Secrets of Great Teamwork

The Secrets of Great Teamwork: Collaboration has become more complex but success still depends on the fundamentals
HBR, June 2016, p71
By Martine Haas and Mark Mortensen

It is often the case that the people running a team are their own worst enemies. According to the article, Teams depend on four critical enabling conditions; compelling direction, strong structure, supportive context, and a shared mindset. The first three enabling conditions are positive and the last, a shared mindset, overcomes the pitfalls of “us versus them” thinking and incomplete information. If you think that these are easy to implement then perhaps you either don’t need to read the article or you need a coach to strengthen your grasp on reality. In my experience the team members know how much time, money and resources are needed to get the job done. Managers almost universally challenge the team to reduce the amount of time and money. The resulting stress on the team to do more for less usually results in doing less for more. The unspoken issue is to match the design with the resources available and to be sure that the design is firm and documented before ramping up the project.

People need to care about achieving the team’s goals and it is a compelling direction that makes this happen. The standard advice, used again here, that goals should be challenging but achievable and should contain a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards is apropos. Although not mentioned in the article, one of the more effective ways of determining whether the right mix of direction has been set is to ask the team for their input. If the request is sincerely made the team is likely to respond in kind which can relieve the manager of the guilt associated with not getting the mix right.

Setting a strong structure is about balancing the assets of the team, the work and the processes. The mix of people and skills, and diversity and commonality, and the mix of age, gender and race all contribute to creativity and alleviate groupthink. They also contribute to interpersonal conflict so one needs to go beyond norms and rules for behavior to anticipate issues and help the team members appreciate the diversity. They should appreciate the commonality on their own but sometimes don’t. This also relates to creating a shared mindset and a supportive context.

A supportive context is the manager’s domain. Does the team have access to the resources that they will need to get the job done? Funding, technology, equipment, space, software and more are important “hygiene factors” that need to be in place to keep the team from hitting roadblocks since if the hygiene factors are not in place it can be very demotivating to team members. Hygiene factors are the things a project needs to support the team members and if they are present no one notices them. They are only noticed when they are not present, thus, the name hygiene factors since no one recognized good hygiene. Problems often come when hygiene factors are under the control of other parts of the organization and not under direct project control.

A shared mindset is based on a common identity and a common understanding. A good manager monitors the team’s interactions and fosters a context of respect for everyone on the team. This includes anticipating the problems that crop up such as interpersonal conflict or access to resources.

These are not difficult things to do and most managers can figure out how to do them as long as they are operating from a cooperative mindset and not a command and control one. Still, these things take time to learn and to do. They can be overwhelming as well on a large project and often get overlooked, to the detriment of team performance.

Leading the Team You Inherit

Leading the Team You Inherit: It’s not the same as building one from scratch.
HBR, June 2016, p61
By Michael D. Watkins

Sometimes greatness is thrust upon us. Much more common is the situation of being thrust into a team leadership role, often when the team is experiencing problems. By following the same example throughout the article Watkins gives us a very good feel for what can happen and how to handle the issues. The article reads as though Watkins has lots of experience with this situation and his advice comes through clearly and simply. The advice begins with assessing the team members and the fit between their capabilities and the needs of the team. A sidebar discusses sizing up the team members in detail. The second step is reshaping the team, which requires replacing those few team members who don’t fit with the needs of the team, then aligning the team and re-engineering the processes to fit the people and get the work done. Finally, one accelerates the team’s cohesion through celebrating early successes.

I was particularly struck by the advice on aligning the team by discussing and agreeing on the answers to four questions:
What will we accomplish?
Why should we do it?
How will we do it?
Who will do it?

The article reminded me of a chapter in Joiner and Josephs’ book Leadership Agility. The chapter, “The Five Eds,” tells the story of a new CEO who undertakes the turn-around of a manufacturing company. The story is told five times, thus five Eds, with Ed at a different stage of “leadership agility,” or form of mind, in each telling. The outcomes in the book are different with each telling of the story as each Ed with a different form of mind tackles the same problem. Similarly, the outcome in the article would be different if “David Benet,” the character in the example, were at a different form of mind. David Benet appears to be at a later form of mind. The advice in the article is presented well enough that anyone should be able to implement it although those with later forms of mind will, no doubt, be more successful. As always, the right coach will get you there faster.

