Remote Team Problem Solving
Editor | On 02, Jun 2008
By Rogier de Vries, Valeri Souchkov and Jan Mannak
Many companies do not possess all the required knowledge or production facilities for performing state-of-the-art product development on their own. In order to overcome this disadvantage, companies may cooperate with other companies or subsidiaries in project-based joint ventures – often the teams are geographically separated. Teams consisting of members from these companies will work separately or together at a specified location which can be impractical in international joint ventures. Team members may be required to work while separated from each other for prolonged periods. It is doubtful whether remote teams can work as effectively as co-located teams. This case study attempts to resolve this issue using the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ).
Defining Teamwork Equations
Many definitions are available to describe teams and teamwork. According to one definition “a team can be defined as a social system of three or more people, which is embedded in an organization (context), whose members perceive themselves as such and are perceived as members by others (identity), and who collaborate on a common task (teamwork).”1 Another definition is: “teamwork is the act of two or more persons working together toward a common goal, sharing their time, talents, and knowledge and using methods acceptable to all team participants.”2
Teamwork can be defined as the coordinated work done by multiple individuals working together toward a common goal. Teamwork is usually promoted because the effect of a coordinated group of people is usually greater than the sum of their individual contributions: bringing people together gives an extra X factor allowing the team to produce better results than when performing solitarily. This effect is shown in Figure 1, where the square box is a team; the narrow boxes are team members, and the X component of the equation finishes the “chemistry of teamwork.”
Not all teams are a success. The X component can be missing, and adding people together can result in a struggling team that could just produce elements of Y component, the “anti-X” component. Figure 2 reflects team members who do not interact properly. Elements of Y can include: (non-value adding) bureaucracy, personal conflicts between members, conflicting goals and interests, insufficient use of available expertise and leadership conflicts. Together these can result in a failure to meet the common goal.
For this research, component X is the additive that creates a perfect chemistry for a team (in the broadest sense of the word) to work. (Every component that is not X is named Y.)
The items of component X in Figure 1 are not always readily available. Component X contains elements that interact with team members, team leaders and their surroundings and allows the team to work in a coherent and effective way. In this case study, to change a successful team’s location and retain its synergetic value, it is necessary to have detailed knowledge of the attributes of X to know whether any of these elements is prone to change and needs to be compensated. In this research, if only one element of X is missing, then X will turn into component Y and the team will cease to optimally function as a team.
In general, the criteria in Table 1 are accepted as cornerstones of teamwork success (also called teamwork quality [TWQ]).1 Attributes 5 through 7 of the “communication” element are added to provide a more complete overview of this element.
|Table 1: Cornerstones of Teamwork Success1|
|1||Communication||Is communication sufficiently 1) frequent, 2) informal, 3) direct, 4) open, 5) clear, 6) relevant, 7) unambiguous … ?|
|2||Coordination||Are individual efforts well structured and synchronized within the team?|
|3||Balance of member contributions||Are all members able to bring in their expertise to their full potential?|
|4||Mutual support||Do team members help and support each other in their tasks?|
|5||Effort||Do team members exert all efforts to the team’s tasks?|
|6||Cohesion||Are team members motivated to maintain the team? Is there team spirit?|
These elements are determined based on a co-located team. For this case study, the effects of changing to a remote team were studied. While remote teams clearly require extra tools for correct functioning (e.g., extended/improved email accounts, phone lines, management layers), it is required that the remote team operates equally effective as a co-located team. The distance separation is a prerequisite, but it should not cause constraints. Therefore the quality elements for a co-located team are taken as a basis for remote teamwork analysis.
Modelling Geographical Separation of Teams
Case Model Creation
To apply TRIZ to solve whether remote teams can work as effectively as co-located teams, a model with two scenarios was created to accurately describe the problem situation: 1) the situation in which a co-located team performed a task and 2) the same task, but performed by two remote sub-teams.
Scenario 1 (Figure 3, left) represents an optimally functioning team consisting of team members and the synergetic component X. Tasks were equally distributed among the team members and every team member performed a unique job. All team members were needed to perform the tasks at hand. The team members were assumed capable of working in teams, so that any combination thereof would result in an optimally functioning team.
