Managing practice

Team and service development - Defining the team

The main characteristics of a team are:

Almost all social workers are located in teams. This can be an administrative device only. Examine who is really in the team or are there teams within teams?

How are the "support" members of the team (administrators for example) integral to the work of the team? Do they feel that they are the last to hear about things? Are they a team within a team? What is a realistic size for team working? Between 6 to 11 members is usually considered appropriate but this can vary enormously. Communication between team members is crucial. Teams that are big (over 15 members) rarely meet together and if they are located in different venues will to find communication and a sharing of a common and agreed task difficult. How much autonomy teams have depends on the "culture" of the organisation they work in. Teams often have a great deal of autonomy and capacity to decide on their task. Within the parameters of the organisation's aims, team managers and their team members are in the best position to make judgements about their work - what can and cannot be done and how to be responsive to the needs of the particular area or client group they serve. However, this means that teams need to have good intelligence about their locality or their client group and their needs. The team needs to know the stated aims and plans of the organisation. The Community Care Plan, Children's Plan and any departmental or organisational business plan, give written guidance to teams on the parameters or "skeleton" on which to base their own team aims and plans. It is the experience of most teams that these plans allow discretion for individual teams to exemplify their purpose and task, although the amount of discretion can vary considerably between local authorities. The limits of this discretion are not always tested out by team managers and their knowledge can be based on myth rather than actual limitations. There also may be some ambivalence by manager and team members about testing out the discretionary boundaries.

Defining the task of the team is a dynamic process which has to be restated from time to time. Changes in locality or neighbourhood characteristics, changes in law, changes in political policy and changes in social work and organisational practice, all require the team to reassess its purpose and function. To obtain a degree of consensus for all team members on the purpose and function of the team can take time. However, failure to address this issue can lead to poor practice and confusion for both staff and service users. Team leadership is important but not all tasks have to be led by the team manager. To have credibility with a team, the team manager should be able to take on most of the team's tasks even if she or he cannot carry them out with the same degree of expertise as another team member. However, the manager's ability to carry out most team tasks may become less possible as social work practice moves increasingly towards specialisation. The manager who can only manage others and is without practice expertise is at a disadvantage in social work. The team manager needs to delegate, not to suit him or her but for the most effective working of the team. Delegation needs to be made explicit and communicated clearly.

To help establish the purpose of the team use the following exercises.

Exercise 1

Duration: Give yourselves a week to search for material; One hour to examine material
Involve: Involve all members of the team
Resources: Photo-copied material

Check whether there is any written material already in place which describes the purpose and tasks of the team. This can be a useful starting point even if it is out of date.

The whole team should look at what you have collected:

Exercise 2

Duration: This exercise is best given time for team members to think on their own and as a group. Allow up to two hours.
Involve: The whole team, but with some work alone and in smaller groups
Resources: Flip chart, paper & pens. Copies of grid

The dimensions of this grid are not alternatives, and for most service users, social work activities will cover a range of activities.

Each team member can do this for his or her work, or the exercise can be done by the team for the team. Teams have found this grid a useful outline for establishing a "picture" of their work.

Exercise 3

Duration: One hour
Involve: The whole team, but with some work in pairs
Resources: Notepaper and pens, flip chart, paper & pens.

Get every team member to think they are meeting an interested and friendly colleague at a conference and are asked to describe the purpose of their team. Get team members to relate what they would say to the person sitting next to them (their neighbour) in the team meeting. Ask the "neighbour" to write it down and then get responses up on a flip chart. This can be a very revealing exercise. It can also lead to a discussion as to why there may be certain blocks to actually carrying out the team's function or how realistic is the agreed purpose of the team.