«Anna B. Adams D. Christopher Kayes The George Washington University David A. Kolb Case Western Reserve University Working Paper ORBH 12/13/04, ...»
3. Pursuit of a collective goal. The third-order purpose focuses on developing a collective goal. In this stage, a group becomes a team. This stage requires development of more formal strategies and structures to meet the group purpose. Here the members of the group must transform from individual learning to group learning, develop methods of coordination, develop adaptation mechanisms, and respond to changing external demands. For example, an informal group may decide to create its own musical group and perform at various venues.
4. Self-determination. In the fourth order, the group no longer simply adapts to changes in the environment but makes self-directed changes directed by its stated desires. While external constraints are not completely eliminated, the group develops the freedom to set and pursue its own goals. An example is a musical group that sets its own progressive agenda and makes music that is seen as ground-breaking.
5. Growth. A group working at the fifth level can follow multiple goals, create high levels of innovation, manage diverse and conflicting types of innovation, and influence a number of different domains. For example, a well-established musical group may influence several types of music, as the musical group the Beatles were able to do, by creating rock, easy-listening, classical, and popular music. In addition, members have been able to advance various causes, contribute to the development of new groups, and engage in other artistic endeavors such as painting and drawing.
Mills described the role of intentional experiential learning in the following way:
Although accomplishment of a given order of purpose tends to increase the group’s potential for advancing to the next higher order, that advance is not automatic or predetermined, but instead depends on the initiative of a member, or members, in conceiving the new purpose, formulating it, conveying it, acting according to it and having it generally accepted by others in the group…. Seeing the new possibility and then acting on it are relevant, important and indeed critical to group growth (1967, p. 114).
In fact, his theory describes development as successive stages in the sophistication of a team’s ability to learn. At the higher stages of his model, a team develops a system of executive consciousness. “Consciousness is gained through adding to the function of acting the functions of observing and comprehending the system that is acting” (p. 19). At this level, team members take on an executive role following the experiential learning cycle: “He [sic] experiences, observes, and assesses the realities of the momentary situation. He acts and assesses the consequences of his action upon the group’s capability of coping with immediate demands and future exigencies” (p. 90). All team members can take the executive role, forming what Mills calls the executive system, “the group’s center for assessment of itself and its situations, for arrangement and rearrangement of its internal and external relations, for decision making and for learning, and for ‘learning how to learn’ through acting and assessing the consequences of action” (p. 93). Thus, experiential learning and engagement in the learning cycle provide the mechanisms by which teams transition from lower to higher developmental stages.
While teams transition from lower to higher developmental stages, this developmental process occurs along several dimensions. For example, teams may develop in their ability to create roles (e.g., Benne & Sheats, 1948) or in their ability to create and pursue a common purpose (Mills, 1967). In the next section, we look at six aspects of group functioning—purpose, roles, goals, process, context, and action taking—and examine how team learning fosters development in each of these aspects of team functioning. We address two issues related to the functional aspects of team learning: how teams learn about each aspect during higher and lower developmental phases and the specific issues that may impact the capacity to learn.
Research and theory have established the essential elements necessary for the functioning of a social system. These functional aspects of teams are 1) a shared purpose that provides direction for members of the group; 2) roles or a basic division of labor; 3) a context that establishes the external constraints faced by the system, most notably the nature of the task and the resources available to the system; 4) a well-established process for achieving the system’s purpose; 5) the composition or membership of the group, particularly as it applies to diversity;
and, finally, 6) actions to achieve the purpose, involve members, respond to context, and modify the team’s process. In concert with Mills’ model of group development that depicts learning from experience as the way groups develop, we conclude that team learning and growth are dependent upon the team’s ability to learn about each of these six functional aspects. These aspects of team functioning are learned as part of the team development process. The combination of ELT with Mills’ developmental stages of teams results in an integrative, holistic approach to team learning based on ELT. The next section discusses the experiential learning processes that occur in each phase across team functions and introduces each aspect of team functioning as it relates to ELT, research, and practice.
Learning about purpose Purpose is a critical aspect of team functioning. In fact, a shared sense of purpose makes a group a team as opposed to a collection of individuals. When individuals come together, their personal needs and goals predominate. Even though the group may have been assigned a purpose by a course instructor or work supervisor, individuals’ understanding and ownership of the assignment may be minimal compared with their personal agendas.
Mills’ model is useful in defining the issues about purpose and goals that are important as a team develops from a group of individuals into a highly effective team. Early in development, teams focus primarily on their individual concerns and goals. Only later do group members become a team and focus on a collective purpose. However, the collective purpose is often given to the group, and this stage is marked by little autonomy. The team adapts to what is given to them. In the later stages, the team emerges as an autonomous, self-directed system capable of redefining its purpose and refining its goals to meet environmental challenges. Its dynamic purpose becomes a focal point for replacing and recruiting members and sharing its knowledge with other groups.
In the early stages, team learning issues about purpose are focused on members’ understanding one another. Early on, when members meet as individuals with little common experience, individual needs and goals are unknown and there may be little sense of a team purpose. The tasks for learning about purpose at this point include Getting to know one another and understanding individual member needs and goals— • “where team members are coming from.” Gaining a shared clarity and consensus about the team’s purpose.
