Laying the Foundations for Effective Teamwork

Gerard M Blair


Team skills may be developed in students by lectured instruction on these skills and by explicitly delegating to each team member the responsibility for applying them. This article outlines this approach and reviews student feedback on their own development.


In Industry, the use of small teams is rapidly becoming seen as a panacea leading to certain success. In Quality Circles, Concurrent Engineering, and in many other management innovations, the team is the organisational unit to which creative control is being delegated - and the training of such teams is therefore vital to a company`s success. For the professional engineer, the ability to work effectively as part of such teams is an essential skill.

In Education, small groups are used to manage and enhance learning activity. In educating engineering students therefore, there is a double impetus to the teaching of team skills: firstly to enhance learning, and secondly to train the students in a skill now necessary for their professional development.

In his recent book which surveys the work on "Learning in Groups", Jaques[1] identifies approaches to improving group behaviour which focus primarily upon the development of the teaching staff to enable them to direct student groups. However, there is but little mention of explicit training in team skills for the students; yet without these skills, the students' effectiveness in group learning will be reduced.

This article presents an approach to enhancing teamwork through training students in team skills using simple instruction. It is based upon the view that training which relies solely upon the evolution of team skills within experiential learning is inefficient and unlikely to lead to an understanding of the underlying principles. This is because without previous instruction in team skills, students are faced with a chicken-and-egg problem in that the skills they need to do teamwork are the skills which teamwork engenders. Instead, students should be given instruction in the basic approaches and techniques - then the experiential learning becomes a positive experience in which they practise and build upon an existing foundation, rather than the dramatic and off-putting experience of sink-or-swim.

The instruction is given as an induction lecture which outlines the theory of team interaction and the practices which lead to effective teams. The key is that the students are made aware of the power of certain practices and are then each made to feel personally responsible for maintaining and advancing these within the team. The lecture is followed by some form of team activity (typically over two or more days) which allows the students to judge the validity of the theory, and to practise some of the suggested techniques. They are thus given the tools to do the job and the authority to practise.

The next section of this article explains how this course evolved in the Department of Electrical Engineering, the University of Edinburgh. This is followed by an outline of the main themes of the lecture, and a review of the students' own perceptions on their effectiveness as a team and the merits of group learning.


The teamwork course began within a new undergraduate MEng degree as part of a module on Project Management. During their fourth and fifth years of study, a small group of students receive a short intensive module on Project Management skills before undertaking a nine-month placement with their sponsoring companies in the electronics industry (e.g. DEC, Motorola, BNR, NEC, GEC). The aim of the module is to provide the students with sufficient management skills to enable them quickly to assume a position of responsibility. The content of the Project Management module was derived through a questionnaire given to employers of previous graduates[2] and "Team Management" was a skill given high importance.

The module begins with a two day workshop of presentation skills using video and peer-group feedback. This is then followed by a two day "team task" to provide practice in team skills which are taught explicitly at the beginning. The actual task is to prepare a 15 minute video to explain "Total Quality" (about which the students know nothing) for presentation to the workforce of a specified company (e.g. McBlair's Cruises); their only information is a single book on the subject. Thus they are left to decide how to organise themselves, how to assimilate the material, how to present the material, and then to write and produce a video - in under two days.

This activity has now been run for two years. The success is evidenced in the students' feedback and by the ability they have displayed in completing the other modules of the course which rely heavily upon co-operative teamwork. Since the instruction in team skills is initiated in a small self-contained lecture, it is portable and has been repeated before other teamwork projects in other departments in the University.


This section outlines the content of the induction lecture to provide an example of the material, and to demonstrate the emphasis of the courses; which is that the students are explicitly told that they are each responsible for the monitoring, maintenance and development of the team. The material is drawn from standard texts on Industrial Management and is presented in a lecture format with some interaction depending upon the size of the audience. Where possible, the audience is reconvened after practising these lessons in a team activity so that issues may be discussed and learning points reinforced.

The aim of the lecture is to convince the students of the need for team skills and of their own personal responsibility in applying them to their teamwork. The objectives are to:

The lecture starts by examining different types of teams (choir, production-line, hockey, committees) with increasing degrees of individual autonomy and authority. The role of teamwork in industry is introduced with the assertion that small teams are increasingly becoming the fundamental unit of corporate organisation and that only those engineers who possess team skills will be able to succeed in many industrial companies.

