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Teams

A Team’s Not a Team Without Trust

 

TRUST-acrobats

Trust is the confidence among team members that their peer’s intentions are good, and there is no need to be protective or careful around them. In essence, the team members are comfortable being vulnerable with one another in the conviction that their respective vulnerabilities will not be used against them, i.e. weaknesses, skill deficiencies, interpersonal shortcomings, mistakes, and requests for help. It is only when members feel truly comfortable with one another that they can focus their energy and attention on the task at hand, rather than being disingenuous or ‘political’ with one another.

However, like the familiar rhyming proverb ‘For Want of a Nail’, absence of trust goes something like this. In the absence of trust, there is a fear of honest dialogue, through fear of honest dialogue there is a lack of commitment to decisions, through lack of commitment to decisions, there is avoidance of accountability and through avoidance of accountability there is inattention to results. In short, why should I care if I didn’t agree in the first place (although I said nothing)?

Teams without trust conceal their weaknesses and mistakes from one another, hesitate to ask for help or provide constructive feedback, hesitate to offer help outside their own area of responsibility, jump to conclusions about the intentions and aptitudes of others, fail to recognise and tap into one another’s skills and experiences, and find reasons to avoid spending more time together.

In contrast trusting teams admit weaknesses and mistakes, ask for help, accept questions and input about their areas of responsibility, give one another the benefit of the doubt, take risks in offering feedback and assistance, appreciate and tap into one another’s skills and experiences, focus time and energy on important issues not office politics, and look forward to meetings and other opportunities to work together as a team.

Building Trust, however, requires shared experiences over time, multiple instances of follow-through and credibility, and an in-depth understanding of the unique attributes and contribution of team members. So how can you accelerate the process?

The role of the leader is critical. In the first instance, try loosening the reins. It is the leader’s job to initiate trust between management and employees. That entails gaining employees’ trust, but also conveying trust in them. Do this by delegating some of your tasks to them. But beware, giving up some control also means expanding your tolerance for mistakes. If mistakes happen, instead of taking swift corrective action, show staff how they can learn and grow from them.

Second, keep your promises. There’s nothing quite as powerful when it comes to building trust, as doing what you promised. When promises are met, other people can relax, safe in the conviction that they know what is expected and what they can expect. Holding each other to account and doing what you say you will is the foundation of trust. So creating an environment where promises are made and kept is important.

Third, demonstrate your own genuine vulnerability first. This requires that the leader risk losing face in front of the team, so that subordinates will take the same risks themselves. The leader must create an environment that doesn’t punish vulnerability and mistakes.

As well as exhibiting trust yourself, you might also like to try the following exercises:

• Personal Histories Exercise – members go round the table answering a short list of questions about themselves (number of siblings, where they grew up, favourite hobbies, first job, worst job). This helps team members to begin to relate to one another on a more personal basis, which encourages greater empathy and understanding.
• Roles and Responsibilities Exercise – members share the top three things everyone needs to know about their role; what they want from others, what don’t you want from others; what a good working day is like; and what a bad working day is like.
• Personality and Behavioural Preference Profiles, such as Insights or MBTI, to help people better understand themselves and their co-workers.
• Anonymous 360 Degree Feedback, which allows team members to identify strengths and areas for development without any repercussions.
• And if you’re feeling really brave try the Team Effectiveness Exercise, which requires team members to identify the single most important contribution that each of their peers makes to the team, as well as the one area that they must either improve upon or eliminate for the good of the team. All members then report their responses, focusing on one person at a time, usually beginning with the team leader.

As Ernest Hemingway observed, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

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Three Ways to Unlock the Power of Informal Networks in Your Team

NetworkDespite what we know about networks and networking organisations still tend to be understood as simple, formal hierarchies, represented by an organisational chart or organogram. It is time to challenge this convenient fiction, which at best facilitates standard modes of production, handles easily anticipated problems, and illustrates linear reporting relationships. Crucially, it hides a far more subtle and informal network of relationships that comes into its own when the unexpected happens – which seems to be far more frequently these days!

Effective informal networks facilitate the exchange of accurate information around who has what, who can do what and who needs what. They also facilitate the exchange of ideas that can feed innovation. By visualising and analysing informal social networks managers can bring out the strengths in their networks; realign their formal structure to complement the informal; and rewire faulty networks to work with company goals. The three key networks you should consider are communication, advice and trust.

