Make Your Teamwork Training Faster, Cheaper AND Better
By William O’Keefe
Do your people need to perform complex tasks in a team environment? Is your training program as efficient as you would like? There is a way to make it faster, cheaper AND better.
If your organization is like most, an employee is first trained in how to perform individual tasks, i.e. taskwork or technical training. Then once technically competent, employees are placed into a team simulation to learn their teamwork skills, i.e. the skills needed to work as a team. From my experience, that is the way it is done in many organizations, and is how it is done in parts of NASA and the Air Force. Unfortunately, training that way is inefficient. There is a better way to train teamwork skills. That better way is to start training teamwork skills in conjunction with taskwork skills, so that employees learn that taskwork and teamwork skills are an integrated whole.
Is this how your organization trains?
Typically, training is divided into two phases: first is taskwork training where the student learns to perform all individual tasks: how to turn something on, how to respond to a problem, or how to perform a skill. The second phase is team training where the student learns to communicate, cooperate and coordinate tasks within and across teams. The two phases of training are usually treated as separate and independent.
The taskwork training begins when a new student goes through a number of taskwork sessions where an instructor first instructs a new task, then the student gets a chance to practice the task with feedback from the instructor. The feedback is only about taskwork, usually addressing only specific techniques to fix specific errors. The training is ‘context-free’, i.e. the student may get the impression that the task can be done independent of the other team members. Taskwork training continues until the student shows competency in all required tasks.
The teamwork training brings students from all disciplines together, usually in a simulation. This may be the first time the student has worked with anyone outside his/her discipline. Teamwork training starts with an introduction of the other disciplines and what they do. Early training is on how to communicate and coordinate during routine operations. Follow-on training concentrates on how to handle increasingly complex operations, usually with problems occurring and the team having to adapt. Feedback may be one-on-one with a senior practitioner and not in a team environment (e.g. if the organization does not want to embarrass the student in front of people with whom s/he may work later) and tends to emphasis errors in taskwork over errors in teamwork. Most hospitals and healthcare organizations follow this two-phase method, with much of the taskwork training occurring in medical and nursing schools and task practicing happening in internships and residencies. The teamwork training does not start in most healthcare settings until medical professionals are well into their residencies. A major problem with this method is that very valuable and expensive simulation time is used learning basic teamwork skills.
Another example is NASA’s flight controller training. A flight controller sits in the Mission Control Center in Houston and is responsible for operating one of the many complex systems onboard the International Space Station A new flight controller is first trained all about his/her system. Once proficient in all taskwork skills, the student is brought into the team environment where s/he learns how to interact with other flight controllers who operate other systems: providing electrical power, providing command and data interfaces, and providing cooling, etc. The team first learns how to interact under normal circumstances, and then later how those interactions change with different problems. The students then continue their team simulations until they achieve proficiency in their teamwork skills. Unfortunately, some students require a great many of these simulations before they achieve that proficiency.
There are many reasons for training that way, including:
- it is the way it has always been done,
- There are many tasks an individual must learn before they can perform in a team simulation, or
- it is too expensive and time consuming to train taskwork in a team simulation.
- there is a belief that it is easier to understand the technical material without the added complexity of team interactions.
A better way to train teamwork skills.
All those reasons above are valid (well, not the first one) but they result in training that is inefficient. There is a better approach: do not train teamwork skills only in a team environment, instead start training teamwork skills within taskwork lessons and then amplify, refine, differentiate, and adapt those skills in team simulations.
Let me first address why treating taskwork and teamwork training as separate and independent phases is inefficient. If taskwork is taught independent of teamwork, when in a team simulation, a student suddenly finds out:
- I must coordinate my actions with someone else?
- Someone else’s actions affect me and what I can do?
- My actions affect someone else and what they can do?
- I must give information to someone and get information from someone?
- There are specific formats, terminology and protocols on how I communicate?
- Everything above changes depending on the training, experience and preferences of the people with whom I work?
- I may have to assert myself as a situational leader when I am the most informed team member?
Basically, the student thought s/he knew how to do the task but suddenly learns that being proficient in performing individual tasks is only a portion of the job. Instead, working effectively within a team is required. The better way to train teamwork skills is to start training task-specific teamwork skills in taskwork training. When a student is introduced to a new task, the task is introduced in full team context, including:
- who needs to know what information, how, and when,
- who has information the student needs, and
- how to communicate information, instructions, and status clearly and concisely.
Including team interactions is extremely important so that the student has a complete mental model of what it really takes to accomplish the task properly. This allows the new practitioner to constantly ‘fill-in’ new information into a complete and correct mental model, rather than constantly amending an incomplete and inaccurate mental model as s/he learns that previously unknown teamwork tasks must be performed.
Early in the training when all these interactions might overwhelm the student, the instructor could say “At this time, you need to communicate with the team leader. Today I will make the call. Next time you will. The call is ….” The next time the student makes the call, with the instructor providing feedback on how to improve the call. Maybe on the third time, the instructor might add “That call was right for an experienced team leader familiar with the task. How would you change that call if you were working with someone who is new to the task?”
