Setting Standards for Team Work

flip-chart-1“There is nothing more uncommon than common sense.” – Frank Lloyd Wright

In our team building programs for leaders, I’ve worked with many managers from both public and private sector organizations. One of the questions I usually pose early on is, “How many of you have established a set of expected behaviours with your teams?” This is usually followed by a pretty sparse show of hands. I often don’t even get to use my second question which is, “How many of you re-examine these group norms periodically?” Many people dismiss these ideas with variations of the statement, “That’s all just common sense.” In my experience, common sense is a poor substitute for open discussion and agreement.

What you can do:

Here’s a quick team building exercise to help you open the conversation about your team interactions and establish some ground rules to make you more effective together.

  1. Introduce the topic at a meeting in which you have 30-60 minutes to dedicate to the initiative. Write out on a flip chart or include on the agenda the idea: “The development into a high performance team is a gradual and deliberate process. What can we all do ‘more of’ and ‘less of’ to move our team towards high performance?”
  2. Form subgroups of 3 to 5 people and give each a flip chart page. Have them divide the page into 2 columns. At the top of one column they can write the words “more of” and, at the top of the other, the words “less of”.
  3. Ask each group to brainstorm ideas for behaviours they’d like to see from themselves and their team mates and record them in the appropriate column. Remember: no judging ideas at this stage.
  4. Next, ask them to discuss the ideas and select the top 5 that they agree on for each column.
  5. Each group can present their “top fives” and the entire team can select their collective top fives. Strive for consensus here.
  6. Consolidate the lists on a flip chart and post it at the next meeting. Check in at the beginning of the meeting to remind people, and at the end to reflect on how you did.

This should be a regular and recurring process to keep your team conscious of the behaviours that lead to high performance. It reminds them that they not only influence how their team performs, but that they are also responsible for it.

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Valuing Team Conflict

conflict-cartoon-2“If we agree on everything, then one of us is unnecessary.”

Conflict has gotten a bad reputation. It can make us feel threatened and uncomfortable. It can shut down communication and even cripple our ability to think. But some conflicts – not all – if they are handled constructively, can give tremendous opportunities for teams to examine their assumptions, see broader perspectives and generate creative solutions. In fact, true team collaboration may not be possible without some form of conflict.

A few years ago, I got a call from an executive who was looking for a team building solution to get his leadership team to contribute more ideas during meetings. “I’d like to know what’s on their minds,” he said. “We have these weekly meetings and I feel like I’m the only one with any ideas on how to deal with the issues. How can ten smart people have so little to contribute?” So, we set up a full day team building program to help the team experience some successful collaboration, and to have them openly examine their own processes. We managed to get through an energizing icebreaker with lots of laughter and some good ideas surfacing, but things took a bad turn shortly into the first real team challenge. Just as the team arrived at the crux of the problem, a booming voice yelled, “Stop!” All eyes turned to the executive who proceeded to bark instructions to everyone in the group until the problem was more or less solved. Now, periodically he stopped to ask if everyone agreed with “the plan” and, of course, everyone nodded vigorously each time. But, I think you see the problem here …

In a truly collaborative environment, all people on the team feel they have permission to contribute to a solution, and that means they have permission to disagree. They express their “contrary” ideas openly and constructively, both with their peers and with their managers. For such a constructive environment to exist, a number of conditions must be met:

  • Trust must be high. There can be no punishment, emotional or otherwise, for putting an idea forward or for respectfully disagreeing with anyone. And no “blame” for ideas that the team had agreed to but turned out badly.
  • Respect must be high. Treat ideas and opinions as if they are a gift of great value. Learn to say “thanks” whether you agree or not.
  • Judgement must be suspended on ideas and opinions until they have a chance to be understood by all. We at Summit say, “Love every idea for ten seconds.”
  • Commitment to success must be high. The focus must be on achieving the stated goal, together and in the best way possible considering time available; not on being “the one who saved the day”.
  • Listening skills must be high. If you are leader with a team of 10 people and you are the one talking most of the time … well, you may want to reflect on that.
  • A “win-win” attitude must prevail. When people have different ideas or options available, there must be a genuine attempt to find a solution that honours the best of both.

There are two more conditions for team collaboration that usually rest in the leader’s ball court: patience and humility. The leader must be humble enough to accept that other people’s ideas might be just as good as his/her own and patient enough to invest adequate time in the process of collaboration.

On the other hand, if the room is on fire, barking out orders is still ok.

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Synergy: When one plus one equals three

canoeists-2Synergy is what happens when one plus one equals ten or a hundred or even a thousand! It’s the profound result when two or more respectful human beings determine to go beyond their preconceived ideas to meet a great challenge” –Stephen Covey

Have you ever been on a team where everything seemed to click? You all knew the goal, you were all committed to it and, amongst you, you had all the skills to achieve something that none of you could do alone. That is pretty much the definition of synergy. And synergy is what high performance teams achieve.

Some years ago, I had the good fortune to lead a group of ten very “differently-abled” people on a 5-day wilderness canoe trip. Now, this was a trip with significant distances to cover on the water, numerous rugged portages and daily camp set-up along with all the “group dynamics” challenges that one would expect when people are exposed to clouds of biting bugs, periods of pouring rain and prolonged physical effort. That trip remains one of the most memorable and inspirational experiences of my life. I could probably draw out every lesson on team building that I’ve ever learned from those five days, but one experience in particular remains vivid.

