It usually starts in the hallway. Sarah from engineering and James from marketing commiserate about a mutual problem. Pretty soon, Juan from production wanders by, joins the conversation--or gripe session--and suggests a solution that might work but has some rough edges. Suddenly there's a new task force on "Smoothing Out the Rough Edges."
These types of work groups form, dissolve and reshape themselves continually in today's workplace. Workers from various departments and disciplines must collaborate to keep the company competitive.
But how does one organize such groups? Who should lead them? Where do the ideas come from that can keep these agglomerations from crumbling? When no one is in charge of a project, how does it ever get finished?
Experts and workers in the field agree that the keys to developing good cooperation are communication, including everyone in the process, making sure each person has a valuable role, and keeping others informed of the group's progress.
Because business is changing so rapidly, says Jeanne M. Liedtka, associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business, "the trick today is not, 'Can I make the best widgets?' It's 'Can I continue to adapt to the needs of the people who buy my widgets?' "
That means responding quickly to market conditions. The traditional "command and control" organization can't adapt as easily as one with less structure and more creativity. As corporations learn this, the kind of task force created when Juan, Sarah and James confer in the hallway becomes the norm rather than the exception.
A new book offers direction on how to lead these ad hoc groups. "Getting It Done" (HarperCollins, 1998), by negotiation guru Roger Fisher and engineering executive Alan Sharp, sets out a step-by-step method of leading a group toward its goal. Subtitled "How to Lead When You're Not in Charge," it also shows the middle manager or lower-ranking employee ways to influence organizational decisions by asking productive questions, offering his or her thoughts and acting on those thoughts to serve as a model for others.
These skills are part of what Fisher and Sharp call lateral leadership.
"We have seen people . . . who have all the authority they could want try with little success to make things work," they write. "If those with full authority find it difficult to improve the quality of collaboration among their subordinates, how can you--one of those subordinates--expect to change the behavior of your fellow workers?"
Their answer is that you can develop skills that encourage coordination and collaboration. They tell how to go about solving problems and working with groups. The foundation of their system is laid with the four steps of a "circle chart." The steps are:
* Data. First gather enough data to define the problem. What are the symptoms that show there is a problem? Are deliveries late? Are payroll costs too high? Fisher and Sharp recommend using an "observation checklist" to help focus the group's efforts and lessen personal biases.
* Diagnosis. This is where you define the problem. Using the data, establish conclusions. Each member of the group may have differing conclusions based on the same data, because each uses different reasoning. Communication and discussion of these conclusions and reasoning will help formulate a stronger group understanding of the problem.
* Direction. Invent creative approaches to the problem. Set up a brainstorming process: Generate options, evaluate them, then decide on a plan.
* Do next. Agree on specific actions to carry out, being careful to let everyone participate. Who will do what? Where? When? How? Get out there and lead by taking some positive action.
The authors' overall goal in this process is to get everyone thinking systematically about how to solve problems.
Microsoft uses some of these principles when developing its new products. As detailed by Michael A. Cusumano in the Sloan Management Review last fall, the software giant encourages coordination by requiring documentation of the "daily build" and immediate repair of bugs.
Small groups have autonomy and responsibility for their work, including setting their hours. Rigid rules are few, but they ensure that groups working on the same project know what the other groups are doing.
Orange County engineer Jon Miller, who has worked in the computer business for 15 years, knows the way these hallway work teams develop--and can founder if not handled properly. His guidelines for making one succeed:
* Have a written agenda or mission, and have someone in the group (usually the team's leader, whether anointed or chosen by the group) track the agenda.
* Have the group establish action items, with an estimated completion date for each. This is similar to Fisher and Sharp's "circle chart," but it takes it a step further by setting a schedule for everyone's work. Often, one part of the group must wait for another member to finish his or her task before it can proceed to the next step, so it's essential to know the timetable.
* Publish the results of each session, summarizing each action point and who is responsible for it. This clarifies and defines each member's responsibility. Group e-mail is the usual way of publishing this information. (It doesn't hurt to send a copy to the appropriate department heads so they know what their people are working on.)
"The goal is to manage the process rather than the people," Miller says. Ideally, he wants each member of the team to know what his or her responsibilities are and to participate in the process that established them. In the small companies that run the computer industry today, some of the team members may be consultants or even customers, so it's essential to communicate with them frequently.
Consulting firms, in which every project involves a new set of players, are good at this kind of organization. A study of three top consultants by professors from the University of Virginia and the University of Richmond found that these firms strive to enhance individual expertise through collaboration.
"What these companies do is surround their professionals with an infrastructure that leverages individual learning into an institution-level capability," says Liedtka, the lead author of the study published last fall in the Sloan Management Review.
The successful consultants she and her colleagues studied are continually trading information, working with groups of people from diverse backgrounds, improving their collaborative skills and learning new ways to get things done.
So the next time your co-workers are gathered in the hallway, don't assume they're discussing the latest movie or last night's game. They could be leading the company in a new direction.