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In the last year or so, as part of a research project I am working on, I have been reading hundreds of academic articles on different aspects of teamwork. I must say that most articles are very shallow and focus on a very narrow idea. Most of the experiments have very limited implementation potential in the real world. That is mostly fine as this is how academic ideas develop. However, every once in a while I encounter an article that makes me say “Wow! This is deep and has implications”. This was the case when I read Amy Edmondson’s articles about psychological safety which I wrote about in the past. And this is the case with Anita Williams Woolley’s work on outcome and process focus.
In a series of studies Woolley demonstrated that the way a team initially discusses its task has tremendous effects on the way team members’ attitudes and behaviors will develop down the road, significantly affecting their performance. As Woolley puts it:
Thinking about a team’s process [process focus] involves identification of the specific subtasks that need to be completed, the resources available for doing so, and the coordination of each among members. In contrast, outcomes [outcomes focus] refer to the intended final product or results of the team’s work.
This distinction is based partly on earlier work regarding action identification:
[This] work has shown that individuals can identify actions as low-level, specific activities (e.g. ‘‘I am typing a report’’) or in higher-level terms that encompass multiple specific alternative activities for enactment (e.g. ‘‘I am consolidating and communicating my knowledge’’).
Put simply when a team, early in its life cycle, deliberately engages in thinking about outcomes (higher-level – “the what”) and not about process (lower lever – “the how”), it creates a norm of talking about the higher level. This in turn creates flexibility and an ability to adapt. These abilities allow for better performance on the team final task.
While this sounds simple enough, when you think about it, it really isn’t. Think about the last time you were on a team. I am willing to bet that there is high chance that the first thing that you did was to think about how to divide the work and how to distribute responsibilities. It not only comes naturally, it seems common sense to us to do that. I can’t count the times I heard (or said) the phrase, let’s each start working on it and it will come to us. Many times in these kinds of situations people feel it is a waste of time to talk about the ambiguous goals that we want to achieve. At least according to Woolley’s work that is exactly what they should do, because it creates an understanding of the purpose that later allows people to identify the specific actions with higher level goals.
I wrote a lot about rules in the past and I think this idea correlates with my thoughts about the subject. The problem with rules is that they deprive people from the connection to what actually matters. People forget that rules were put in place to achieve a certain goal. They then follow to rules blindly, even is situations when the best way to achieve the goal is actually ignoring the rule.
In the end, I think it is another interesting look at the idea of purpose and how important is for people – working in team or individually – to understand that purpose of what they are doing and how it relates to higher level goals – personal or organizational.
In a blog post today, Heidi Grant Halvorson has a very interesting point of view on this issue. Here is what she writes:
In order to experience a sense of autonomy, your employees need to understand why the goal or project they’ve been assigned has value. Too often, managers tell their employees what they need to do, without taking the time to explain why it’s important, or how it fits into the bigger picture. No one ever really commits to a goal if they don’t see why it’s desirable for them to do it in the first place.
Allowing your employees the freedom to decide how they will complete an assignment is another way to create the feeling of choice necessary to be intrinsically motivated. Allowing them to tailor their approach to their preferences and abilities will also give them heightened sense of control over the situation they find themselves in, which can only benefit performance.
The important thing is the Why. The how will come afterwards.
Here are the academic citations for the Woolley articles:
Anita Williams Woolley (2009) “Putting first things first: Outcome and process focus in knowledge work teams” J. Organiz. Behav. 30, 427–452
Anita Williams Woolley (2009) “Means vs. Ends: Implications of Process and Outcome Focus for Team Adaptation and Performance” Organization Science 20(3), 500–515