Communication networks provide information about news or events at work. Examination of communication networks can help diagnose inefficiency and low productivity, on the basis that workers are either spending too much time and energy working the rumour mill, instead of actually working. Or they hardly communicate at all, leading to errors, alienation, stress and poor morale.

Advice networks are about solving task related problems and obtaining technical information to perform one’s duties. Understanding advice networks can uncover routine conflicts, recurring disagreements over how things should be done, or the assumptions one should be operating by. Advice networks diagnose such disagreements by showing when there are contradictory sources of expertise, unused sources, or no sources at all.

Trust networks are associated with the sharing of confidential or ‘political’ information and the provision of support for one’s ideas and proposals. Analysing trust networks is particularly useful for diagnosing non-routine problems, such as failing change efforts. Non-routine situations necessarily involve uncertainty and the need to generate new ideas about what to do, how to do them and generating support for those ideas. The trust network can identify good candidates for bringing the organisation together to make change happen.

At PSA we develop 2D pictures of team and organisational networks using network visualisation software, by asking each team member to identify who they communicate with, seek advice from and trust on the basis of one simple question for each network. It is simple but very powerful. However, even without the software, it is still possible to do a preliminary analysis of your team’s informal networks by asking a few insightful questions.

In terms of communication you need to identify who the connectors are in your team or organisation? The extraverts who like to talk and gossip, those team members who know a lot of people and like to share what they know. Or simply those in a position to know what’s going on, like Personal Assistants, those on the front desk, or just those who spend a lot of time in the tea room! If you wanted everyone in your team to know something, who would you tell?

When considering advice you are generally looking for expert operators who have the skills, knowledge and experience that other people need. First identify what skills and knowledge your team needs to operate efficiently and effectively. Then, for each skill or aptitude identify the novices, the masters and the coaches (those who can teach what they know). You are then in a position to share all that knowledge and all those skills around the team, through group training or individual coaching. If you identify any critical skills or knowledge that reside in just one person you may want to consider an urgent download to someone else too.

Trust is the vaguest concept of the three, but it is also the most powerful, being the bedrock of high performing teams. It is also emotive, so we sometimes use the term support instead and always emphasise that this is not about a person being trustworthy or not, but a simple recognition that at work we know and get along with some people better than others, and this affects how efficiently and effectively we work together. So, in the first place, identify the key relationships in your team, why are they close? Consider how you might build better relationships among the rest of the team, do they simply need to get to know each other better. But a word of warning – beware cliques, closely knit groups who exclude others.

Whatever you discover, the time has come to make explicit what we know implicitly about how work gets done in teams and organisations. We need internal depth to our networking as well as external breadth.

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How to increase the flow of new ideas – and eat a lot of hotdogs!

Hot DogInnovation is critical in a knowledge economy, leading to new products, new methods and hopefully happy customers and organisational growth. According to PwC’s 2015 study on Global Innovation, U.S. companies spend $145 billion dollars on R&D each year. Yet, despite its importance, innovation is a difficult quality to cultivate both in individuals and in organizations. Here are three ideas to get you on the right track: curiosity, connection and the hot dog thing.

Curiosity

We share a number of basic drives and attributes with our primate cousins, but only humans (as far as we are aware) have looked up at the stars, wondered what they are and tried to find out. Curiosity sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom and, with recent concern about robots taking our jobs, it should console us to learn that curiosity also sets us apart from computers. Computers are smart, but none can yet be said to be curious. In addition, recent research suggests that curiosity is also good for your health. People who make a lifelong habit of reading and writing a lot slowed their rate of mental decline by a third compared to those who only do an average amount.

So how do we encourage curiosity in organisations?

In the first place give people permission to be curious. The most important thing to do when you want more creativity is to let people know they can. You have to expect some failures and you need to embrace these, so build a culture with no fear of failure. Second, implement a formal structure that allows ‘intrapreneurship’ to take place: 3M allow employees 15% of their working week to devote to personal projects. Finally, provide incentives. Design a career path for your ‘intrapreneurs’ and show how their ideas can boost their responsibilities and rewards within the company.