Wicked Problem Solvers

Wicked Problem Solvers: Lessons from successful cross-industry teams
HBR, June 2016, p53
By Amy C. Edmondson

Innovative, wicked problem solving, cross-industry, collaborative teams suffer from a great many ills and are only rarely successful. This article covers some of these ills and does so well. Building and running cross-industry collaborative teams is intended as a means to innovation and for solving wicked problems, defined as those that have incomplete, contradictory or changing requirements. This is about teams so other aspects of solving wicked problems have been neglected and it is assumed that the dimensions of the solution to the problem require multiple areas of expertise and technology. If you want to build the city of the future you will need more than city planners to design it and construction engineers to build it. You will need specialists in roadways, lighting, solar energy collection, LEED architecture, housing construction, building construction, railroads, park design, construction and landscaping, and more. They will all need to talk to one another even though each profession uses different concepts and ways of expressing them. Thus, problems will arise and each part of the team will need to learn from the others and mistakes and better ways of designing and building will be found. The requirements will change and evolve as these newer and better ways come to light.

The article concentrates on bringing together the necessarily broad expertise in a team and discusses four key practices to enhance team cooperation: fostering an adaptable vision, enabling psychological safety, enable knowledge sharing, and promoting execution as learning. The article also stresses the need to create a milieu that encourages experimentation and failure. The four recommended practices are what is necessary to generate the continuous change among the members of the team. Fostering an adaptable vision allows the vision to shift in response to the inevitable changes that come from the execution of the project. If the team members become fixated on a steady vision and the vision changes then they will become dispirited and the project will suffer. Enabling psychological safety is the practice that opens the project for change. Psychological safety encourages people to surface problems early without worrying about retribution so that the problems can be solved while they are relatively inexpensive. Enabling knowledge sharing enhances communication between the diverse fields of individual team members by helping them learn each other’s technical languages. Promoting execution as learning is about building small test cases before making large investments. This use of test cases allows many of the major issues to be discovered, and the design adjusted to eliminate them, before committing the design to the full scope of the project. The article points out that none of these practices should be unfamiliar to students of teams and thus assumes this level of knowledge on the part of the reader. The article then covers only the distance from knowledge of teams to knowledge of cross-industry teams.

The leadership team that puts this all together at the scale of most wicked problems must have some outstanding talents and this is not mentioned in the article. The leader must hold a complex of opposing ideas, a system concept, and understand the interplay between them to uncover potential problems and issues between the team members. It takes lots of training and experience in working with large teams to have a successful cross-industry project.

Mergers and Acquisitions

Mergers and Acquisitions: The one thing you need to get right.
HBR, June 2016, p42
By Roger L. Martin

Roger L. Martin is one of the better observers and commentators of the great game of business and this article is no exception. Concise and focused, it describes the Mergers and Acquisitions playing field and shows which of two fundamental strategies wins and which loses. “Give” is the winning strategy and “Take” is the losing one. If you are doing the M&A dance to look good and enhance your own organization in some way then then you are doing the take and the seller reaps all the value so the acquisition will not pay for itself. If you do the M&A dance to make your partner look good, to bring your value to the deal, and enhance the other operation then you are doing the give and will reap the value of the enhancement. Roger finds four ways that you can enhance the value of your acquisition: by being a smarter provider of growth capital, by providing better management oversight, by transferring valuable skills, and by sharing valuable capabilities.

Increase Your Return On Failure

Increase Your Return on Failure
HBR, May 2016, p88
By Julian Birkinshaw and Martine Haas

Learning from your failures always seems like a good idea and it is usually okay to talk about other people’s failures, we call this gossip, but most people don’t like to talk about their own failures. Talking about one’s own failures can be challenging to one’s own identity. It takes a leader at a later stage of adult development to really learn from failure and become a bigger person instead of retreating into a defensive shell. Such leaders are rare. So how does the organization really learn from failure?

At earlier stages of adult development people use their work as a strong part of their identity so experiencing a failure at work is the same as experiencing a failure of one’s identity and can be devastating. The organizational culture can overcome this by defining the role of a person as including a discussion of their failures. As long as this is kept in a positive vein and not used for punitive purposes then discussing failure can be made a positive part of the workplace culture and therefore part of one’s identity.

The article describes some good processes for learning from failure. What they are really talking about though, is a full on culture change and the article does not frame the processes in that way. The culture of an organization determines how people deal with failures. If it is part of the culture, people at an earlier stage of adult development will adopt the behaviors for learning from failure as long as everyone else is doing this and it is part of their role in the organization. People can adopt a later stage of development without really functioning at that level if they are in an environment that is at a later stage. The environment, or culture, is determined in large measure by the leader of the organization, which is why it is so important to have someone at the top who lives at a later stage of development instead of just giving it lip service. The leader needs to be at a later stage of adult development or the culture will not change and the organization will not learn from its failures.

The article recommends holding post failure reviews, sharing lessons learned through frequent meetings and reviewing all the failures to see if you need to make process changes, which is quite likely. All this, according to the article, must be done in an environment where people feel safe and everyone understands. For most companies this is a full on culture change and most leaders are simply not capable of creating this level of change.

