simultaneously and with little awareness on the part of the senders that they are creating the bind. There are implied consequences with each command (“Do this or I will hurt you.” “Refrain from this or I will hurt you.”) that make it difficult for the receiver to know what to do.

Typically the different messages are sent on different “channels,” one spoken, the other unspoken. A parent may say to a child, “Grow up!” yet behave in ways that say “Stay a child.” Unfortunately the child is more apt to believe the unspoken, or nonverbal, message than the spoken one. The same may happen in an organization when a manager says to employees, “Speak up. Let me know what the problems are. Let me know what I may do differently to help us meet our goals.” At the same time that manager may behave in ways that say, “Don't tell me your problems or I will make your life miserable.” Unfortunately most of us are more likely to respond to the second, implied command and so we keep our mouths shut.

The same phenomenon occurs among colleagues as they develop new products and solve problems. We may say, “Be a devil's advocate. Help me find the flaws in my thinking on this.” But, at the same time behave in ways that say “It is more important than anything else that I be right about this. Nothing you could say could possibly be of much real use to me. You must understand that I am asking for your feedback only to make myself appear reasonable. So don't say anything that might disturb what I have already decided.” Our awareness of this is probably very low.


Despite the difficulties, these phenomena must be dealt within order to optimize the performance of your organization. To achieve optimum performance as an organization, a team or as an individual, it is necessary to examine the assumptions we make about work and performance. To do this, the assumptions must be made explicit. These assumptions can be made explicit only through dialogue with others. Such examination of assumptions needs to occur at three levels: the system (the organization as a whole), the group (teams, work groups, or staffs), the individual employee.

There are, I believe, seven basic components of organizational change that need to be understood, and upon which actions need to be planned and executed, to overcome these obstacles and to achieve excellence. The components are vision, values, measurement. structure, skills, resources, and learning.


All achievements begin as thoughts. The chair you're sitting in began as a thought inside the head of some designer or engineer. A thought may also be called a vision. The vision is simply the most practical and rational starting point for any major change effort. The clearer the picture of the desirable outcome is to the participants, the more likely they will expend the effort needed to create the reality. The vision should be vivid and it should include enough detail so that people can grasp what it would be like to work in the new environment. It is essential that each person can see him-or herself in the vision. It should be understood that the problem is not that people do not have a vision. On the contrary everyone does. The problem is that often each member's vision may be different. Ask people what this place will be like five years from now and you will hear something like this. Oh, it will probably be just like it is today Or, “We'll probably be out of business by then.”

On the other hand, perhaps some will have more invigorating and imaginative pictures of the future. The change process needs to be one that utilizes these more positive images and allows them to emerg, be discussed and made part of a larger picture that others will be able to see and buy into.

The vision should then be shared with all those who are part of the organization and it should be flexible enough to be influenced by good ideas as the implementation proceeds. One of the more difficult obstacles to overcome in major change efforts is the assumption that change is not possible. Getting key people from all segments of business involved in actually creating a vision and putting it into words is essential, but it may not be enough to overcome disbelief. It is often useful to arrange for key people to visit other companies who have been successful in implementing similar changes. There is often no substitute for allowing people to “see for themselves.” As you progress, the vision should be periodically reassessed and modified as circumstances change.


All humans have values: their deeply held ideas about what is right and wrong. Values are the rules by which we live and they serve as the criteria we use to judge the “goodness” or “badness” of behavior-both our own and others. Like people, all organizations have values about what is right and wrong in a business sense. Frequently these values may be very different from the documented rules in the books. People learn these values through their experiences at work. Since such values normally remain unspoken, new employees often learn them only by being in violation and discovering that they are in trouble.

These values should be examined, explored, and evaluated in the light of day. By clarifying the rules-what is acceptable behavior, what is not—people are in a better position to make informed and rational choices about their behavior at work. However, the articulation of organizational values can be a tricky process. Some of these organizational norms or rules can be highly irrational and difficult to see. For example, a common norm is “lie to the boss.” That is, when you see a problem, the rule is to develop excuses that are clever enough to convince the boss that it's really not a problem at all. Those who are unable or unwilling to do this get into trouble. With a little guidance and a lot of patience, these values can be uncovered and clearly expressed. They can then be examined and compared with your company's plans and policies. Appropriate changes can be made. Not that a deeply held organizational value can really be eliminated, but it is possible to decide which are most important and what to do when the values are in conflict. A frank assessment will allow the organization to reduce its dependence on bureaucratic regimentation and supervision and allow more effective and sensible application of the intelligence and creativity of your employees.


As with any worthwhile activity, organizational improvement requires that you have understandable ways of knowing how much progress is being made. One of the most puzzling dilemmas facing many workers today is the irrational measurement of quality Employees are told that quality has become the most important priority But, they are still measured on the number of lines of code completed or on meeting an unrealistic project end-date. No surprise that supervisors and workers continue to push schedule and ignore defects.

