Thursday, 2 August 2007

Shaper / wrecker team dynamics - one reason why bureaucracy doesn't work

Although it is no longer fashionable, I have a lot of time for Meredith Belbin's work on management teams, and in particular his work on what distinguishes successful teams from the unsuccessful ones.

In the course of a long series of experiments with management teams, Belbin identified a number of specific roles which had to be carried out within a team. For example, there is the resource-investigator role, which finds out and communicates to the team the resources available to them (he is the one who can be relied on to know which cafe has the best pastries, as well as hopefully more work-related things). There is the Chairman, who has a strong sense of the objectives, and works to make sure that everyone's contribution is taken into account. There are several others: the Plant (ideas man), the Monitor-evaluator (who knows how well we are doing), the Completer-finisher (who makes sure things get finished and all loose ends are dealt with), etc.

I know some people who have been away on training course and have come back to work saying proudly "Guess what, I'm a Plant". Tempting though it is to reply, "Indeed, and the plant in question is deadly nightshade - in small doses emetic, occasionally fatal", the correct response is that they are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Their preferred team role is 'Plant', so if they are part of a team where no other member prefers to be the Plant, they will fill that role. If there is another Plant in the team, after a bit of shaking down, one will assume the role of team Plant, and the other will likely adopt a different role, although if the team is very big there can be room for two Plants. However, it is very convenient shorthand to refer to people as a Plant, when they are either someone who prefers to be the team Plant, or the person fulfilling the role of Plant in the team, so I will do so, and ask you to bear in mind that there is a distinction.

All teams have each of these roles, in small teams one individual will fill more than one role, in large teams there may be more than one person with a specific role. It is one of the wonders of human self-organisation how, within a new team, people will sense what roles everyone else is comfortable and competent with, and adjust their role accordingly, so that, after a shake-down period, the team roles are established.

One clear distinction between effective and ineffective teams is the extent to which the roles are filled by people with an aptitude to do them. For example, it makes a big difference whether the completer-finisher is good at completer-finishing, because it makes the difference between 100% complete and 90% complete with bits and pieces all over the place.

There is one role which is slightly different, the Shaper. The Shaper is the person who takes the lead in setting the agenda, in 'shaping' the task. Sometimes the team contains people who can be a good Shaper, or equally happily can fill one of the other roles, but very often, along with the sort of personality that has an aptitude for shaping, we find a need to be the shaper, not to allow anyone else to fill that role. I call that kind of personality a shaper/wrecker because depending on circumstances one will either shape the task or wreck it.

There are actually three modes of failure to do with Shapers. Firstly, as with the other roles, failure looms if no-one in the team is good at Shaping. In this case the task will drift until someone intervenes to cancel the task or introduce a Shaper. Secondly, the task will also be in trouble if the team Shaper does not have the right subject matter knowledge to shape the task well. This is particular likely to happen if the strongest Shaper in the team also has the Wrecker characteristic, because they will not step aside and allow a weaker Shaper who does have the right knowledge, to take over the Shaping. Thirdly, If the team includes two Shaper / Wreckers, the outcome is always bad - one will Shape while the other one Wrecks, and it is the nature of life that the wrecking will contribute more to the outcome than the shaping.

In a normal business situation, and especially when the owner is closely involved enough to observe what is going on, there is a natural limit to the shaper/wrecker dynamic, because each mode of failure will delay or compromise the task, and therefore reduce profits. Those firms that deal with the problems will succeed more often and therefore grow at the expense of those that don't. Knowingly or not, good managers will add a Shaper to a team that is making no progress; they will train up or replace a Shaper / Wrecker lacking in knowledge, and in the event of a wrecking contest, one or the other contestant will be removed.

In a bureaucracy, however, there is less pressure for corrective action, because no profits are at stake, and there is no Darwinian sifting of successful and unsuccessful organisations - what sifting there is being based on politics, not profits. Drift will continue because it is awkward to admit errors and make changes; lack of knowledge will be resolved over time through learning by making mistakes, the cost of which falls on innocent third parties; Wrecking competitions continue until the stronger party defeats the weaker. Only if the team has exactly one shaper, and he has the necessary subject knowledge, will the team be effective.

What are the chances of a team picked at random having exactly one Shaper ? It depends how many good Shapers are in the pool we pick from, but in any case, the smaller the team, the less likely it is to have a good Shaper, whereas a large team is likely to have two or more Shaper / Wreckers. Again, it will depend on how many Shaper / Wreckers are out there, but there may be a few pointers. In a well-managed business, Shaper / Wreckers will be identified and generally discouraged or excluded from senior positions, because of the necessity for effective team working especially at the higher levels. Instead Shapers who are also willing take other team roles will prosper, and in the Darwinian sifting of the competitive economy, such organisations will prosper. As a result, it is likely that the non-competitive economy will disproportionately attract ambitious Shaper / Wreckers, and as a result these people will be over represented in the places where they are least likely to be checked, and therefore liable to do most damage. The result is that bureaucracies tend to have less effective teams, and therefore don't work when it comes to complex many-sided tasks which characterise the modern world.

Reference:"Management Teams - Why they succeed or fail" by R. Meredith Belbin,
ISBN 0-7506-5910-6

© steve_roberts 2007


totallyun-pc said...

Management teams do seem to adopt the "tortoise shell" approach to anything that appears in the "too difficult" box though. The easy scores are made so they can gain strength and become bigger.... which means anyone thing or anyone with a slightest fight can often succeed against the strongest management, because to lock horns is to be challenged. Managers hate challenge, those days are over... they did that to get where they are!

Whichendbites said...

Steve. You have hit my nail on the head. I have posted about this with a link to the post from your site. Hope this is OK.


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