Both-And Leadership

“Both/And” Leadership: Don’t worry so much about being consistent
HBR May 2016, p62
By Wendy K. Smith, Marianne E. Lewis, Michael L. Tushman

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” The lack of such an ability may preclude one from understanding this article as it deals with tough subjects like polarities, referred to as paradoxes, and dynamic equilibrium. While the material covered here is well presented the reader would have benefitted from a longer, more detailed exposition.

Much has been written about polarities in business and how both sides of the paradox are valuable since they are dependent on each other. Both sides are important to the organization in the long term. One cannot choose one side of the paradox over the other but must, instead, manage the tension between them. Managing the tension requires holding a dynamic equilibrium and the balance between the two sides of the paradox will shift back and forth over time. What must be held is the average balance while keeping the standard deviation to a small value.

The article identifies three common paradoxes and the authors define each of them by a question: “Are we managing for today or tomorrow?”, “Do we adhere to boundaries or cross them?”, and “Do we focus on creating value for our shareholders and investors or for a broader set of stakeholders?” Both of the poles in the paradox are necessary for the long term health of the organization. It is the dynamic equilibrium between them that managers must hold.

To manage a paradox, according to the article, leaders must hold ambiguity as multiple truths, cope with change instead of fighting it and build supporting organizational competencies. The authors recommend separating the two poles of the paradox and then creating linkages between the separate pieces to achieve a dynamic equilibrium. This advice actually creates a static equilibrium with two separate but communicating parts. To create a dynamic equilibrium the organization must be designed to change itself on a continuing basis to reflect the needs of the projects, processes and people within it. This goes beyond a paradox and in many ways resolves the paradox as well. Resources flow to one polarity of the paradox for a while and then reverse and flow to the other in a way that is determined by the needs of each of the polarities and the business. This concept flows readily from change theory.

It takes one of Fitzgerald’s first-class minds to identify the paradoxes that the organization faces and to create the dynamic equilibrium the organization needs. Leaders with a first-class mind are able to identify and resolve the paradoxes described in the article and get the organization to flourish even as the context in which it operates is continuously changing. It takes a serious amount of developmental coaching to become a first-class mind.

Planned Opportunism

Planned Opportunism
HBR, May 2016, p54
By Vijay Govindarajan

Planned Opportunism, according to the article, accomplishes three “things for the enterprise: (1) It creates a circulatory system for new ideas; (2) it develops the capacity to prioritize, investigate, and act on those ideas; and (3) it builds an adaptive culture that embraces continual change.” This article has some good things to say but it is condensed from a book by Govindarajan so it is likely that the book is able to build a more cohesive case for planned opportunism achieving these three things.

What the article suggests is essentially a form of scenario planning: do a deep analysis of all the factors in the organization’s context that affect its operation; identify elusive weak signals that could have a major impact on the enterprise; develop hypotheses about the future; and test the hypotheses with relatively low cost experiments. Scenario planning is a very effective tool for making sense of the future and for providing direction to senior leaders to navigate the perils of the future.

It is not clear from the article that a modified scenario process will result in the three benefits claimed above for the enterprise. Again, this article is adapted from a book by Govindarajan so perhaps that information is in the book. The scenario planning process is worthwhile in and of itself for most organizations and the advice in the article cannot be faulted. Any good scenario planning practitioner can guide executives through the processes described in the article.

Embracing Agile

Embracing Agile

HBR, May 2016, p41

By Darrell K. Rigby, Jeff Sutherland and Hirotaka Takeuchi

One of the problems executives face is that different parts of the organization require different management styles and it is the rare manager who understands this and is able to use multiple styles. The software industry has been acutely aware of this because while production processes and management techniques dominate the management literature, production is only a minor part of a software company. The dominant part of a software company is product development and that requires different processes and management techniques from production. The software industry has worked to develop new management techniques relevant to software development for many years and this article examines these agile methodologies and contrasts their effects on areas of organization outside of software development.

The article highlights the success of agile methodologies and what they have done for the IT industry, even “helping to create a new generation of skilled general managers.” The authors suggest that the greatest problem with implementing agile methodologies is managers who don’t know how agile is supposed to work. The agile methodologies are discussed in enough detail to give one the flavor of their effectiveness. The article shows where agile works in organizations, product development and marketing, and where it does not, finance and accounting, but does not give a theoretical basis for the distinction. Instead they suggest that each department be allowed to make its own decision about whether to use agile or not based on the preference of that department’s manager. For implementing agile, the article recommends starting small, getting senior managers to do it too, allowing experienced teams more freedom and removing barriers to spreading agile within the organization.

Agile methodologies are a step in the right direction and as managers move toward an agile management style, from a command and control one, they require a significant amount of coaching, personal growth and support. Agile changes the culture of an organization and the managers must become different people to be effective.