May You Live in Interesting Teams

Working_Together_Teamwork_Puzzle_Concept (1)This year’s LAMSIG Pre-Conference workshop is entitled Effective Teams and Teamwork: building, participating, leading. I am looking forward to it very much – while I am one of the team presenting (the teamwork team?)  I expect to learn a lot from both my co-presenters and also those who attend and offer their experiences and thoughts to the event.

To preview the event slightly, I thought I’d write a little on teamwork and what it involves – why teams are a good thing, what types of tasks in an LTO which are particularly well-suited to teamwork, and a theory about what can help teams to most effectively succeed.

Why work in teams?

Teamwork serves a number of purposes in your organisation. These include:

  1. Teams are greater than the sum of their parts – we’ve all had experiences where we’ve had half an idea and put it forward in a team and someone else has taken it and said “Oh, yes, and if you did this…” and a third person refines it still further. Alone that idea would never have got off the ground. (Senge calls this Team Learning)
  2. Creating teams allows you to build connections across the organisation. Think of a marketing team for example, which included not just marketing staff, but teachers and student support staff. Not only would it provide fresh perspective, but it would also make the relationships between the members stronger
  3. More people become involved with issues that matter to them. People have the chance to contribute, not merely have decisions and changes imposed on them
  4. Change is much more effective when those affected by the change have been involved in creating it (as they would be if there was a team organised to drive the change)
  5. It’s a way of delegating tasks – giving staff opportunities to develop and giving you – the manager – more time to focus on other things

What sort of things lend themselves to teamwork?

Though teamwork is a good idea for the reasons mentioned above, that doesn’t mean that forming teams with no real purpose is wise.  Teams need to have something to work towards, not merely exist for the sake of existing.  Otherwise people will rapidly get fed up of being put into teams.  Just as in the ELT classroom some activities lend themselves to group work, others don’t.

Some decisions and changes that would suit teams in the typical LTO would be:

  • Choosing a new coursebook
  • Writing a new mid-term test for Level x
  • Devising a marketing campaign (I have no idea why so few schools do this, when in teachers, student support staff and receptionists they have so much expertise in what would attract students – and indeed in what the product being marketed actually is)
  • Developing a new course
  • Planning a peer observation scheme
  • Crafting a new performance management system

And, of course, many others

How can teams work together most effectively?

There is a lot written about teams – about the roles people take on in teams (see this Wikipedia article on Belbin for a starting point), about how teams develop and their lifecycle (eg Tuckman’s famous Forming-storming-norming-performing model ), and much more, but for this post I’m going to look at a model designed to help teams work as effectively as possible, developed by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in “The Progress Principle” (2011).

The main idea behind this theory is that people are more productive, more engaged and more creative if they feel they are achieving something (obviously that’s not an earth shattering revelation, but bear with me here).  What this leads to is that teams (and indeed individuals) need to be able to celebrate consistent small victories. They need to feel like they are getting somewhere.  This is based on some fairly extensive research with a large number of people working project teams in different companies who were asked to keep a journal of their team experiences.

Amabile and Kramer then go on to suggest 6 mechanisms that managers can use in order to help their teams achieve these consistent small wins

  1. Set clear goals and objectives

Make sure that what the goal of the team’s work is very clear. Set SMART objectives. If people can see where they are going, it’s easier to see that they’re making progress.

  1. Allow autonomy

While the goals have to be clear, teams (and their members) need to have the freedom to reach those goals in the way they think is best. The more control people have over their work, the more creative and empowered they will feel, and the more they’ll recognise their own achievements. Don’t micromanage!

  1. Provide resources

Make sure the team has what it needs to do the work they have been given. If they don’t have the resources they will likely feel that the task itself is not important. Resources include not only physical things like supplies and technology, but training and support too

  1. Allow ample time

Give the team enough time to do the work (which will also allow them to be creative).  Deadlines which are too tight will result in lower quality work (and less harmonious teams).  However deadlines which are too far off may also be less motivating. So coming up with deadlines which motivate but which do not impede creativity and good quality work is important

  1. Provide support and expertise

Make sure your team has access to support and expertise from outside the team to help them progress with their work when they need it.  As the manager, this will likely include you, but it may also include others. Let those people know that they are expected to be available to help the team if called upon.

