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Building Great Engineering Teams
Posted on April 13th, 2016 by Chris Walker in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence
Success in modern engineering is powered by effective teams. Almost all of the products we create, systems we innovate and problems we solve are too big and too complex to handle on our own.
While there is definitely room (and in fact a requirement) for individuals to solve problems and innovate on their own, more often than not, individual work needs to fit into a bigger picture.
But what is it that makes great teams great? What are some of the attributes of highly successful teams?
In my experience, the quality of communication among team members is probably the biggest single factor in determining the effectiveness of the team. In a recent post Carlton Washburn looked at the impact of team size and how that effects communication dynamics between team members. While his analysis matches my experience, team size is not the only factor that dictates the quality of communication within a team.
It may sound trivial but setting systems and processes to manage communication can have a disproportionate impact on the effectiveness of a team. Simple things like making sure everyone is using the same communication tools, giving everyone access to shared information, holding regular team briefing sessions, properly introducing all team members to each other and using common formats and documentation can make a huge difference.
Dr Meredith Bebin is a management theorist who, in the early 1980s, developed a model for effective teams. Through his research Belbin found that in most successful teams, the team members take up nine distinct roles. Belbin found that individuals tend to adopt the same couple of roles in different teams they’re a part of and are usually able to move between roles to cater for the teams needs. Although Belbin found nine different roles, he also found that effective teams don’t need there to be nine or more individuals to have them all covered, since most people will be able to fill multiple roles within the team.
While the nine different roles are interesting in and of themselves, Belbin’s work also highlights the importance of diversity in effective teams. The best teams do not simply have more manpower than solo workers. They’re a mix of different skills and experiences which all come together to serve the purposes of the team.
Every great team I’ve been a part of has had a clear and unambiguous purpose. Every team member has been united behind a common goal. Having a clear purpose is a key ingredient for the motivation of anyone, but perhaps has an extra cohesive effect when applied well to a team.
To really be effective, the unifying purpose of the team needs to be something that every team member can really buy into. The goal of one team I used to be a part of was “to develop technology to help service men and women survive the journey home again after completing their mission”. After meeting one or two servicemen our technology had helped, the team goal became quite a compelling vision. That’s clearly quite an emotive statement which is industry and technology specific. But most engineering teams will be able to come up with purpose which relates to their end user and focuses on helping solve people’s problems. Often a focus on helping the end user can describe a purpose that’s compelling enough for team members to unite behind.
How do these three fit with your experience? What have been the attributes of the successful teams you’ve been a part of?
All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.
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