The first framework for the understanding of teams is provided by examining the various roles within a team[3] such as: Chair, Shaper, Resource Investigator, etc. The students are asked to decide which role they would best fill, and which three are the most important to a team's success. Generally, they record their answers before and after a large team task, and changes are used to motivate discussion. The aim here is to raise their awareness of the different functions needed to maintain a team. The point emerges that all of these roles are vital to a team's success - the key message is then delivered: that each person is responsible for filling absent roles in any team activity they perform.

The second framework for the understanding of teams is provided by examining a model of team evolution[4] and by suggesting that the evolution can be accelerated by using simple, common-sense strategies. This model identifies four phases of development.

The Forming stage is when the team initially comes together and everyone is very civil. Conflict is unvoiced but always destructive. Discussion is slow and guarded since no one wishes to be seen as foolish.

Then Storming breaks out: factions form, views become entrenched, much is said and little is communicated. The effectiveness of the team plummets and is far less than the individuals could have achieved had they not been brought together.

Slowly, through fatigue and despair, the team enters the Norming stage in which methods of working, compromises and co-operation begin to emerge. The effectiveness of the team begins to climb as does a sense of security enabling the team members to contribute and discuss more freely.

Finally, the team enters the Performing stage at which time they become far more effective than the sum of their individual efforts. It is this enhanced performance that makes teamwork so attractive.

The students are then told that there are techniques for accelerating this development and so for reducing the waste (and torture) of the storming phase. The comment is made that in industry, teams are often trained by appointing an expert "facilitator" whose job is to continually draw the team's attention to the team process and to suggest structures and practices to support and enhance the team skills. The key message is then delivered: that each person is responsible for acting as a facilitator in any team activity they perform.

The rest of the lecture is devoted to acceleration techniques such as brainstorming, keeping written records, focusing, providing clarity and how to deal with too quiet or too voluble individuals. This is presented as a practical guide to solving problems which "all teams will face". Where possible, questions are taken from the students concerning other problem situations - and after the team exercise, a similar feedback session is organised. The content of this lecture has been published in the IEE Engineering Management Journal[5]; and a copy of that text is provided after the lecture as support material.


The main objective of the course is to establish awareness of team skills. To maintain that awareness requires that the students are allowed to practice these skills and that they reflect upon them and their own performance. This can be achieved in several ways, for instance:

During the team project, an anonymous questionnaire is distributed every few hours asking each person to estimate: how many people are fully committed, his/her own level of commitment, the chance of success, and the level of personal stress; whether he/she knows what to do at the moment; and for any other (short) comment. The questionnaire takes 20 seconds to fill-out and does not distract from the team activity. The results can be quickly collated by the tutor and used to address any problems which emerge. During one course, two of the team members were unsure of their allotted sub-task; once this was explained to the team, corrective action was taken.

In general, however, it is wise to raise the issue of team effectiveness in any situation when teams are being used. The message is that a little management of the team process will greatly enhance the team's performance.


The following feedback is derived from a very small sample and must be seen in that context. There are two reasons for presenting it here. Firstly, the success of the lecture is indicated by the awareness and use of team skills which the students demonstrate. Secondly, the group (of ten students) offers a perspective based not only upon the course and remaining co-operative learning modules, but also upon their observation of teams in industry during their nine-month placements: the comments thus have particular authority concerning the merits of teamwork training for practising engineers, and may help other trainers in focusing similar instruction.

Since the question to be assessed was the effectiveness of teamwork training, it seemed appropriate to elicit feedback through group discussion. Clearly, if the training was a failure, the meeting would provide little information; if the training was a success, the students would be able to organise and communicate their collective experiences and viewpoints. The group was told that this was part of their training ("an opportunity for them to reflect upon their team performance and skills") and they were given coffee and a written agenda. The agenda consisted of a series of questions to focus the discussion: how successful had they been as a team, what were their strengthes and weaknesses, did teamwork help them to achieve their tasks, and did it help them learn? The tutor, though present at the discussion, intervened as little as possible. The following comments are taken from the group's discussion.