  1. Help people learn from “failure”

Sometimes teams don’t succeed in reaching their goal. This may be because they didn’t work very well together or it may be for reasons out of their control. It’s important to work with the team in working out why things didn’t go as planned and discuss what could have been done differently. If teams are punished for honest “failure”, the creativity and motivation in future work will be lost.

These 6 ideas will help the team make meaningful progress. From this it’s then important to routinely celebrate and reward success and achievement.  Encourage teams to keep a record of their achievements so they are not overlooked in the drive to get to the next milestone. Offer recognition for the achievements of the team in staff meetings. If it’s possible to offer small tangible rewards like taking the team out for dinner, or giving them a half day off, for big milestones reached, then do that, but recognition does not have to involve a financial cost.  Often a sincere “Thank You” and clear recognition for the work is enough.

This is one (among many) models of team effectiveness. Why not attend the LAMSIG PCE in Birmingham to learn about others and share ideas with colleagues and peers?


Amabile, T.M. and Kramer, S. (2011) The progress principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
Belbin, M.R. and Belbin, R.M.M. (2010) Team roles at work, Second edition. 2nd edn. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Senge, P.M. (2006) The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group.
Tuckman, B.W. and Jensen, M.A.C. (1977) ‘Stages of small-group development revisited’, Group & Organization Management, 2(4), pp. 419–427. doi: 10.1177/105960117700200404.

One more…

Just to keep this moving along a little, another post on the EnglishAgenda site that I recently wrote – this one on the book that Fiona Thomas and I wrote on Managing Education in the Digital Age

(Oh, and an actual real life new post will follow later this week)


Inertia or caution?

Apologies for taking so long to write a second post!

One of the first suggestions I received on a topic to write about on here came from Nik Peachey:

How do we educate or encourage our managers / administrators to become better educated about what the web can do and the real issues and potential surrounding its use?

Nik’s question was mirrored a little in Karenne’s post here.  I’m going to rewrite Nik’s question slightly (as we trainers are always told not to do, of course), and ask how we can encourage managers to become better educated about technology in general.  And also to think about what considerations managers might have in thinking about technological solutions.

The first problem of course, is the dizzying pace at which the technological revolution is moving – each week seems to bring an innovation in classroom technology, online learning or some other area that managers (and teachers) need to be aware of and make decisions over.  As in many areas of life, inertia is easier (though rarely the best policy in the long run).

Then of course there is the financial aspect.  To equip a school with interactive whiteboards (IWBs) and train everyone to use them involves no small capital outlay.  Similarly running online courses, while not necessarily involving a great amount of up-front expenditure, often seems to have a very low margin (and frequently such courses are run at a loss, based on the vague assumption that this is the way of the future and even if it costs in the short term it will pay off in the long term).

And, then there’s the much talked about digital native/digital immigrant divide.  Most managers are almost certainly digital immigrants (I could write small programmes in BASIC when I was 15, but I don’t really think that puts me in the digital native category – my kids, on the other hand, seem to be fluent).  Give it ten years or so and there will be a different story here, but for now, it’s what we have to work with.

The ADKAR model of change management suggests that managers of people in an organisation which is engaged in change need to take care of 5 things – Awareness (are people aware of the need for the change?); Desire (do people actually want to make the change?); Knowledge (do people have the necessary training to perform the new tasks that are necessary under the change?); Ability (are people able to implement the change?); and Reinforcement (are they continually supported?).  But let’s turn this model on its head a little and look at it from the perspective of changing the  manager’s approach in the case of technological innovation in language teaching and learning.

