CASE INCIDENT – A Virtual Team at T.A. Stearns T.A. Stearns is

a national tax accounting firm whose main business is tax preparation services for individuals. Stearns’ superior reputation is based on the high quality of its advice and the excellence of its service. Key to the achievement of its reputation is the state-o the-art computer databases and analysis tools that its people use when counseling clients. These programs were developed by highly trained individuals. The programs that these individuals produce are highly technical, both in terms of the tax laws they cover and the code in which they are written. Perfecting them requires high levels of programming skill as well as the ability to understand the law. New laws and interpretations of existing laws have to be integrated quickly and flawlessly into the existing regulations and analysis tools. Four programmers in the greater Boston area carry out the creation of these programs in a virtual environment. The four work at home and are connected to each other and to the company by email, telephone, and conference software. Formal, onsite meetings among all of the programmers take place only a few times a year, although the workers sometimes meet informally outside of these scheduled occasions. Here is some background on the four: • Tom Andrews is a tax lawyer, a graduate of the University of Maine and a former hockey player there. At 35, Tom has worked on the programs for six years and is the longest-standing member of the team. Along with his design responsibilities, Tom is the primary liaison with Stearns. He is also responsible for training new team members. Single, Tom works out of his farm in Southern New Hampshire where, in his spare time, he enjoys hunting and fishing. • Cy Crane, a tax accountant and computer science graduate of the University of Massachusetts, is 32 years old, married, with two children ages four and six. His wife works full time in a law firm in downtown Boston. In his spare time, Cy enjoys biking and fishing. • Marge Dector, a tax lawyer, graduated from Penn State University, is 38 years old, married, with two children ages eight and ten. Her husband works full time as an electrical engineer at a local defense contractor. Marge’s hobbies include golf and skiing. • Megan Harris, tax accountant and graduate of Indiana University, is 26 years old and single. She recently relocated to Boston and works out of her apartment in the Back Bay area. These four people exchange e-mail messages many times every day. In fact, it is not unusual for them to step away from guests or family to log on and check in with the others. Often their e-mails are amusing as well as work-related. Sometimes, for instance, when they were facing a deadline and one of Marge’s kids is home sick, they help each other with the work. Tom has occasionally invited the others to visit his farm, and Marge and Cy have gotten their families together several times for dinner. About once a month the whole group gets together for lunch. All four of these Stearns employees are on salary, which, consistent with company custom, is negotiated separately and secretly with management. Although each is required to check in regularly during every workday, they were told when they were hired they could work wherever they wanted. Clearly, flexibility is one of the pluses of these jobs. When the four get together, they often joke about the managers and workers who are tied to the office, referring to them as “face timers” and to themselves as “free agents.” When the programmers were asked to make a major program change, they often developed programming tools called macros that would help them to do their work more efficiently. These macros greatly enhanced the speed at which a change could be written into the programs. Cy, in particular, really enjoyed hacking around with macros. On one recent project, for instance, he became obsessed with the prospect of creating a shortcut that could save him a huge amount of time. One week after he turned in his code and his release notes to the company, Cy bragged to Tom that he created a new macro that had saved him eight hours of work that week. Tom was skeptical of the shortcut, but after trying it out, he found that it actually saved him many hours too. Stearns has an employee suggestion program that rewards employees for innovations that save the company money. The program gives an employee five percent of the savings generated by their innovation over a period of three months. The company also has a profit sharing plan. Tom and Cy felt that the small amount of money that would be generated by a company reward would not offset the free time that they gained using their new macro. They wanted the time for leisure or consulting work. They also feared their group might suffer if management learned about the innovation. It would allow three people to do the work of four, which could mean one might lose their job, so they did not share their innovative macro with management. Although Tom and Cy would not share the innovation with management, they were concerned that they were entering their busy season and knew everyone on the team would be stressed by the heavy workload. They decided to distribute the macro to the other members of their team and swore them to secrecy. Over lunch one day, the team set for itself a level of production that it felt would not arouse management’s suspicion. Several months passed and they used some of their extra time to push the quality of their work even higher. But they also now had more time to pursue their own personal interests. Dave Regan, the in-house manager of the work team, picked up on the innovation several weeks after it was first implemented. He had wondered why production time had gone down a bit, while quality had shot up, and he got his first inkling of an answer when he saw an e-mail from Marge to Cy thanking him for saving her so much time with his “brilliant mind.” Not wanting to embarrass his group of employees, the manager hinted to Tom that he wanted to know what was happening, but he got nowhere. He did not tell his own manager about his suspicions, reasoning that since both quality and productivity were up he did not really need to pursue the matter further. Dave has just learned that Cy has boasted about his trick to a member of another virtual work team in the company. Suddenly, the situation seems to have gotten out of control. Dave decided to take Cy to lunch. During the meal, Dave asked Cy to explain what was happening. Cy told him about the innovation, but he insisted the team’s actions had been justified to protect itself. Dave knew that his own boss would soon hear of the situation and that he would be looking for answers—from him. Questions: 1.What characteristic of the team predispose it to making ineffective decisions? 2. What are the characteristics of groupthink that are manifested in the work team? Be sure to APPLY theories concerning communication, motivation , leadership, conflicting goals, and teams.

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