The way the feedback session, or debriefing, of these lessons is conducted is critical to the success of adding teamwork skills into taskwork training from the start. The easy and first part of the feedback is the specific fix to a specific error. An example is ‘you said that; you should have said this’. This feedback is important but may only be pertinent if the student runs into the exact same situation at the exact same time with the exact same team members. The feedback must be extended to talk about the generic skill, and then how to adapt that skill depending on the team context and situation. An example of feedback to do this are:
- “You did not give the other controller enough information to understand the problem.”
- “You should have said this in this format so that you give all the information needed in the way the controller expected to hear it.”
- “All this ties to the teamwork skill of tailoring the information based on the experience and even preferences of your team members.”
- “As examples of tailoring, if the person to whom you were passing the information is new to the task, you might need to add this additional information, whereas if you have worked with the person on this task before, all you might need to say is.…”
When teamwork training is started in taskwork training, when the student gets to a team simulation, s/he already realizes that s/he must communicate and coordinate with the team and has already practiced the basic skills. Team simulations become about amplifying, refining, differentiating and adapting those teamwork skills. Once team skills and taskwork training is more integrated, the second and most important part of providing feedback is that post-simulation feedback must be done in a team environment. Post-simulation feedback becomes less about correcting taskwork errors and more about correcting teamwork errors and promoting optimum team performance. For example, the leader of a post-simulation debrief will need to facilitate feedback that allows the team to self-discover and self-correct:
“Leader: Joe and Jane, you two didn’t seem too coordinated in your actions. What happened?
Jane: I thought it was okay for me to start.
Joe: That was my fault. I should have told her I was having problems and running behind?
Jane: And I should have confirmed he was ready before I started.
Leader (looking at the rest of the team): Can anyone else think of a technique to coordinate actions?
Morgan: What I have done is ….”
This type of debrief, called facilitated debriefing, does require psychological safety, or feeling safe enough to admit mistakes and/or saying what someone else did was confusing. The leader must emphasize that team training is about continuously learning and getting better, and not about assessing blame or grading performance.
What are the tangible benefits of training this way?
Integrating team skills training into taskwork training reduces the amount of time required to certify new employees to do a job (as it did at NASA), and reduces operating costs over the long-term as teams become more efficient in their cross-communications and more productive in collaborations (as it has for the U.S. Navy). As employees become more and more accustomed to thinking about the teamwork implications of tasks they spend less time and resources re-inventing the wheel, and find more valid ways to cooperate, collaborate, coordinate and even compensate for each other.
So why aren’t organizations willing to change to this new method?
The most common excuses for not training like this include:
our instructors are not trained to teach teamwork skills, and/ or
- it would lengthen the training flow, and/or
- it would require a redesign of the training flow.
Instructors, especially successful senior practitioners, already know what teamwork skills are required. Probably no one ever told them to add that content into their lessons, even though some of them possibly were adding some of that content already. They might not have the terminology and concepts fully articulated in their mental models: an instructor might say “I can’t define ‘good teamwork’ but I know when I see it”. Once they have an explicit and behavioral definition of teamwork, one that makes sense in their world, and one or two good examples, instructors can quickly figure out how to add that content into their lessons.
Although starting to train teamwork skills in taskwork lessons might add length in some lessons, it reduces the overall training template by reducing the time spent learning teamwork skills later, especially in costly team simulations. The team already knows how to interact under normal circumstances, and how those interactions may need to change under different circumstances. Team simulations should be about adapting teamwork skills, not learning them.
Finally, although it would be better if teamwork skills were introduced in all lessons, training teamwork skills in taskwork lessons could be introduced incrementally if the organization has a long-term plan on how each lesson will eventually be modified.
There is a better way to train the taskwork and teamwork skills a new practitioner needs.
That better way is to teach the taskwork and teamwork skills as an integrated whole.
The student should always be filling in a complete and accurate mental model of what is required to do the job, and not constantly trying to figure out how this new teamwork skill fits into what s/he has already learned. If done properly, the most expensive simulator training is not about learning new teamwork skills but rather adapting those skills. At the end, your teamwork training should be faster, cheaper, and better.
Guzzo, R. A., & Salas, E. (1995). Team effectiveness and decision making in organizations (Vol. 22). Pfeiffer.
Marshall, D. (2009). Crew resource management: from patient safety to high reliability. Safer Healthcare Partners, LLC.
Provo, J. (1996). Team Effectiveness and Decision Making in Organizations. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 7(3), 295.
Salas, E., Tannenbaum, S. I., Kraiger, K., & Smith-Jentsch, K. A. (2012). The science of training and development in organizations: What matters in practice. Psychological science in the public interest, 13(2), 74-101.
Keywords: #workwiser, Teamwork, Team Building, Team Training, Coaching, Mentoring, Leadership and Professional Development