Connection

Future Work Skills 2020, a report compiled by the University of Phoenix Research Institute, argues that in the face of more complex, multifaceted problems ever-greater specialisation will be replaced by the need for individuals with blended skills. The ideal worker of the future will be ‘T-shaped’, with a deep understanding of one field, but able to converse in the language of a broader range of disciplines. This will require a sense of curiosity, a willingness to go on learning, and exposure to varied experiences and people.

In Frugal Innovation, Navi Radjou & Jaideep Prabhu propose that organisations should make external connections to generate new ideas and ways of doing things. In the first place they should engage more with their customers to identify innovative opportunities and encourage co-creation in the design, building and sale of products. They should also make innovative friends, an eclectic group of partners to challenge senior management thinking and encourage a continuous process of unlearning and relearning.

Internally, organisations could ask employees for their ideas and encourage them to contribute to the innovation dialogue with customers. A key activity will be to assemble a diverse workforce. Plenty of research shows that diverse teams devise the most innovative ideas. But above all, they must keep boundaries flexible and fluid, people need to be mixed together: rotate staff, create places and programmes where people from different teams collide and collude, use collaborative pay and incentives, and ensure that information flows and is interpreted correctly. This can be helped by those ‘T’ shaped workers, who are able to move between functions and explain what is happening in different departments.

Challenge

Finally, the hotdogs. Every 4th of July 40,000 people go to Coney Island in the United States, and more than 1m tune in on ESPN, the sports cable channel, to watch men and women defy human digestive limits in a hot dog eating competition. Prior to 2001 the record was 25 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes, but in that year Takeru Kobayashi, a young man from Japan, smashed the record consuming a staggering 53 dogs and buns. Mr Kobayashi’s winning insight was not to eat the hot dog and bun as you or I would, but to break the hot dogs in two and stuff them in his mouth with one hand, while his other hand dunked the bun in water to make it easier to swallow. This, coupled with shaking and gyrating, helped a 112lb man consume nearly 8lb of bread and sausage. The record, by the way, now stands at 70 dogs and buns.

Apart from making us feel slightly squeamish, it should also remind us to critically examine our assumptions and challenge our fundamental beliefs about a situation. The key here is to ask “Why?” not “What?” And with that in mind, I will leave you with the words of General Stanley McChrystal, who summarized the difficult process of adaptation and innovation the US military went through in the years following the 2003 invasion of Iraq:

When we first started, the question was, ‘Where is the enemy?’ That was the intelligence question. As we got smarter, we started to ask, ‘Who is the enemy?’ And we thought we were pretty clever. And then we realized that wasn’t the right question, and we asked, ‘What’s the enemy doing or trying to do?’ And it wasn’t until we got further along that we said, ‘Why are they the enemy?’

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MBTA ‘Management by Talking About…’

Graphic_02For the first blog of the New Year I’d like to reinvigorate an old idea. MBWA (Management by Walking Around) is rather taken for granted these days, as is often the case when a good idea becomes cliché. So to reinvigorate the importance of talking with your staff, I’d like to introduce MBTA, ‘Management by Talking About…’. Given that time is precious the emphasis here is on purposeful conversation and I want to offer four valuable conversations to have with your staff, rather than just chatting about the weekend football scores or last night’s TV.
 
When it comes to the importance of purposeful conversation I think Colonel Zinoviev Konstantin Provalov summed it very well. While commanding the Soviet Union’s 383rd ‘Miners’ Rifle Division at the beginning of the Second World War, he believed that:
 
‘Authority is gained through the sum of daily conversations. One has to speak to soldiers. A soldier must know his task and understand it. Authority isn’t cheap; it is hard won. Everyone wants to live – including heroes. But knowing that soldiers trust me, I know they will fulfil all my orders and risk their lives.’
 
Not a household name in Europe and America I admit, but he was awarded “Hero of the Soviet Union” in the early battles of 1941 and the quote has remained with me ever since I first read it, and was brought to mind recently while reading Richard Sennett’s’ excellent book ‘Together’. Sennett writes about ‘earned authority’ as one side of a ‘social triangle’ (the other sides being trust and cooperation), which he identifies as the key ingredient in successful organisations and communities.
 
