There Actually Is an ‘I’ in Team

Research shows that when dealing with fundamental change, teams that retrain individuals before focusing on collaboration have better results.

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Jing Jing Tsong/

Imagine running a factory that assembles electronic devices. Your operators work in highly interdependent teams on the assembly lines, and they’re dealing with a fundamental technological change that you recently implemented. Robotic arms and automated machines were put in place to streamline the assembly process, replacing several tasks previously performed by hand.

Now, the robotic arms handle repetitive and precision movements, such as screwing components together and applying adhesives. This change relieves your operators of mundane work and lets them focus on more complex aspects of the assembly process, such as quality control, troubleshooting, and process optimization. However, they must adjust to the new work environment: They need to individually learn how to operate and maintain the automated systems while also learning how to coordinate differently as a group.

This kind of fundamental change to how members of a team relate to their individual roles and to one another plays out in all kinds of workplaces. Whether it’s triggered by organizational decisions to adopt new technology, new regulations, or structural transformations, it requires adaptation on both an individual and team level.

Members of an accounting team grappling with changes in disclosure laws, for example, may need to individually master new reporting rules as well as rethink collaboration within the team to establish new internal control systems. Employees of an organization transitioning from a functional structure to a divisional structure may need to individually acquire knowledge about the products and services offered by each division in addition to learning how to effectively coordinate with colleagues in the new cross-functional environment.

Overcoming these dual learning and adaptation challenges is key to successful change management, but as we note in our recent paper in Organization Science, leaders often don’t pay adequate attention to whether, when, or how individuals on their team reskill — and when they do, their focus is often on the team as a whole. Our research shows that there may be benefits to making individual reskilling a priority. Our study of how teams and individuals adapted to change in a manufacturing company revealed that when individual learning happens first, teams adapt more easily to fundamental change.

Reskill the Individual Before the Team

Successful teaming requires skills at two different levels: Team members need to become proficient in their own tasks, and they need to work well together. Until team members master their individual skills, we argue, it is difficult for a team to master and maximize collective coordination. This is because collective mastery can often be built only on individual skills. To best deal with fundamental change, individual skill development should occur first.

These ideas are supported by our study of fundamental change as it unfolded in a division of a large electronics manufacturing company in eastern China that employs more than 10,000 workers. We followed 116 production teams over several months. These teams had just begun adapting to a series of radical technological advances that required the use of novel tools and production processes. To gauge team performance before and after the change, we used the company’s own metric, yield, which is the percentage of products that are manufactured correctly to technical specifications.

Until team members master their individual skills, it is harder for the team to master and maximize collective coordination.

As we expected, the need to adjust to the change did negatively affect yield. About two weeks before the change, the average yield was 99.15%; about four weeks after the change, the average yield had dropped to 93.82%. But the drop was not distributed equally across all teams. We attributed some differences among teams to variations in the intensity of the change the team faced: Some teams had much more to relearn at both the individual and collective levels.

However, after accounting for the intensity of the change, we found that the teams that had initially focused on individual reskilling performed 12% better than the teams that, right off the bat, had focused on improving collective coordination. Reward systems played a critical role: Team members who were given more individual-focused rewards (compared with team-focused rewards) at this initial phase excelled early on in recovering from the change.

When we explored yield again two months later, in a later phase of the change, the average yield across all teams had climbed back to 96.95%. Yet, there was a high variance in team performance compared with pre-change team performance.

At this point, teams that had built on individual reskilling and were now focused on collective coordination were performing 11% better than teams that had not made that switch. That change in focus was enabled by a more collectively oriented reward system. Teams that emphasized team rewards at this later phase of change more easily shifted their focus from individual reskilling to collective coordination.

Manage Change in Two Phases

Our research demonstrates how managing fundamental organizational changes requires a two-phased, sequential response.

In the early periods following a fundamental change, leaders should encourage individual task reskilling. Such reskilling means not only providing relevant training but also giving members time to experiment and master their tasks alone, before making any attempts to improve the team as a whole. In the context of our study, teams that succeeded early on gave members more time to experiment with new ways to complete their own tasks and adapt the standardized equipment to their own needs.

The reward system should support such individual reskilling in this phase. When rewards reflect individual contributions, team members focus on improving individual skills. Such rewards promote self-focus and the pursuit of personal goals.

Following a fundamental change, leaders should encourage individual task reskilling before making any attempts to improve as a team.

In the later periods following a fundamental change, once team members have mastered their individual tasks, they can begin experimenting with coordination and task flow and identifying redundancies in their collective processes. For our study, once members had mastered their new tasks individually, it became clear that some of them could complete their tasks faster than before. This outcome implied that the teams had to change how tasks were assigned to maximize workflow efficiency. This is the phase in which a greater emphasis should be placed on team rewards. When rewards are team-focused and the pay differences between members are minimized, team members focus on learning collective skills. These rewards promote a focus on others, collaboration, and the pursuit of team goals.

The sequencing of rewards is critical to ensuring that team members focus on the right priority in the right order, by moving from an initial focus on individual reskilling to only later practicing collective coordination. Providing only team-oriented rewards right from the beginning fails to incentivize the individual reskilling that forms the basis of team action.

Timing Matters

While our research provides some empirical evidence to support the idea of building individual skills before team skills to improve adaptation to change in a business environment, we can observe how this principle applies equally in other domains.

In the early 1990s, a new rule was introduced in soccer that disallowed goalkeepers from using their hands to pick up balls that the defenders had kicked back to them. This represented a fundamental change in the way the sport was played, because it required new skills and new types of coordination.

At first, teams struggled to perform under the new rule. Defenders, by habit, would kick the ball back to the goalkeeper. Because the goalkeepers could not touch the ball with their hands and were less skilled at footwork, teams made mistakes.

Many soccer coaches initially focused on the handoffs between the goalkeepers and defenders, to improve how this set of players coordinated with each other. Such approaches were not very successful. They put the horse before the cart by asking players to focus on collaboration before both goalkeepers and defenders had developed their new individual skills.

In contrast, other coaches focused on helping the goalkeepers and defenders first become proficient on their own dribbling and passing skills without making them work with each other. Only later, once the players had individually acquired those skills, did these teams get them together to coordinate their defense and offense in new and creative ways. This strategy was much more successful and led to a reimagining of how the game as a whole was played.

Collective capabilities can grow only on a foundation of strong individual skills. Leaders often forget that and, in times of change, try to rally the team to work better together before members have mastered their individual tasks. Leaders managing change should remember to provide enough space and incentives for individuals to experiment and learn new technologies and knowledge on their own before coming to the team to chart out how best to collectively collaborate.


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Comments (2)
Laurin Mooney
This is an incredibly important insight!   We know we need change, but as you say, the sequencing of the process is key.   Thank you for validating what was only my instinct.
Mohsen Abassi
Finally I read somthing nice on the internet. thanks a lot.