4. TEAMWORK AND COMMUNICATION
Teamwork is a key component of almost any workplace, but it is essential in engineering and software development environments where you often find yourself working as part of a team on large projects. Imagine for a moment how many people must work together to designs a product like Skyrim (click here if you want to know: Skyrim development team).
It is is widely accepted that team synergy and team intelligence lead to greater efficiency and better results in most situations. Why, then, are some people reluctant to engage in teamwork? Perhaps this reluctance stems from ineffective or dysfunctional teamwork experiences in the past. Often the culprit in these situations is not a “poor team player” or an “inability to get along with others.” More likely it was caused by one of two things: misaligned goals or confusion over roles. For teamwork to be effective, all members of the team must understand and share the goals of the project, and all members must fully understand their roles—what is expected of them, and how they will be held accountable. An effective team leader will make sure that goals and roles are fully understood by all team members.
“Introduction to Teamwork,” a section in Designing Engineers, by Susan McCahan et al. provides a detailed description of the stages of the Tuckman Team Formation model and the need for effective communications at each stage. A team, according to McCahan et al., “is a group of people who come together to work in an interrelated manner towards a common goal.” They go on to differentiate a team from a group by noting that a team is connected by “a common purpose or goal and the reliance on the skills of all the members to meet the goal” . In other words, team members see themselves as part of a collective working towards a common goal rather than individuals working on separate tasks that may lead to an end product. In order to work effectively, team members need to communicate clearly and constructively, and learn how to deal with crises and conflicts that will inevitably arise.
Think of a time when you had to work with others to produce something – a design, poster, presentation, document, etc. Briefly describe what the task was and then consider the following questions:
- What was the team’s overall goal?
- What was your job within the group?
- How were the jobs distributed?
- How well did your group function? Did anyone on the team behave in ways that McCahan et al. characterize as “hitchhikers, hijackers, isolationists, and enablers”?
- Was the outcome successful?
- Would you happily work with those team mates again on another project? Why or why not?
- How would you rate your overall experience and why?
Some common benefits of working in teams include increased productivity, increased innovation, and increased efficiency. Excellent teams have synergy that makes them more than simply the sum of their parts. The term “team intelligence” refers to the fact that collectively, teams have more knowledge and skill than the single individuals working separately. However, challenges can also arise when working in a team. Conflicts within a team do occur and often they begin as a result of poor communication and weak focus. Some ways to handle these challenges include the following:
- Elect a team leader: the team leader will act as the hub for communication and tasks. This person helps provide direction and guidance for the team. This should be someone who has earned the team’s respect and who can be persuasive and tactful. This role can be rotated among team members.
- Ensure the goal is clear: a team is governed by the goal that everyone shares and works to achieve. It is important that the goal is clearly understood and agreed upon by everyone on the team.
- Establish team rules: as a team, determine the rules by which the team will operate. These should include expectations around time, meetings, attendance, communication, decision-making, contribution, and mechanisms to warn and/or fire a team member or quit a team.
- Assign responsibilities: as part of the breakdown of tasks, members should be assigned responsibility for certain tasks, which means that they are the primary leads in preventing and addressing issues that come up in that area.
- Set agendas for meetings and keep minutes: to ensure that team meeting time is useful and achieves its purpose, plan an agenda for each meeting to help keep everyone on task. In addition, have someone take minutes to record decisions that are made. This record helps prevent repetition and ensures work actually gets done.
- Determine the timing for tasks: task timing involves two aspects: the duration for completing the task and the timing of the task in relation to the other tasks. Typically, tasks take longer than you think they will so it is often better to add 25% to your duration estimate. The timing of the tasks are important to figure out because some tasks can be completed concurrently, but others may have to be sequenced. Professionals often use Gantt Charts (see Table 4.1.1) to outline these tasks and the time they will take within the overall project scale.
- Manage communications: if a problem arises with someone on the team, the team leader should speak privately to the person and clearly indicate what needs to change and why. The focus should be on the behaviour, not on the person’s character. Issues should be dealt with quickly rather than left to deteriorate further. If this does not solve the problem, then try other approaches (See McCahan et al. “Management Strategies” for more information).
There are several tools and strategies that teams can use to improve their functioning and productivity. Some examples, described in more detail below, include using the following documents:
- Team Charter: outlines the guiding principles, rules, and expectations agreed upon by the team
- Meeting Agenda: outlines the main points for discussion at a meeting
- Meeting Minutes: records the decisions and relevant discussion points for a meeting
- Work Logs: records the tasks and time spent for each team member
- Status Reports: records the completed tasks and work left to complete
- Gantt Chart: breaks down tasks and their estimated duration over the work period.
There are also many software programs and apps that can help teams manage projects. Students often use Google docs to work collaboratively on a document or project. The most common one used in the workplace is Microsoft Project. However, other productivity apps can be used to great effect as well. Slack, Wrike, and Asana are free popular web based options. Whatever tool you choose to use, it should be something that all members can access and understand.