Sennett takes authority to be power endowed with legitimacy, with legitimacy defined as voluntary obedience. In war this means that soldiers will follow orders to fight knowing that it may lead to their death. This is an extreme example, and in civil society legitimacy is better framed in terms of laws people obey just because they seem right. In organisations, therefore, the leadership test for legitimacy, and thereby authority, is: will your subordinates obey you even though they might get away with disobeying?
 
Like Provalov, Sennett argues that how a leader earns that legitimacy usually has more to do with small behaviours and exchanges than with any formal right or entitlement to rule. Earned authority concerns more than formal position or technical competence, it involves open dialogue with subordinates rather than rigid dictation to them. In other words, for authority to be legitimate, people who are asked to obey have to feel like they have a voice, that if they speak up, they will be heard. So how should you encourage them to speak up, what should you talk about? Here are a four suggestions for purposeful conversations.
 

  1. Ask employees for their feedback. Most companies ask customers for feedback about their products and services, but only a handful ask their employees the same questions. This is a missed opportunity. So in addition to asking your customers questions like “Was your problem solved?” and “Are we easy to work with?” ask your employees “Did you solve the problem?” and “Was it easy to access the tools and resources you needed to do it?”

 

  1. Make delegation easier – use conversations to establish trust. Delegating tasks to employees and then trusting them to make decisions for themselves can be difficult. It is easier to delegate to those you trust. You can build that trust by having conversations with your employees, observing them doing their daily jobs, and providing feedback. That way, when it comes time to delegate a task, you’ll better understand your employees’ strengths and weaknesses and know who is ready to take on more responsibility and who needs more experience or coaching.

 

  1. Make People on Your Team Feel Like They Belong. It is well known that fostering a sense of belonging helps reduce stress levels, and consequently improves physical health, emotional well-being, and performance. So build that sense of belonging by soliciting people’s input. Ask their opinion, and follow up with questions so they truly felt heard. Tell stories to show your own vulnerability and share your mistakes and successes. This will also help you connect emotionally.

 

  1. Determine whether a direct report is ready to be a manager? Measure their potential by gauging their interest in managing. Ask them what they believe management entails and what their approach would be in situations you are facing or have faced. Inquire about any experience they’ve had outside of work that could provide useful preparation. Have they been in charge of an athletic team or a group of volunteers? Seek out the opinions of their co-workers, who will have a unique perspective on whether the person is up to the task.

 
It may also be worth considering how widespread such conversations are in your organisation. How might other leaders do a better job of managing by having purposeful conversations? Why not have a wander around and find out.

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Leading Virtual Teams

cartoon_virtual_officeVirtual teams are increasingly a fact of organisational life, a part of our ever expanding socio-technical system.  While many teams operate with ‘mixed modality’, part virtual part face to face, virtual teams can be defined as work groups which have some core members who interact primarily through electronic means and are engaged in interdependent tasks.

On the positive side virtual teams are said help us surmount barriers of time and space; reduce office costs; increase productivity, because it allows individuals to focus with less distractions; are less likely to lead to groupthink; help attract a wider pool of job candidates; and are more environmentally friendly.

On the downside, however, some people fear being out of the loop; others can feel isolated; employers can feel a loss of control; and Yahoo famously decided that the habit of homeworking had slowed the firm down and made it harder to have serendipitous meetings that can give birth to new ideas.

So what does it take to make virtual teams work effectively? Here are four simple principles:

  1. Remember the basics. A virtual team is still a team, so arm yourself with a well-tested model of team effectiveness and use it to help structure your thinking. There are many models out there, just pick one that has served you well in the past. Being mindful about your team process is more important than which particular model you choose. Take that model and use it to assess how you’ve done, where you stand, and where you are going.

 

  1. Build Trust. Human factors, not technology, are key. Like any team, performance is built on the foundations of positive relationships and mutual trust. Get the team together physically early-on, if you can. Face-to-face communication is still better than virtual when it comes to building relationships and fostering trust. Then try to reconnect regularly (biannually or annually) if possible. If you can’t get your team together focus on doing some virtual team building instead. Start each meeting with a check-in, having each member take a couple of minutes to discuss what they are doing, what’s going well and what’s challenging. Regular virtual team-building exercises are another way to inject a bit more fun into the proceedings. Whatever you decide, use the time to help team members get to know each other better, personally and professionally.