Picture this:

It’s late afternoon on a remote and pristine northern lake. Although it’s sunny, a strong headwind has whipped the middle of the lake into a seemingly endless series of whitecaps. All but the very margin of the lake is essentially a ‘no-go” zone for paddlers in these conditions. But a fleet of 5 canoes inches its way along the leeward side of the rocky, pine-covered shoreline. Each canoe is fully-loaded. The paddlers are working hard. Their heads are down, and they lean forward into every paddle stroke to make progress against relentless wind and waves. Among the group, a pair of weary young men stand out. They paddle their canoe efficiently, periodically switching sides in one smooth motion to save their tiring arms. You can hear only an occasional word between the two, perhaps a signal or a word of encouragement. It’s only when you look closely that you notice that the rear paddler is propped somewhat awkwardly in the stern. In fact, he is the only paddler in the group with an improvised back rest holding him upright. His arms move the paddle with somewhat constrained movements. His head swivels and eyes dart as he searches for the best “line” of travel. But his legs don’t – in fact, can’t – move. You can’t see it but he is paralyzed from the waist down. His forward power is obviously limited since he invests a good part of his energy in keeping himself upright and in a position to steer the canoe. Being in the stern, steering to the best “line” is his number one job. And he does it well.

It doesn’t matter that the stern paddler lacks forward power. The man in the bow is built like a brick; solid, strong and, evidently, powerful enough for both of them. He is totally focused. His head turns neither left nor right; he always faces straight ahead. And he never misses a beat. Now, you can’t see this either, but if you could look past his dark glasses you would discover that he is completely blind. He has been since birth. He is also smiling because can sense the fresh breeze and sun on his face, and, importantly, feel the canoe respond to every well-placed paddle stroke.

This is a true story. These two people, one sighted but paralysed, the other blind but physically strong, were thrown together with a challenge that neither could have faced alone. They put their preconceived notions aside, ratcheted up their courage and performed together in a way that left me awestruck. They each brought everything they had to table, learned to work together and didn’t stop until they were done. Now that was teamwork.

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Implementing and Consolidating Change

Untitled“A good vision and strategy quickly deteriorates into real work.”

Many of the best plans for change stride confidently into the spotlight, create a momentary buzz, and then shuffle off-stage without leaving a lasting impression. Apart from endlessly repeating the change vision, how do we convert employee commitment to results? It takes hard work and persistence. Here are a few ideas for making change happen and stick.

  1. Make structures compatible with the vision. For instance, if you are moving to an integrated team approach to sales and service, establish cross-functional teams that have complementary skills and the common goal of seamless customer service.
  2. Align practices, policies, systems. This may mean changing things such as compensation systems, standardized procedures, communications policies, etc. so that the desired behaviours (such as collaboration) are rewarded.
  3. Provide the training employees need. This might mean developing skills in using new software or operating new equipment. It might also mean training people to work better in teams, or organizing simple team building programs so they can reach new levels of commitment and performance.
  4. Generate and publicize short-term wins. Break the big plan into smaller pieces so people can feel the exhilaration of success. And, share the stories with other employees who could use a little home-grown inspiration to help them over the hump.
  5. Deal with managers who undercut needed change. Sometimes people can actively resist change. Other times they can undercut the efforts by being too “soft” in their approach or allowing others to drag their heels. If coaching doesn’t address the issue, some people may need to be let go.

A common mistake in bringing about organizational change is declaring victory too soon. Act to consolidate the change into the culture of the organization by:

  1. Celebrating and building on the short term wins.
  2. Rewarding and promoting the individuals and teams who make gains in implementing the vision.
  3. Keeping the new vision and desired culture in mind when you hire new employees.

There is a lot to remember when you are bringing about a change initiative; many skills to practice and master. Ask us about the ExperienceChange© program if you want your key change agents to understand and become adept at bringing about lasting change. We are here to help.

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Communicate Your Change Vision

butterfly“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” –George Bernard Shaw

The above statement is never more true than in the change process. Even when you get the words just right, people naturally make assumptions and add their own meanings based on their unique experiences and interpretations. What they understand will often be very different than what you thought you conveyed. So, what do you and your core change team need to keep in mind as you communicate your change vision?

  1. Give a clear and concise “big picture” view of where you want to go – the destination – and how it will make things better for them, for the team and for the organization. This should answer the two important questions: “What is the change?” and “Why are we doing this?”
  2. Communicate face-to-face. Yes, emails and teleconferences can also be used, but nothing beats bringing people together so you can answer questions, check assumptions and help them place the entire initiative into their own work context. Also, when you are face-to-face with people, you can more effectively deliver important “emotional meaning” such as empathy, urgency, resolve and optimism. Everyone on your core change team should follow up with frequent one-on-one conversations with individuals and small groups to check understanding.
  3. Say it over, and over, and over again. You likely didn’t create and grasp the entire vision and its implications in a single flash of insight. They won’t either. Be relentless.
  4. Also, be consistent in your messaging. Everyone on your core change team must have the same messages, and they must show unwavering commitment to the change. This means you don’t let people “off the hook” if they aren’t adapting. (You can still be kind and patient about it though.)
  5. Use stories and metaphors to help people connect to the vision.
  6. Lead by example. If part of your change vision involves cutting costs, then don’t fly the private company jet to the next board meeting.

A final word on this topic: communication of a change initiative does not fit into a single, discreet step. Nor is it a simple one-way activity. It really must happen at every stage of the process, and it should involve listening as much as telling.

In the next post we’ll look at two more steps to guide you in enacting change.

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