Every team leader is challenged to balance productivity and growth. We can increase a team’s output by increasing the skills of each team member and we can ensure growth through learning. Many believe that a team composed of workers with only the highest capabilities will be able to produce at the highest levels.
In reality, teams need to have a diverse set of experiences and competencies to achieve the highest levels of growth. When some team members are learning the basics and others are sharing their mastery of skills, both growth and productivity accelerate.
In her book, Build an A-Team, Whitney Johnson describes the learning curves as “S-Curves” in which a person’s competency is low as they first begin learning something new. Over time, s/he accumulates knowledge and practice so that capabilities are enhanced. After a few months on the job, rapid growth and learning take place so that the individual builds expertise.
This building of knowledge and expertise occurs in the steep part of the S-curve. Johnson indicates the learning and growth period lasts about 3-4 years in a typical job. When a person has mastered the tasks and developed deep, instinctional insight about the job, s/he has mastered the task set. Learning slows as shown by the flat part of the S-curve.
Challenging and Individual
Individuals need constant challenges to grow and learn. New challenges create opportunities for people to build new capabilities and competencies. Depending on how near or far the news skills are from their currently assigned tasks, a person may climb a new S-curve every few years.
It is incumbent upon managers and team leaders to ensure that each direct report is being adequately challenged to learn and grow. For individuals new to the team, a leader will work with them to ensure fundamental concepts are developed at the low end of the S-curve. For people that have served an intermediate term on the team, a leader will continue to offer new skills and learning opportunities. These individuals, on the steep parts of the S-curve, are hungry for more information and they energetically tackle task and activities that give them the chance to learn and demonstrate new skills and capabilities.
Leaders also must recognize the team members who have achieved mastery and expertise. These folks at the upper end of the learning curve are ready to transfer job tasks to others because they are getting bored with their routine assignments. The predictability of tasks and lack of new challenges can actually affect productivity in a negative way. Leaders must be careful to encourage new learning for the experts on the team so that these people don’t’ get “burned out” by doing the same thing over and over again.
Regardless of whether you team is co-located, virtual, or dispersed, you want to maximize productivity and growth. Growth of the team often depends on the growth of the individuals. Productivity of the team depends on the interactions of the whole team.
In her book, Whitney Johnson recommends composing the team of 15% or less newbies, 5-15% experts, and the balance in the growth stage. You should be able to assess and plot the skills development stage and competencies of your team members to show a composite S-curve for the team.
The benefits of this team structure are numerous, especially for innovation. First, creativity is often stifled by expertise. The jaded, old players think they’ve seen every problem and know every answer. The new team members bring a fresh perspective to problem-solving whether this is a youthful viewpoint or from experiences in other industries and companies. Balancing the newbies at the low end of the S-curve with the experts at the high end of the curve can increase and speed creativity.
Second, having a balance of experts and capable team members can increase productivity. Successful new product development (NPD) requires a lot of concept testing and validation with customers. When the bulk of the team members are on the growth part of the S-curve, they are anxious to learn and incorporate real-world feedback. Unlike the newbies, these individuals only need coaching form the experts and can handle task implementation independently.
Next, many experts view their legacy as teaching the next generation. This is a perfect fit for the masters on a team who are few in number but can spread and share their talents to hep both the novices and intermediates learn. Storytelling helps to transform the organization’s tacit knowledge through the experts, further spurring growth on the team.
Finally, team leaders can fully delegate portions of the NPD project to the experts. This frees the team leader from administrative tasks and offers new challenges to the masters. Such new opportunities in management and leadership can put the expert on a new learning curve so that s/he remains engaged and productive.
Applying Team Learning Curves
My husband is a really smart electrical engineer. He ahs just wrapped dup his second major project in 10 years, designing, installing, testing, and commissioning high voltage substations for petrochemical plants. Doing these types of projects has led to recognition of his expertise and skills at his company. Sometimes, though he shows signs of being bored, telling me that he has to explain all the project steps to his manager who is less technically skilled.
Luckily, some of his mentors have also recognized his position on the learning S-curve as a master. They have assigned him to a new project with many of the same tasks but with different players and different project constraints in a new environment (greenfield construction vs. existing plant facilities). This gives him an opportunity to start a new learning S-curve, transfer tacit knowledge to newer engineers, and remain a productive growing team member.
Moreover, the team has some novices and some individuals with intermediate skills. Those with intermediate skills have competencies and capabilities in tangential areas (medium voltage) so are highly product as they aspire toward new learning too.
Team Productivity and Growth
All teams need to balance productivity and growth. Deadlines always are looming, so the team’s output is important, especially for innovation and NPD work. Individual growth is also crucial, so people can learn and acquire new skills. Yet, individual growth is close-coupled with the team’s maturity and growth on a learning S-curve.
To learn more, we discuss and diagnose your team’s capabilities and professional growth along the learning S-curve in Virtual Team Training. This training is built on the Virtual Team Model as featured in PDMA Essentials Volume 3 (published October 2018). We also incorporate elements of Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership model to help you accelerate your team’s productivity and growth. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 281-280-8717. At Simple-PDH.com where we want to help you gain and maintain your professional certifications. You can study, learn, and earn – it’s simple!
Note that VTM self-study is included in the Innovation Master Mind (IMM) membership. IMM is a 6-month peer coaching group that allows you to extend your NPD knowledge beyond NPDP certification and to collaborate with other CIOs and innovation managers. We also offer independent coaching and consulting to new leaders or teams anywhere on the S-curve!
Study. Learn. Earn. Simple.
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