Debate and decisions

One of the main reasons for the group's success is seen to be the "friendly atmosphere where each [person] feels safe". They thought this was particularly important at the early stages of a task when the group must generate ideas since they feel able "to express ideas without fear of personal criticism". This stems not only from the fact that they know and feel "comfortable" with each other, but also through peer-pressure to prevent ideas being rejected too harshly or too early:

The willingness to actually listen has increased as the students now give "the person a chance to explain [before] deciding". One student summed this up as having learnt:

Reaching an agreed decision, has become progressively easier and faster. Furthermore, if individual problems emerge which required a "major decision", the whole group would "always get together and vote". They have come to accept that:

Comparison with industry

The discussion kept returning to the differences between this group (of piers) at University and the normally hierarchical groups they had experienced in Industry. On the positive side, the group expressed great satisfaction with their performance claiming to be an "ideal group"; they all agreed with the student who said:

The group had some initial difficulty in working without defined roles. The university group was seen as:

A major problem was that "no one wants to be seen as the bossy, organising team leader". Without a defined leader, they tended to put off hard decisions ("sweep them under the carpet") and to eschew formal procedures for tackling problems. The latter was recognised as inefficient:

In an industrial group, said one student, "it gets too stringent ... you tell [your superiors] what you want to say then sit down again, and people won't come out with new ideas"; the students felt that the informality of their own group was necessary to generation of "a great idea". However, once the group "starts getting things done, you don't need the openness for the ideas any more". At that stage, the group felt, there was a need for a leader since without one, the group did not "set stringent enough rules" either for the allocation of less pleasant tasks or for constraining discussion within "areas of responsibility" which had been previously agreed.

To overcome this, individuals tended to step-in to the role of leader either when the mood took them or when they had some specialist knowledge of the problem (commonly from their industrial placement).

The group identified versatility as one of their particular strengthes over industrial teams "where people have their set jobs".

Group Learning

Dealing specifically with the question of "Has teamwork helped you to learn?", one of the main benefits was seen as the social contact. As one student said:

This social grouping also has the effect of making each student feel "responsible" since they believed that the success of a group activity is dependent upon each person in the group: "you don't want to let people down".

Being in a group helps learning through discussion

This advantage is enhanced by the feeling of security which enables the students "to ask really silly questions" without "feeling bad" or being "scared" as they would be in going to the lecturer.

One aspect which the group appreciated was that some of the formal hand-ins were:

The group had very firm views about the role that competition between teams should play in group learning. While they saw it as an "incentive", this was only in terms of spurring each group to achieve "something comparable" to the others:

On the other hand, they felt no pressure "to be the best". Indeed if one group had information which the other group needed, they would help since it would be "too much like back-stabbing" not to. As one student put it:

There were three identified disadvantages in the group learning. First, the group found it difficult to organise and divide up some of the learning tasks simply because they knew too little about the subject at the beginning. Second, some students felt that having sub-divided a learning task, some people tend to become specialists and "might not learn an overall or global view of the problem". Third, there had been one learning task: the learning of a programming language, which they felt could only be done individually.

Adoption of team skills

The main test for the effectiveness of the whole course must be whether the team skills are actually practised outside the classroom. Throughout the discussion, however, the main impression was that the students had been discouraged by how little of these skills they had observed in industry, and there was some frustration as they felt that they had lacked the authority (as student trainees) to teach their industrial groups how to improve. However, where they do have authority (in student committees for instance) they make their presence felt:

Most encouraging of all, the group now seem eager to spread the word in the work-place:


With such a small sample, it would be inappropriate to make claims for this approach to teamwork training over any other. However, it is clear that the course and its methods are perceived by the students as being highly successful. That the students understood and accepted the intended emphasis is evidenced directly in their feedback; and even a year after the induction lecture, the students continue to adapt to different "roles" according to the group's needs and to take personal responsibility for advancing team skills. Thus the approach advocated in the lecture has been adopted, retained and approved by practice. Indeed, as can be seen from the feedback discussion, the students display an informed introspection about their own team skills, and a degree of confidence in team tasks, which would be the envy of most industrial companies.


1. David Jaques, Learning in Groups, Kogan Page, London, 1991.

2. G.M. Blair, "Project Management Skills for Electrical Engineers", Proc. 6th Conf. The Teaching of Electronic Engineering Degree Courses", pp. 45/1-8, The University of Hull, April 1992.

3. R M Belbin, Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail, Heinemann, London, 1981.

4. B W Tuckmann and M A C Jensen, "Development Sequences in Small Groups", Psychological Bulletin, vol. LXIII, no. 6, 1965.

5. G.M. Blair, "Groups that work", IEE Engineering Management Journal, vol. 1, no. 5, pp. 219-223, Oct 1991.

Gerard M Blair is a Senior Lecturer in VLSI Design at the Department of Electrical Engineering, The University of Edinburgh. His book Starting to Manage: the essential skills is published by Chartwell-Bratt (UK) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (USA). He welcomes feedback either by email ( or by any other method found here

Links to more of my articles on Training of Management Skills can be found here - and to more articles on teamwork, here