Collaboration in the form of teamwork may be the 21st Century’s technology, in that it promises strides in greater productivity–but only when done well.  It can also veer from chaos to constipation. David Maister’s famous article Are Law Firms Manageable? questions whether lawyers can make the transition from "a managerial approach based on partner autonomy to new approaches that can create a well-coordinated set of team players." Well, can we?

After seeing double digit increases in firms that have implemented team systems–management, marketing,  industry and client teams–and an increase in work satisfaction among team members, an initial question many interested law firms have is how to go about setting up and managing teams.  Luckily, research provides some guidance that can help firms successfully achieve productive teamwork.  The following is a summary of Muir’s presentation on effective teamwork at Swarthmore College’s 2009 Lax Conference.

In 1965 Bruce Tuckman, an organizational psychologist, established modern team theory, refined most recently by Dr. Susan Wheelan, professor of Psychological Studies and Faculty Director of the Training and Development Center at Temple University.

The stages of teamwork, according to these models, are 1) forming, 2) storming, 3) norming, and 4) performing.  The forming stage, even among lawyers, can be marked by tentative and polite accommodation.  Unsure of their roles and the leader’s competence, team participants need the leader to be clear, directive and highly structured during this first stage. This is not the time for a consensual  "Well, what do you think we should do?" approach.  Also, if you have the luxury of choosing team members, choosing those who are different from each other in their attitudes and skills and who are able to articulate and, when appropriate, stick by their opinions produces the best mix for a team. See our entry Promoting an Effective Board or Management Group for additional discussion of what attributes to look for in team members and how to promote their best contribution.

During the second, storming stage, the politeness wears thin and team members, particularly lawyers, will test the leader and stake out their positions with each other to determine what their authority and parameters will be.  Conflict is often a result.  This is a positive development.  Handled well, the team will learn from experience that it is safe to engage in conflict, and that issues can be settled without lasting acrimony or division, even if it requires agreeing to disagree.  This is the basis on which trust and respect is established.  Leaders are often criticized during this stage (and sometimes asked to step down) as much because of their role as because of their personal attributes or performance.  Leaders who can keep from reacting defensively will avoid exacerbating and prolonging this stage, which, being awkward and uncomfortable, helps propel the group to resolve their differences and move forward into the next stage.  Leaders should emphasize during this stage the importance of keeping debate, which is useful, focused on the issues and not the personalities involved.

During the third, norming stage, based on the higher level of trust achieved during the 2nd stage, the group’s goals are revised and a division of labor, with clear roles, is determined. The problem in law firms is that often lawyers don’t make it out of stage 2.  Tenacious about protecting their authority and unwilling to trust those in a leadership role or those to whom work must be delegated, these lawyers can keep the team locked in unnecessary meetings and conflict, which may feel to them more like sport than discomfort.  Yet it is only in stage 3 that delegation becomes effective and the individuals are freed up to do their part of the team’s work.

Stage 4 is performing, which is the highly productive stage that teams are made for.  At this point, if members are added or removed, or the goals or delegation changes significantly, the team may regress back to an earlier stage and have to work its way through the process again.

Goals that are most amenable to team accomplishment are ones that require collective action, i.e. those which no one person could accomplish on his/her own, and that are meaningful, even inspiring.  The most effective teams have an emotional commitment to the goal, so framing goals as being in the individual team members’ interests is vital. 

Team goals should be specific, measurable and attainable, with a real deadline that allows the team’s work to culminate in a completed project.  Ongoing timeframes make it difficult to maintain team motivation and momentum.

Ideally, team members spend about 75% of the team time on accomplishing their tasks and 25% on participating in the team process, i.e. attending status meetings, maintaining group relations and performing housekeeping tasks. Procedure can be important.  For example, lawyers are largely introverts who need time to formulate their opinions, so distributing an agenda in advance of a meeting and not requiring decisions to be made at the meeting allows them to both prepare for discussion and come to a reasoned conclusion afterward.

OK everyone, team up!