• Achieving alignment between individual goals and team purpose.
• In later stages of the team’s development, learning issues for the team move to a focus on Developing specific goals to achieve the team purpose.
• Redefining and refining goals to respond to the team’s environmental context.
• Aligning the team purpose with an inspiring larger vision that empowers team members • and attracts new members and outside constituencies.
These team learning issues are best addressed by creating a conversational space; team members can then develop and refine the team’s purpose by following the experiential learning process. In the early stages of team formation, for example, it is essential to develop a climate of trust and safety that encourages members to converse openly about their experience on the team, including their personal goals and their perception of the team’s purpose (concrete experience).
Only then can the team reflect and talk through these issues together (reflective observation), synthesize them into a shared consensus that aligns individual and team goals (abstract conceptualization), and then coordinate action to define and implement specific goals (active experimentation).
If a team learns together about its purpose and goals, it can avoid some of the dysfunctional team behaviors mentioned earlier. The root cause of social loafing, for example, often lies with team members who are privately pursuing their individual goals and have little commitment to the team purpose. At the other extreme, over-commitment can result, particularly in highly motivated voluntary teams. A mountain-climbing team, for example, can become so focused on its goal to reach the top that it neglects the individual survival goals of members to get safely down again (Kayes, 2004). A political action group can become so focused on having its candidate win that it ignores other goals such as honesty and fairness.
Learning about membership Team membership describes the physical and psychological make-up of a team and the relationships among team members. Physical membership includes team composition—team size, expertise, learning style, and acceptance of team diversity, such as the ability to manage differences and similarities among team members. Psychological membership includes trust and safety and inclusion (Edmondson, 1999; Schutz, 1958). A team is made up of individuals who bring different experiences, skills, styles, and knowledge to the team. Understandably, when individuals come together with differences, key issues develop associated with team membership. These key membership issues are size, compatibility, cohesion, psychological safety, and inclusion.
Team size. Teams should be large enough to accomplish their goals but small enough to ensure coordination of their tasks. The most effective size, Hackman (2002) argues, is between four and six members; but this is still somewhat dependent on the purpose of the team. He illustrates this by stating that it takes only two members to fly a commercial airplane but many more for an orchestra to perform. The difficulty in coordinating tasks increases as the team size increases (e.g., Sundstrom, 1999; Hackman, 1987). However, two recent studies (Cohen & Bailey, 1997) suggest that teams with as many as 30 to 40 members can still be effective. Small teams may encounter specific types of problems. This is evident in three-member teams, in which two members tend to work well together while the third person is left out of important decisions. Early in a team’s development, it may not actively manage its size. As the team develops, it gains the ability to actively adapt its size to the nature and complexity of the goals.
Well-developed teams may find it possible to recruit additional members with the necessary skills (even if only on an ad hoc basis) to work on a set of tasks or to help develop the skills of existing team members.
Diversity and compatibility in teams. An important consideration for team membership is whether members are similar (homogeneous) or different (heterogeneous). For compatibility, members who are different from one another must get along. Team members who are very similar tend to be more compatible; however, such homogeneity does not always lead to effective team outcomes. Teams with less similar members are often more innovative, but members need to work to value others who are different. The challenge for teams is to sustain a high degree of compatibility among team members when the team members are different. The learning pay-off when a team can value members’ differences is tremendous. While research on diversity in demographic characteristics such as age, gender and ethnicity shows mixed results depending in part on the role of sub-grouping (Gibson and Vermeulen 2003, Hackman 1987, Gladstein 1984) the research on diversity of learning style reviewed earlier has found that heterogeneous teams perform better than homogeneous teams. Learning style of team members is based on a variety of factors such as personality, education, special skills, and member background. Thus, learning style is an important variable for understanding team members’ differences and similarities.
Cohesion. Cohesion describes the degree of camaraderie or “esprit de corps” among group members. The degree of cohesion in a group may be a factor of team size and compatibility. Smaller teams with members who have similar attitudes tend to be more cohesive than other teams. However, teams with too much cohesion are liable to suffer from “groupthink,” a flawed decision process in which members jump to action without adequately considering different types of data. Teams that learn to be aware of issues associated with cohesion and in turn actively manage their cohesion can avoid dysfunctional behavior like groupthink. Well-developed teams, for instance, are more likely to be open to more data during decision-making sessions. Thus, a developed team is less likely to experience groupthink, even with high degrees of cohesion.
Trust and psychological safety. Trust is the feeling that team members can depend on one another and contributions are valued. Psychological safety is the feeling that it is safe to make mistakes or to express views that differ from majority opinion. In climates of low trust and safety, members may be concerned about repercussions from other teammates.
In the early stages of a team’s development, individuals do not have a high degree of trust or interdependence. When a team is first formed, the climate is established as either being “safe” or “unsafe” to express differences. When people do not feel safe sharing their experiences, they cannot learn. As teams learn by sharing their experiences through good conversation, the team is able to manage issues of size, compatibility, and cohesion. These issues all hinge on learning from experience or the climate for conversation that is created. Teams that have moved to higher stages have actively managed their team climate to build trust and ensure that differences are safe to express. As the team learns, members gain the ability to value and leverage these differences, even on teams that are extremely heterogeneous. Learning teams continue to progress into higher levels of functioning.