Team charters can take many forms and can serve a variety of functions depending on the context. In the business world, they often define the purpose, duration, scope and goals of team projects in term of the desired output. They might also list team members, resources, deliverables, reporting systems, and so on. In the working world, a team charter may have an audience that extends beyond the team members. For our purposes, in an educational setting, we will use a Team Charter as a way for each team to define their own values, expectations, goals and procedures.
The main purpose of the Team Charter in this context is to help team members ensure that they on “on the same page” so to speak; that you all have the same expectations of one another for how you will conduct yourselves, contribute equitably, and produce effectively. A team charter, then, can act as a set of “by laws” or guidelines, and can help to prevent misunderstandings and conflicts from arising in the future. It is a negotiated set of behaviours that you all agree will govern your interactions. It can also set you up for having the tools and procedures in place to successfully managing conflict when it does inevitably arise. Here are some questions to consider when negotiating and creating your team charter:
- Team meeting schedule: when, how, and how often will you meet?
- Team meeting procedures: will you use agendas and minutes? Who will be responsible for these? How will you conduct meetings to ensure work gets done? How will you make decisions? Avoid getting distracted or off-task?
- Communications Strategies: how will you communicate about the team project outside of team meeting times? Email? Social media? MS Teams or other online tools?
- Project Management: how will you keep track of documents and resources? Deliverables? Due dates? Who is responsible for which tasks? Etc.
- Behavioural Expectations: what are your shared expectations/values around punctuality? Courtesy? Respectful interactions and disagreements? Dealing with problems and disagreements?
- Equitable Workloads: how will you ensure that each team member is doing an equitable/reasonable share of the work? How will you deal with emergent issues?
- Quality of work: what are the expectations for quality of work? How will you ensure quality control?
- Penalties: How will you ensure accountability to the team and the charter? What sort of consequences might you impose that will improve overall team performance?
- Irreconcilable Differences: At what point should someone leave the team? What are the protocols for quitting a team or firing a team member if problems cannot be resolved?
Meeting Documents: Agendas and Minutes
What happens at team meetings should be planned and recorded for future reference. Agendas and Minutes are documents that do this. A meeting also should have a chair (the person who keeps things on track) and a recorder (who records what happened and what decisions were made). The Agenda is the plan for what you want to discuss and accomplish at the meeting. It is usually made up of a list of items, sometimes with a time frame for each item.
ENGR 240 Team Meeting Agenda
Place and time:
- Updates from each team member (progress) (5 min each)
- Develop work plan for upcoming week (15 min)
- Determine next meeting time (5 min)
- Work on Milestone 3 together (45 min)
- Matters arising
Minutes follow up on the agenda by recording what decisions were made and what important topics were discussed. One person is responsible for recording the events of the meeting, and distributing the minutes to each member (via email usually). That way, no one should forget what tasks they agreed to complete and when.
ENGR 240 Team Meeting Minutes
Thursday Feb, 15, 2016
Cle A035, 3:30-4:45
Present: Jaime, Chris, Renee
Regrets: Joe (has the flu)
- All team members have completed last week’s work plan (Joe emailed a report, as she is sick)
- In the coming week, we plan to complete the following:
Task Who will do it? 1. Interview Facilities Management contact Renee 2. Research bike share programs (Joe?) 3. Design a survey/questionnaire Chris 4. Do a site visit Jaime
- Next meeting: next Thursday Feb 21, after class
- Excellent progress during meeting; Joe will follow up on researching bike share programs.
- Meeting adjourned 4:50
When planning a team project over a significant time span, teams often use Gantt Charts to help map out the work schedule in a clear and detailed way. Gantt charts are typically used in proposals, to show the target audience that the proposers have a well-thought out and feasible plan for completing the project. They can also be used in progress peports to update the reader what what tasks are complete, which are in progress, and which are yet to be completed.
Gantt charts can take many different forms, and you can download software to make complex and detailed charts (see the Wikipedia page on Gantt Charts, for examples). However, I recommend using a simple table for the Gantt Charts you will create for course assignments. See sample chart in Table 4.1.1, showing the kinds of tasks you might include in your Research Project Proposal. The sample lists fairly generic tasks; ideally, your chart will include more specific information, such as what kind of existing designs you might research, what specific kind of user experience, and a Literature review of what, specifically?
Table 4.1.1 Sample Gantt Chart outlining a project timeline
Work logs are common documents used in the work place (and in your Co-op Work Terms) to keep track of what work is done, by whom, and how long it took. These can be very helpful for keeping a team on track and ensuring equitable workloads. If you compare work logs, you will quickly see if some team members are doing more work than others. To ensure accountability, have each team member sign off on the work log.
|Date||Task Description||Assigned to||Status / Date Completed||Total Time Spent|
The next section reviews several Models for Understanding Team Dynamics.