Scenario 2 (Figure 3, right) involved two remote sub-teams. Each of them was optimally functioning, so there was a component X for each sub-team within their respective sub-system boundaries. This example assumed that the synergy between the two sub-teams was not optimal – not all elements of component X were satisfied on a system level. This contradicted the sub-system level, where all elements of component X were available.
Case Model Completion
To be able to analyze this case study’s issues, a model was produced that showed relevant items and the interactions between them. Table 2 shows the items that were used – most of them were based on the elements of Table 1. These elements were chosen because they were considered to be changing when proceeding from Scenario 1 to Scenario 2 (as shown in Figure 1 and 2); items that did not change were omitted.
|Table 2: Used Items In Case Model|
|1||System cohesion||Represents cohesion on a system level: the level of cohesion of the entire remote team.|
|2||Sub-team cohesion||Represents cohesion on a sub-system level: the level of cohesion of a sub-team.|
|3||Coordination||Influences item 1 (system cohesion) and item 2 (sub-team cohesion). It can be seen as a sort of resource management that determines how work should be done and which people should be tasked to do it.|
|4||Informal communication||Represents the non-formal communication that is required among team members. It should only be considered here on a system level, as the sub-teams are considered to be functioning well.|
All of these interactions can be shown in a diagram (Figure 5) that resembles a function analysis diagram.3 Negative interaction (indicated in the diagram by a waving arrow) and positive interaction (indicated by a straight arrow) exists between “system cohesion” and “sub-team cohesion.” The interactions of “coordination” and “informal communication” are displayed as positive, but insufficient (indicated by a dashed arrow). This stresses the uncertainty of correct influence on their interaction counterparts.
Choosing the Right Tool
TRIZ provides the inventive problem solver with many tools. Not every tool is suitable in every problem-solving situation, however, and TRIZ tools have historically dealt with technology-related problems and challenges. There are successes of using TRIZ for non-technical situations.4
In this case, the problem is well defined. The function analysis diagram shown in Figure 5 identifies critical interactions, which can be translated to a number of substance field models (SFM), to which the TRIZ 76 inventive standards can be applied.5,6,7
Defining and Solving SFMs
In SFM terminology, the function analysis diagram only shows substances (objects) – but no fields are mentioned in the diagram. To define and complete the needed SFMs, relevant fields need to be introduced to the case model. Each following situation was considered separately as a problem defined in terms of substance-field models.
System Cohesion (Item 1) Versus Sub-team Cohesion (Item 2)
The function analysis showed that the only truly harmful influence on system cohesion is sub-team cohesion and that system cohesion has a positive influence on sub-team cohesion. Sub-team cohesion exists because of certain cohesion forces – group pride, interpersonal relations, etc. It is not a bad thing in itself, so the interaction between the cohesion forces (Fcoh) and the sub-team cohesion (S2) is regarded as positive. The complete SFM is shown in Figure 5. This SFM resembles the SFM in inventive standard 1-2-1.5 As such, a solution proposed by using this inventive standard is shown in Figure 6.
An insufficient relation exists between informal communication and system cohesion. Because the teams are separated, there is less informal communication than in the co-located team scenario. The initial SFM model consists of two substances with an insufficient relationship. This corresponds to the initial situation of inventive standard 1-1-6.5 A solution proposed by using this inventive standard is shown in Figure 7.
System Cohesion (Item 1) and Sub-team Cohesion (Item 2) Versus Coordination (Item 3)
The interaction between cohesions and coordination is comparable to the situation described earlier. There is insufficient (uncertain) interaction between S3 (coordination) and S1 (system cohesion), and between S3 and S2 (sub-team cohesion). Therefore, these conflicts are solved the same way as the previous section and are shown in Figures 9 and 10.
The completed SFM models are abstract indications of inventive problem solutions. Successful TRIZ application depends on the correct interpretation of these indications, and a check of whether the final solutions are feasible.
Solving the Harmful Interaction Between System Cohesion and Sub-team Cohesion
As shown in Figure 6, this conflict can be resolved by placing a substance (substance added [SA,]) between S1 and S2. This substance must possess the feature that S1 may pass through, but S2 may not – so system cohesion elements must be let through and sub-team cohesion elements must not. Capillary-porous materials seem appropriate for use in this situation. Not only do capillaries offer the potential for substances to pass through, they also form a control mechanism. This principle is shown in Figure 10, where the large drops (large spheres with red direction vectors) cannot pass through the material, while the small drops (small spheres with green direction vectors) can.
