"AROUSAL" REVEALS SECRETS OF MANAGEMENT SUCCESS
Skilled management and effective teamwork are as vital
in the construction industry as anywhere, yet very little knowledge exists
of what ingredients make a successful team. Peter Lansley has developed
Arousal, a computer simulation of management decision making, and used
it to find out what makes a good team tick.
The University of Reading Department
of Construction Management has used the system as the basis of its study
of understanding and improving management performance. The study consists
of consultations with companies and a series of workshops in which company
managers work together to recreate the working environment.
Using the Arousal package with small teams of managers, it
is possible to uncover and light those factors which are to complex to
study in everyday work.
Written by Peter Lansley, Arousal is run on an IBM PC with
256 K memory. Despite the modest computing power the program is a powerful
one, using inference mechanisms not unlike those employed in the latest
Used in the simulations, the model in effect "becomes" the company:
it responds to the decisions of the panel in the same way that a real company
would respond to managerial decisions in the light of the prevailing market.
In turn this modifies the behaviour of the panel in its next round of decision
A major benefit of the program is its extreme flexibility.
As well as being used in the Reading research programme, Arousal is also
used for training schemes, and has been used to provide specific models
of major UK and US firms. These models can help the companies gain a better
insight into their own workings and to help improve efficiency.
One of the main findings reinforces those from earlier research
- teams which comprise individuals from different backgrounds invariably
perform better than those with similar experience. The present business
environment will not support firms which cannot balance, for example, engineering
solutions to business problems with financial restraints.
However, the most intriguing findings come from comparisons
of performances achieved by teams which have been constructed so that each
has a broad and balanced range of experience and background among its members.
Even so, it might be expected that there would be substantial
variations between the performances of small teams and this is the case.
These differences can be largely related to the degree of fit between the
reasoning processes of individual team members.
In some cases individual team members have been found to have compatible
reasoning processes. They look at the world, learn about it and solve problems
in similar ways.
Because their members speak the same language and think the
same way, they can make fairly rapid progress. These teams are characterised
by harmonious working and mutual respect.
However, compatibility has some drawbacks, not least when
an unexpected or unfamiliar problem is encountered. A singular, unchallenged
view of the world can lead down blind alleys.
When a team comprises mainly left-sided reasoners - those
who give priority to the logical, analytical, sequential, explicit and
verbal functions of the brain - overall performance is usually steady but
These left-sided teams seem to reflect the style and approach
of senior managers within the regional structures of national contractors
during the 1960s and 70s.
In other teams there can be different reasoning processes
different views of the world and different starting points for solving
problems. Despite varying approaches to problem solving, the existence
of a reasonable level of compatibility ensures that the points of view
of others and their lines of reasoning will be understood and acknowledged.
Given this compatibility, there is usually a very open debate on basic
assumptions about the business, its problems and possible solutions.
These teams are often slow to start, spending time checking
assumptions and understanding the business from a variety of perspectives.
But this variety enables such teams to manage crises well. Generally they
are the high performers. But such performance is achieved only after it
has been recognised that managing individual differences and team-work
is as important as managing the business.
While some variety in approaches to problem solving in a team
can be very helpful, there is a level at which differences are so great
and compatibility so low that there exists no common understanding around
which a team can develop.
The learning styles questionnaire used in the study characterises the
individual in terms of four dimensions: activist, reflector, thand pragmatist.
The top diagram shows a subject who is a very strong reflector, who is
also a strong activist and moderate pragmatist, but a weak theorist. The
compatibility of a group can be judged by superimposing the individual
profiles of the members and interpreting the major similarities and differences.
The lower diagram shows an example of a group with low compatibility.
The approach to tackling a problem taken by one individual
can seem irrelevant, even irrational, to another. The way in which one
member wishes to manage the team may be diametrically opposed to that preferred
Such teams can absorb disproportionate amounts of time in
managing, or trying to manage, the process of team-work leaving little
energy for managing the business.
However, even these teams outperform another type of team,
that which either lacks problem-solving skills such as information gathering,
goal definition and planning, or is just too eager to take action.
Arousal workshops highlight the importance to companies of understanding
not just the need for a broad mix of experience, backgrounds and skills
at senior management level, but also an appreciation of the need to foster
and develop different approaches and skills in problem solving. Most at
threat are those companies which prefer to promote staff from within their
own organisations yet do not have any planned means for broadening the
outlook or problem-solving skills of their staff.
Another implication is that individuals do not choose the
teams in which they have to work. Some teams gel immediately, while others
require greater conscious effort to function effectively.
Clearly it is important for individuals to be able to assess
their own strengths and weaknesses in team working and the skills of others.
But it is equally important that organisations provide their staff with
the insight and skills necessary for effective team building, as well as
for implementing organisational changes and instilling new values among
members of senior management.
Finally, there is a further need for companies to provide
their managers with opportunities to challenge existing practices and to
demonstrate an alternative approach to the problems that occur without
fear or prejudice.
Peter Lansley is a Reader in the Department of Construction
Management, University of Reading; an associate member of faculty at Ashridge
Management College; and visiting professor to the Construction Executive
Program at Stanford University, California.
Scanned from Building, 27 June 1986