 

  1. Create a set of guiding principles for how the team will work. Good leadership is still important, but good management is key, everything needs to be more explicit to avoid misunderstandings. Coordination among virtual teams is inherently more difficult because people are not co-located. So it’s important to focus more attention on the details of task design and the processes that will be used to complete them. Simplify work tasks, ideally so they are assigned to sub-groups of two or three team members. Make sure there is clarity about work processes, with specifics about who does what and when. Do “after-action reviews” to evaluate how things are going and identify process adjustments and training needs.

 

  1. Don’t forget one-to-one’s. One-to-one performance management and coaching interactions with team members are a fundamental part of making any team work. Make these interactions a regular part of the virtual team rhythm, using them not only to check status and provide feedback, but to keep members connected to overall aims and objectives, and to highlight their role in the team.
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Leadership Lessons of Lord Nelson

nelsonNext month sees the 211th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar (21st October 1805), when twenty-seven British ships of the line, led by Admiral Lord Nelson aboard HMS Victory, defeated a combined fleet of thirty-three French and Spanish ships off the southwest coast of Spain, just west of Cape Trafalgar. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships, without a single British vessel being lost. It was the most decisive naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) and put an end to French plans to invade England.

The British victory spectacularly confirmed the naval supremacy that Britain had established during the eighteenth century and was achieved in part through Nelson’s departure from the prevailing naval tactical orthodoxy. Instead of engaging the enemy fleet in a single line, maximising fields of fire and target areas, Nelson divided his smaller force into two columns directed perpendicularly against the enemy fleet, with decisive results.

Nelson was shot by a French musketeer during the battle and died shortly after, becoming one of Britain’s greatest war heroes. He was also one of Britain’s greatest leaders and over 200 years since his death he still has much to teach us about the art of leadership. In this blog I am going to focus on three aspects of his leadership: creating a personal brand; participative leadership; and inspiring his subordinates.

Personal Brand

Nelson virtually invented the personal brand. People told stories about him: his courage during the amputation of his arm, the way he turned a blind eye at Copenhagen, and more salaciously his affair with Lady Hamilton. Yet he was also very diligent in carrying out his duties, he worked hard, in now widely used naval parlance, ‘to learn the ropes’, seeking out opportunities to improve his experience and get himself noticed. He also read widely in politics, history and literature, and spent time at home in reflection, learning, thinking and preparing for his next assignment. Furthermore, he quickly recognised that it’s not what you know and it’s not who you know that counts. It’s who knows what you know, which really matters. His uncle was already a senior officer in the Royal Navy when Nelson joined and he used his advocacy to good effect, but Nelson also took the opportunity to learn from other skilled mentors, such as Captain William Locker. Nelson served under him as a newly promoted lieutenant for only fifteen months, but his advice, wisdom and backing had a lasting effect.

Participative Leadership

Nelson was a very skilled participative leader. He knew instinctively how to build a team culture (his band of brothers) and this was an important part of his leadership style, which he based upon loyalty and trust. Nelson provided the framework, the overarching aims and objectives, but then gave away leadership when battle was joined. This style of leadership came to the fore at his victory at the Nile. As Captain Berry of HMS Vanguard observed:

“It had been his practice during the cruise, whenever the weather and circumstances would permit, to have his captains on board the Vanguard, where he would fully develop to them his own ideas of the different and best modes of attack, and such plans as he proposed to execute upon falling in with the enemy, whatever their position or situation might be, by day or by night. With the masterly ideas of their Admiral, therefore, on the subject of naval tactics, every one of the captains of his squadron was most thoroughly acquainted. Upon surveying the situation of the enemy, they could ascertain with precision what were the ideas and intentions of their commander, without aid of further instructions; by which means signals became almost unnecessary, much time was saved, and the attention of every captain could almost undistractedly be paid to the conduct of the ship.”

In short, Nelson delegated duties to competent men and let them get on with it. He explained goals and tasks clearly, and then did not interfere. He always supported his officers when they showed initiative and if things went wrong he defended them. He admired bold and decisive action in others as much as he followed this policy himself. He would rather mistakes were made occasionally than his men succumb to indecision and inactivity.

Inspiration

Inspiration is the action or power of stimulating the intellect or emotions in others through affection and communication. You may be effective through manipulative and unscrupulous means, but you will only be respected as a great leader if you aspire to great ideals, and practise them personally in the way you direct your organisation or team. Nelson was an advocate for the ‘we will’ rather than the ‘you will’ school of leadership, he presented himself as a role model.