Now that an abstract interpretation of the solution has been found, an analogous solution must be generated for the case problem.
|Table 3: Solution Steps for Finding a Case Analogy|
|Abstract||• Capillary substance|
• Small drops versus large drops
• Small items of substance
|Case||• Small items of system cohesion|
• Large items of sub-team cohesion
• Small items of inter-group pride, team spirit, achievement
• Small bits of achievement
• Results from small inter-group jobs may pass
• Blocking of large sub-team jobs
• Rules that provide passing of small inter-group jobs, and blocking of large sub-team jobs
The set of solution steps in Table 3 provides a substance that has rules that provide passing of small inter-group jobs, and blocking of large sub-team jobs. The substance SA can now be interpreted as certain small assignments given by a supervising entity (management coordination) that can only (hence the rule) be solved by the use of skills that exist in both sub-teams and cannot (the other-way rule) be solved by merely applying skills that exist in one sub-team. This way, through means of SA, sub-team cohesion cannot influence system cohesion, but system cohesion can influence sub-team cohesion as shown in Figure 11.
Using this solution, people from different sub-teams will be personally linked together, creating greater system cohesion and removing prejudice about other team’s members. Whether these small assignments should be part of everyday job life or a special practice is to be determined.
Solving the Insufficient Interaction Between System Cohesion and Informal Communication
As shown in Figure 7, this type of conflict can be solved using an excessive amount of S4, informal communication, and then controlling this excessive amount by using field Frem.
The analogy for applying this solution is found in everyday office life. With an excessive amount of potentially informal communication, people have to be close together. The closest possible proximity would be with people sitting or standing in front of each other or side-by-side. Figure 12 (left) shows this situation with two desks adjacent to each other. This configuration is often found in offices. A problem with this configuration is that employees continuously see each other, which may hinder people’s feelings of privacy. A cubicle office with semi-permanent low walls that visually separate the desks is introduced (Figure 13, right). This is the needed field, Frem, introduced in Figure 7. The problem with this layout is that direct visual contact with the fellow employee is hindered while seated. Direct contact can be made by walking around the cubicle walls or by talking out loud. As the targeted situation is not a co-located one, however, the latter form of communication is not an option.
To solve this issue, an abstract notion of the problem is needed to try to visualize possible solutions. In a similar fashion to the previous section, Table 4 shows this course of visualization.
|Table 4: Solution Steps for Finding a Case Analogy|
|Abstract||• Continuous communication with restraints|
• People in line of view
• Cubicle wall to restraint communication
• Hole in cubicle wall that can be opened and closed
• Window blinds in cubicle (Figure 14)
|Case||• Window blinds that when opened, show remote colleague|
• Monitor that shows remote colleague’s cubicle desk
• Camera and monitor communication at desk, similar to co-located situation without cubicle wall
The last case analogy solution step provides the solution to the conflict between informal communication and system cohesion – an LCD screen is attached to a cubicle wall and shows the cubicle of the remote colleague as if there were no cubicle wall or a physical distance between the desks (Figure 13). This places remote colleagues virtually close. The field that prevents colleagues from becoming too present is available in the form of an off button on the screen.
The system needs rules to prevent colleagues from interfering with each other. The off button might be a quick fix, but should be used with hesitation to not spoil the effect of informality. After all, if a person walks to a nearby cubicle to visit a colleague, that colleague does not have an off button to prevent the person from visiting. The remote cubicle must offer the same possibilities.
The principle of simulated cohesion can be applied to other factors that affect informal communication. A coffee machine can, for example, be equipped with a large screen and a camera to achieve the same effect as the remote cubicle (Figure 14).
Solving Insufficient Interaction Between Coordination and Sub-team Cohesion and System Cohesion
If the capillary material shown in Figure 11 consisted of coordination, then the interaction between both cohesions would be controlled. The actual functioning of the capillary coordination is dependent on the control mechanisms built inside. An excessive amount of S3 (coordination) needs to be exerted through the capillary to S2 (sub-team cohesion) and S1 (system cohesion) with the use of a restricting field, Frem.
