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Collaboration Mechanisms: Teams, Virtual and Face-to-Face

Toolkit/guidelines

Team development has been described in terms of five stages, beginning with a simple 'membership' group, and working through 'confrontation' to a 'shared-responsibility' group (Bradford and Cohen, 1998). (This is seen by some as a more complete version of the 'forming, storming, norming, performing' process that Bruce Tuckman popularised in the 1960s.) Bradford and Cohen suggest that the different stages of groups differ in terms of the following characteristics:

  • Atmosphere and relationships
  • Understanding and acceptance of goals
  • Listening and information sharing
  • Decision making
  • Reaction to leadership
  • Attention to the way the group is working

The table (right) below shows how these characteristics vary over the course of the group development process. This can be used to identify where a group is located along these different dimensions, and where it needs to get to in order to operate more effectively.

Interestingly, the work of Duarte et al (2001) for the CGIAR organisations strongly indicates that face-to-face teams and virtual teams develop through similar processes. Note the comparison between the two types in the second table, taken from Duarte et al (page 6).

The same authors suggest that virtual teams have the following aspects:

  • Senior leadership recognises that virtual teaming is a preferred and useful way of working.
  • Adequate resources exist for some face-to-face interaction, especially in the start-up phase.
  • There is a commitment to, and resources available for, training and other ongoing development activities.
  • There is a common platform for electronic communication and collaboration technology.
  • Team leaders see themselves as critical to facilitating the team's success.
  • Team members share a basic level of competence in use of technology, working across cultures, project management and time management (especially with competing projects), and the ability to network across time, distance, and organisation.

Example: Application to Food Security
Maxwell (2001) applied the team development process to the institutional problems faced by food security efforts. Using a narrative structure, he explained how typical food security planning efforts were hampered by ineffective team working and management approaches that tend towards a more 'solo hero' mould. In this situation, managers carry the burden for motivation and decision making, and groups are membership based, with weak leadership, low commitment to goals, and frequent conflict. Using the five stages, it is essential for managers to analyse the state of the development of the group, and help move teams towards the shared responsibility approach. This is a move towards the organizational culture required for the kinds of multi-sectoral, multi-disciplinary enterprises that are so common to development and humanitarian efforts.

Key, here, is an understanding that changing the character of groups is not an easy task. There are frequently problems of status, professional pride, cultural background and so on, which underlie conflict. Nonetheless, conscious changes in group dynamics can be seen to have a positive impact on performance of a team.

This tool first appeared in the ODI Toolkit, Tools for Knowledge and Learning: A Guide for Development and Humanitarian Organisations.