Like all naval officers he employed formal sources of power: legitimate, reward based and coercive. But from this formal power Nelson also developed informal influence through his knowledge of the Navy, the workings of a ship and the demands of war. His reward power was limited in terms of cash and material benefits, but he never rationed praise and recognition. Nelson believed in public and profuse praise, openly acknowledging achievements. He assumed honour and recognition was as important to his crew as it was to him. Crucially, he was intrinsically motivated and this was infectious. It is difficult to inspire others if you’re not inspired yourself, so perhaps the key message to be a good leader is doing something that inspires you. Do you know what that is yet?

A lot more could be written about Nelson’s leadership style and I would be delighted to read your own thoughts and observations.

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Effective Meetings

3I am an introvert. That doesn’t mean I’m shy or afraid of what people might think of me: I’ve spent my career standing up in front of people. It just means that I tend to get my energy from quiet time, when I recharge my batteries, and I like time to think and reflect. You will not necessarily get the best out me by asking for my opinion at the drop of a whiteboard marker. I’m the sort of person who can leave a meeting thinking ‘I wish I’d said that.’

Meetings are most effective when they harness the unique insights of every member. So, when thinking about how to get the most out of meetings it’s worth considering if you have any introverts in your team. Conversely, it’s good to identify the extraverts too. Those who use talking as a way of focusing their thinking, and may leave a meeting thinking ‘I wish I hadn’t said that.’

The key is to give everyone the opportunity to speak their mind. In the first place make it clear that you want everyone’s opinion to be heard and they have permission to venture an ill-formed thought, without fear of being marked down or laughed out of the room. But setting clear ground rules is only the first step. You must follow through intentions with action and role model the behaviours you seek.

To allow introverts to contribute, send out the agenda and key documents a few days in advance. Also consider asking for everyone’s initial thoughts on the issue or issues before the meeting, then circulate them to all attendees. This helps to avoid anchoring and first speaker advantage, the tendency for social conformity to silence our individual beliefs and convictions.

Choose the running order deliberately. Either pick at random who will speak first or start with junior members first, this will help stop senior people dominating and again prevent anchoring. In the British Army’s Courts Martial System junior ranks always speak first during deliberations on the case in hand.

This can of course be rather daunting for some junior members of staff and for those of a more introverted nature, but to offset the personal cost of discord or looking foolish, encourage and reward their contributions. Welcome disagreement and good ideas, and make sure they get the credit for them. Chat to those who you think are too shy and explain the value of their input. At the end of the meeting, canvass the views of those who have not spoken. Ask them specifically how they feel about the issues discussed and have they anything they would like to add? After the meeting thank them and encourage them to speak more often.

Finally, and if you’re really feeling daring, try this for cutting short the digressions and long-winded rambling of the more effusive and extravert. Make clear in the ground rules that anyone is entitled to tap the table with their pen when they feel a colleague is going on a bit, and to keep tapping until they stop!

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How the pattern of conversation translates into collective intelligence

Migratory BirdsThis month I want to return to the topic of conversations, in particular the quality of conversations. In his book ‘Social Physics’ Alex Pentland relates the findings of his research into group intelligence. Surprisingly, the most important factor in predicting group intelligence was not group cohesion, motivation or satisfaction, but equality of conversational turn-taking. Groups where a few people dominated the conversation were less collectively intelligent than those with more equal distribution of turn-taking.

The second most important factor was the social intelligence of the group’s members, as measured by their ability to read each other’s signals. Women, he found, are better at this (no surprise there ladies!), so groups with more women tend to do better. What they appeared to be doing was enabling better idea flow by guiding the group toward briefer presentations of ideas, encouraging responses, and ensuring that everyone contributed equally.

Taken as a whole he found that three simple patterns emerged, which accounted for about half of the variation across groups and tasks:

1. A large number of ideas: many short contributions rather than a few long ones.

2. Dense interactions: a continuous, overlapping cycle between making contributions and very short (less than one second) responsive comments, such as ‘good’, ‘that’s right’, ‘what?’ etc. that serve to validate or invalidate the ideas and build consensus.

3. Diversity of ideas: everyone in the group contributing ideas and reactions, with similar levels of turn taking among participants.