|Table 5: Solution Steps for Finding a Case Analogy|
|Abstract||• Excessive control over capillary|
• Determine width of capillaries
• Actively pull small particles through
• Control throughput by means of a reservoir
• Actively keep large particles away from capillary
|Case||• Pull system cohesion through by means of small assignments|
• Create a reservoir of small assignments
• Only fight sub-team cohesion when it interferes with “pulled-through” small assignments
In order to demonstrate the coordination that is exerted on the small elements of system cohesion (SC-elements), the following items are introduced:
- Grabbers that take SC-elements and place them into the coordination system
- Shells that form around SC-elements when they are inside the system
- Reservoirs that can store SC-elements that are shelled, and protects them from sub-team cohesion elements
- Ascended SC-elements that are free to mix with sub-team elements
In the first step, SC-elements are grabbed. There is no difference among the SC-elements, so it does not matter which element is taken, as long as it is near the coordination system. Second, the grabbers place the SC-elements into the system and form a layer around the SC-elements. Third, these shelled elements travel to the reservoir, where they can accumulate without being attacked by the sub-team cohesion elements. Fourth, the elements hatch into the sub-team cohesion area and are changed into ascended SC-elements.The abstract analogy is illustrated in Figure 15.
The case analogy for this system can be given by translating the elements introduced in the abstract analogy to the particular case situation in a series of steps.
- Project managers or team leaders identify a need to increase system cohesion. The identification process itself is the accumulation of elements of system cohesion.
- Small assignments are formed that accommodate system cohesion. These assignments must be carefully produced to make sure they can be solved without sub-team cohesion – one member of each sub-team must be linked to complete the assignment.
- The assignments are given to the linked team members. Because the assignments can only be solved with system cohesion, sub-team cohesion cannot harm the assignments. It is as if the assignments sit in a protected reservoir.
- When the assignments are performed, they disappear and let the SC-element form a new element: joint experience. The sub-team members now have an experience together that is not based on prejudice, false sub-team pride or any other negative effect. The elements of joint experience as such cannot be harmed by sub-team cohesion, so they will remain active.
- Given the assumptions that are made in this article, remote teams in theory can work as effective as co-located teams by using the results from this case study.
- This case study has resulted in several feasible concepts for solving certain remote teamwork issues that show that classical TRIZ tools can be used for solving problems that are not technical in the strict sense of the word and also for social or business problems.
For the sake of this case study, several assumptions were made that simplify the model that describes the functioning of a remote team. So while the case study shows an analysis and solution route that provides several practical solutions, it is based on that simplified model. Other issues might appear in remote teamwork that are not solved by the solutions provided. To be sure that the solutions are useable even considering the simplified model, extensive testing and benchmarking is needed.
Given the specified limitations, the results of this case study are usable. Building remote cubicles and physical prototypes is costly, and a further study into the sociological effects might be needed for correct implementation. But it is based on present-day technology, and the research mentioned and the design of a communication structure is easy to implement. The application of the small assignments solution should also meet no significant issues in implementing – it requires no new technology or other major capital investments.
The authors would like to thank Thales Nederland B.V. for allowing this research to be performed in this company’s context, and Mr. W. Jongsma in particular for defining the initial problem statement for this research. Furthermore, a word of thanks goes to Mr. T. Vaneker from the University of Twente as the university supervisor of the thesis work of R.W. de Vries, of which this research is a part.
- Hoegl, M. et al, “Teamwork and the Success of Innovative Projects: A Theoretical Concept and Empirical Evidence,” Organizational Science, Volume 12 (2001), Issue 4, pages 435-449.
- Cosgriffe, H. et al, “Teamwork in Problem Solving,” Journal of Cooperative Extension, Summer 1969, pages 80-88.
- Arel, E., Verbistky, M., Devoino, I., & Ikovenko, S., “TechOptimizer Fundamentals,” Invention Machine Corporation, USA, 2002.
- Souchkov, V., “Breakthrough Thinking with TRIZ for Business and Management,”ICG T&C, 2007, http://www.xtriz.com/TRIZforBusinessAndManagement.pdf.
- Salamatov, Yu., “TRIZ: The Right Solution at the Right Time,” Insytec, Hattem, The Netherlands, 1999.
- Belski, I., “Substance-Field Modeling: Improve Your Thinking,” TRIZ4U, Melbourne, Australia, 2007.
- Altshuller, Genrich, Creativity as an Exact Science, Gordon and Breach, New York, 1984.
Note: This paper was originally presented at The Altshuller Institute’s TRIZCON2008.