Measurement should correspond to the vision and values of the company. Measurements should make sense. They should be simple, clear, immediate and subject to influence by those doing the work. A portion of measurements should be geared to the progress of the change effort itself. If you are trying to create a rational system, you need to systematically and periodically ask people if what is happening makes sense. Since people make decisions based upon what they perceive and feel, a rational approach to improvement takes into account the reality of perceptions and feelings. It is also important for people to be given an occasional opportunity to provide anonymous input in order to counteract any intimidation factors which may be present.


For decades we have canonized the individual and spent untold millions designing workplaces to accommodate the individual and the skills individuals need to work alone with the direction of a supervisor. Yet, recent studies indicate that much of the time people are actually working in groups. And with the advent of quality circles, teams became chic. So, we told employees to work as members of teams and we told supervisors and managers to be team leaders. What we did not do was to teach people the skills needed to get things done as a team. These are very different from the skills one needs to get ahead as an individual.

Managers are sometimes surprised when they attend team meetings and discover that no one is talking and that participants seem confused and discouraged. Basic communication, problem solving, group process and leadership skills can be difficult to assess because, like breathing, they are skills that all of us have developed and have used all our lives. However, the requirements of a group-oriented environment require that you lead and communicate in different ways. The coach of an Olympic swim team must teach the swimmers to breath in a new way in order to compete effectively. To create an organization that can compete effectively in today's world, leaders and workers need to learn to lead and communicate in new ways.

One of the most difficult assumptions to overcome is the belief that becoming a member of a team necessarily means giving up one's individuality, competence, privacy, creativity, autonomy, or specialized expertise and recognition. The fact is that once the skills are learned and practiced, and the structure is properly designed, that one's individuality is actually enhanced and indeed better understood and more appreciated than it can possibly be when working in isolation. In the simplest terms, this is because you will accomplish more.


Just as there are new skills, there is a body of knowledge which must be learned. Managers, engineers, programmers, and workers need to understand their product, their technology, their customers and their business. To make the organization competitive in today's world, they must also acquire knowledge about human behavior. If employers are expected to make decisions that are supportive of the business, they need to be educated about the business. If managers and supervisors are expected to lead rather than direct, they need to know how such a system works. Companies persist in making “should be” decisions. That is, in isolation managers will decide what actions are to be taken based upon what they believe people should do rather than upon what people actually are most likely to do. Learning is the key Learning to learn is the challenge.


To get the best results from an organizational improvement program, everyone in the organization needs to be involved in a way that makes sense to the business and to the members of the organization. Organizations can be highly rigid and resistant to change. To alter its course, mere rhetoric and education are insufficient. You can't convince a river to change its course, you must dig a new channel and perhaps build a dam.

The notion of voluntary teams associated with early attempts to implement quality circles proved inadequate to overcome the inertia of big companies. For an organization to change, a structure must be developed to accommodate the activities needed to make the change occur A structure that is adequate to the task is comprehensive and correlated to the needs of the business and disciplined. Who belongs on what team and the agenda, frequency and duration of meetings may take many forms but must involve everyone in the organization inappropriate ways. Everyone should have some opportunity to influence the design of the structure. The structure should be examined and reassessed periodically But once designed and understood must be enforced.

One of the priorities of these structured meetings should be the allocation of time to practice team skills and to make assumptions explicit, then examine and challenge them with the help of a facilitator.


There is no free lunch. Change costs!

If you want a rational system, you must be willing to pay for it with time, energy, and money Of all the irrational and short-sighted practices observed as companies attempt to improve performance, the most puzzling is the management of resources. Repeatedly management has gone to employees and asked for their ideas only to respond by refusing to spend the necessary dollars to implement the suggestions. The astonishing paradox is that the issue is seldom with the total amount of money but rather with how it is used. Companies routinely spend millions of dollars on training, consultants, training manuals and materials, surveys, facilitators, recognition programs, promotion and various forms of hoopla but may refuse to spend $1,000 for a software programmer to buy a development tool that may boost productivity by an order of magnitude. Of the utmost importance is a modest discretionary fund dedicated to implementing employee recommendations. It is essential for companies to create an accounting device that will allow the company's managers to put their employee's discoveries to work.

Learning is the key. Learning to learn is the challenge.


Both the challenge and the benefit of optimizing organizational teamwork are great. The risks to the organization and to the individual are real Success is uncertain. Yet, the consequence of doing nothing is mediocrity And the consequences of halfway measures are apathy and cynicism. Take the risk.


William D. Stinnett is currently the president of the Human Productivity Center, where he work to help companies in a wide range of industries achieve excellence in performance through employee involvement. Electronics, oil refining, electric utilities, high-tech manufacturing, sales and marketing, and health care are some of the industries among his clients.

Prior to starting his own consulting business, Bill completed his Ph.D. in communication at the University of Florida and accepted a position as assistant professor of communication at Arizona State University, where he taught for four years. He then joined Honeywell, where he contributed to the development of “Total Employment Involvement,” a process which has helped achieve breakthroughs in productivity, quality, and quality of worklife.


This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

MAY 1992 pm network



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