The point is that collective intelligence emerges from the connections between individuals, rather than the intelligence of the individual participants. In particular, a pattern of interactions that supports the pooling of a diverse set of ideas, combined with an efficient winnowing system to establish a consensus. In short, it really is ‘all about the conversation’.

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The Bus to Abilene

Bus to AbileneIn a former life I worked in a big multinational organisation, with colleagues from Europe, America and Australia. We got on very well and felt that we were an efficient and effective strategic planning team. On one occasion however, as we sat fervently agreeing with each other about the way forward, an American colleague raised his hand, “Hold on there,” he said, “I think we may be getting on the bus to Abilene.” The Europeans and Australians among us looked at him nonplussed. What on earth did he mean?

I was recently reminded of this moment, when reading Susan Cain’s book ‘Quiet’. In it she quotes a retired US Army Colonel:

“…a family sitting on a porch in Texas on a hot summer day, and somebody says, ‘I’m bored. Why don’t we go to Abilene?’ When they get to Abilene, somebody says, ‘You know, I didn’t really want to go.’ And the next person says, ‘I didn’t want to go–I thought you wanted to go,’ and so on. Whenever you’re in an army group and somebody says, ‘I think we’re getting on the bus to Abilene here,’ that is a red flag. You can stop a conversation with it. It is a very powerful artifact [sic] of our [the army’s] culture.”

The idea actually comes from an article by Jerry B. Harvey, in a 1974 edition of ‘Organizational Dynamics’, titled “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement”. For me it carries two powerful lessons. The first is the danger that teams become isolated from external influence and the second is that teams come to value social harmony over productive challenge.

Social Network Analysis (SNA), which I wrote about in our June 2015 blog, highlights the advantages, but also the pitfalls of strong team bonds. Strong bonds amongst team members, stemming from trust and camaraderie, are great at making productive teams. Information is shared and teams work together toward shared goals. The downside is that such groups can become echo chambers, recirculating the same ideas and rejecting outside information and opinion unless it coincides with their own beliefs. He result is conformity and a lack of innovation. They are doing things right, but not doing the right things.

The second danger is that people withhold contradictory information and fail to challenge the team out of a misguided sense of loyalty. They consent to do something, despite having misgivings, in order to be seen as a ‘team player’ and to avoid conflict. At worst, it is laziness and cowardice, at best it is a sign that the team is too polite. In Tuckman’s parlance, they are avoiding the unpleasant, but necessary, phase of ‘storming’.

So how can team members and leaders avoid getting on the bus to Abilene? Internally, the team should be made aware of the causes and consequences of what Irving Janis described as ‘Groupthink’, and the leader should encourage an atmosphere of open inquiry, giving a fair hearing to objections and doubts, perhaps by assigning the role of devil’s advocate to a strong member of the group. Externally, the team should not lose sight of their external environment. Tentative decisions should be discussed with trusted colleagues not in the decision-making group and outside experts should be consulted for their views.

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Know the Game

Rugby World CupIn the run up to the Rugby World Cup I happen to have been doing a lot of work with teams. They have come from a variety of sectors but shared a common theme: grappling with changes to their structure at a time of considerable flux in their business environment. A not uncommon occurrence these days.

A useful start point for such work, as well as describing where they feel they are now as team, is to define and agree what a high performing team looks like, thereby giving them a goal to aspire to. The framework I chose, explicitly or implicitly, was inspired in part by the World Cup, and describes a high performing team as one where its members ‘know the game’, ‘know the rules,’ and know the score’.

‘Know the Game’ describes each member knowing what the team is trying to achieve; knowing their part in it and having the individual skills to contribute to the full. ‘Know the Rules’ refers to knowing how to work together, both the formal and informal rules. While, ‘Know the Score’ is defined as knowing how you are doing; having a clear understanding and sight of the measures and processes. I found it useful in its simplicity, but immensely valuable because it sparked a powerful conversation around what the teams do, how they do it and how they know they have been successful, without being too academic or esoteric. In addition, it allows an examination of individual roles and responsibilities, and of organizational culture. Thus bridging the gap between the micro and the macro.

With some teams it can also act as a useful metaphor, allowing them to visualize what a great team looks like from their own experience of sport, either through participating or watching.  I commend it to you.

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