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Teaching Teamwork to Engineers

Engineering has never been more competitive—emerging from the recession, engineering firms are leaner than ever and accustomed to achieving more with less, satisfying more demands from clients, and meeting shorter deadlines. What else can an already-lean company do to operate even more efficiently and gain a competitive edge?

The answer is team-building.

"Many engineers have told me that academic achievement in high school led to increasing specialization in college, graduate school, and continuing professional education," indicates management psychologist Paul Powers. "The intensity of this training regimen leaves little time or energy for the study of such topics as interpersonal communication, group dynamics, or organizational development. This carries on into professional life and it is a rare engineer who, in preparation for a management position, spends as much energy learning people management as project management."

Thomas W. Smith manages courses on team leadership at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Department of Engineering Professional Development. "We address team participation in our graduate programs and many of our technically oriented short courses contain modules or messages on team function," says Smith.

Although there are plenty of strategies and exercises that are hyped for building a team-building culture, they will largely be ineffective without a foundation of clarity of purpose and clarity of responsibility. "This is absolutely essential for successful team building," says Smith.

Multiple Roles

The goals and objectives of the team must be stated in measurable terms and directly related to the organization's mission, vision, values, goals, and objectives.

"Team members must understand how the team's performance will be measured," adds Smith. "In a project team, this relates to the team charter; in a staff team, this relates to stated team objectives."

This often results in dual roles—typically one functional and one technical. Team members must understand both these roles and how their individual performances will be measured in relation to the team's performance.

"Building clarity of purpose and responsibility takes strategic planning and operational planning," says Smith. "Supporting and assuring team performance is an exercise in management. The team needs tools and resources in addition to direction."

Management Training

Management training is essential for most engineers, especially those who are suddenly promoted from their technical positions to management roles.

"The engineering organizations I have worked with do a fine job of technical and project training," Powers says. "Unfortunately, management training seems to often fall farther down the priority list."

Team managers are, in many cases, expected to "pick up" the skills they need on their own. "They have little opportunity to sit, discuss, and think through current management issues, approaches, and challenges with their peers," says Powers. "If a team approach is desired, the entire coaching staff must have the opportunity to develop their skills."

A level of understanding and trust is also required for maximum team performance. Team members need to be aware of the personal traits, values, and needs of their colleagues. Team leaders must also provide an environment for trust and assure fairness.

One way to do this is through performance management.

"Regular performance evaluations that provide feedback and input from multiple sources is a significant new trend in the performance review process," says Powers. "Even the best evaluation, however, cannot take the place of the occasional coaching session and on-going performance feedback. If you want to build a team you must interact with your players regularly, get to know them intimately, and recognize that even the most winning player needs occasional coaching."

Hiring team players is a longer-term approach for building a productive, team-oriented culture.

"Traditional staff selection stumbling blocks (like the halo effect and the clonal effect) can be overcome with professional, psychological assessment processes," indicates Powers. "Improving organizational interviewing processes and securing and evaluating job candidate reference data are also critical."

Ultimately, program and project failures are most often related to poor team foundations.

"Engineers are analytical by nature and will be quick to react to any effort to layer team-building exercises on a shaky foundation," says Smith. "They are, however, trained to work hard to deliver a product and will work hard to bring a project home, even under adverse conditions. This may save the organization some embarrassment, but will not improve productivity or the chances for the next team."

Effective team building cannot be achieved overnight—it takes time and commitment to establish the right strategies.

"There is no silver bullet," Powers concludes. "Team building is an ongoing process, not a singular event—who better than an engineer to understand that something worth building takes time, brains, energy, and commitment to something that will last?"

Mark Crawford is an independent writer.

Engineers are analytical by nature and will be quick to react to any effort to layer team-building exercises on a shaky foundation.Thomas W. Smith

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