Are managers aware of the need for this change?  Increasingly, I believe, they are.   Or at least they know that things are changing in the way teaching and learning are supported by technology, and that at some point there is a nettle that needs to be grasped. (It certainly comes up very often when I talk to managers of language teaching organisations).  They might feel that being at the cutting edge in their specific market would give them a competitive advantage even if they were still to be entirely convinced of the benefits of the innovation from a pedagogical standpoint.  After all, it’s pretty rare these days to find a language school that doesn’t have its own website, so it’s not a fear of technology per se.

Do they want it?  Less so, I suspect. Or at least the uncertainty and faddishness of technological solutions can and will cause doubts.  With so many options, so many possibilities and a limited amount of resources to devote to whatever decision is taken (and with IT as a sector in itself being so seemingly hit and miss – for every silicon valley success story there seem to be ten failures), it’s understandable if managers tend to adopt a wait-and-see policy.  While large well resourced organisations like the British Council can devote time and money on trying out all the possibilities and learning from their mistakes and successes, this is simply not an option for smaller language schools.  Waiting to see which approaches are going to be the necessary and long-standing ones (both pedagogically and for the marketplace) is on some levels a sensible and thoughtful approach.  And there’s no shame in being part of the early or late majority rather than an innovator – especially when it’s not just a personal decision, but one which impacts the organisation, and, by association, all the people in it.  [Plus, of course, I am writing this at a time when language schools are suffering financially from the current global downturn.  Just, possibly, as the current wave of pedagogical/technological tools is starting to break over us.  And one of the big ironies about all this of course, is that it’s better to change things when things are going well, and not as a reaction to a crisis, but much more difficult to convince people of the need when everything’s seemingly going well]

Without the awareness and desire, then, there is unlikely to be any sudden shift in the way things are done.

Michael Fullan has identified a number of reasons why educational innovations fail, and I think this can be tied into the same process as we have looked at above.  Among others he cites:

  • Believing that complex problems can be solved quickly
  • Adopting innovations which have only symbolic benefit
  • Responding too quickly to fads
  • Misunderstanding resistance as an attempt to block, rather than as indicating a need for help and support
  • Allowing pockets of success to fail through lack of support

By way of conclusion, I’d like to focus on that fourth one, though I think all 5 have a relevance to this debate (and a couple of them I have already touched upon here).   There is, I think, a tendency to assume that managers are seemingly attempting to block innovation, or are just against change.  And while this may be true in a few cases, in many cases I believe it is in fact a need for help and support and advice.  What, I submit, is less helpful is ridiculing cautious managers as luddites and stick-in-the-muds.

And where will this help and support and advice come from?  Good managers will be reading and studying the literature on educational innovations, which will be part of the driving force, and on top of this I believe much of the impetus will come from teachers.  Teachers are increasingly realising that to engage with their learners they need to do so with and through new technology.  This needs to be transmitted to managers, who, sadly but inevitably, often have little direct contact with the learners as learners.  And reading a few customer satisfaction surveys does not have the impact of conversations with enthusiastic teachers.

I hope this does not come across as passing the buck.  The good manager will be very aware of the issues and research and potential of the web and of other technologies.  But taking that step into the unknown and making a policy decision which is going to have far-reaching consequences can be a daunting thing to do.  Perhaps this is where managers become leaders.

Finally, a story which I was told while training on the International Diploma in Language Teaching Management.  Some years ago, a large language teaching organisation made a decision, in consultation with its teachers and students, to replace the video cassette recorders and tape players in all the classrooms with DVD players which could also be used to play CDs.  Money was set aside for this task, which was a fairly expensive undertaking, and during the summer break, all the classrooms were changed over to the new, very flash and beautiful machines.  The teachers were delighted and they knew the students would be impressed. It wasn’t until the first day of the new term, that everyone suddenly realised that there was a slight problem.  The staffroom resources, of course, were unchanged.  Teachers had access to lots of cassettes and videos from various different coursebooks and supplementary materials, but nothing to play them on.  And, of course, no CDs or DVDs.