It’s hard to know how to respond to events of the magnitude of those that have been in the headlines, except to acknowledge that the quest for social justice feels really, really, enormous.
As readers will know, I have been arguing for some time that the allocation of corporate profits away from shared prosperity and toward the executive-and-investor group has destroyed good jobs in the United States and decimated the middle class. That perspective will clearly have to expand in light of a system that is also systematically prejudiced.
With the hope of adding a little actionable positivity, I thought it would be useful this month to explore the question of what makes some teams effective, inclusive, and, as Amy Edmondson would say, fearless.
Great Teams Can Accomplish Extraordinary Things
One of my favorite leadership examples is that of the extraordinary Alan Mulally. He was the CEO who joined Ford Motor Company when it was in deep, dark trouble in 2006. During his eight-year tenure there, he is credited with reviving the company’s fortunes in a legendary turnaround whose story became the basis for a best-selling business book. While there were many elements that led to Mulally’s success, he would say that at the core was the dismantling of Ford’s “Game of Thrones” culture which he replaced with a practice he called “working together,” with an emphasis on inclusive, high-trust teamwork among his senior leadership team members.
This one-page handout summarizes Mulally’s expected behaviors on the team. He had zero tolerance for bad behaviors—talking over each other, paying attention to devices, not your teammates, being late, and so forth. It was simply not tolerated, and everybody knew it. You can watch a video of Alan explaining the core ideas here.
Slices of Genius
A similar set of leadership and teamwork ideas informed my recent Friday Fireside Chat conversation with Harvard Professor Linda Hill. In her co-authored book Collective Genius, she draws a distinction between the kind of leadership that might be suitable when a task is largely well understood and that which is necessary for unearthing creative solutions to new problems. When you need a truly original response, she argues, the job of the leader is creating an environment in which separate slices of genius are woven into a solution that reflects collective genius. The role of the leader is not so much to encourage people to adopt their vision as it is to create the context in which innovative problem solving can take place.
She points out what it takes to create a context in which people are willing to innovate and able to innovate. Three elements are key: 1) Collaboration that facilitates “creative abrasion” between diversely talented people; 2) Discovery-driven learning that facilitates creative agility; and 3) Integrative decision-making that represents creative resolution. Among the qualities she finds to be incredibly important and essential are that leaders need to make sure that the minority voice is head—a very timely reminder for all of us. Among the leaders she features in the book is Ed Catmull, famous for designing the process at Pixar that resulted in blockbuster hit after blockbuster hit in an industry widely known for more flops than successes.
How Thinking About Teams Has Evolved
Like so many other things, teams at work are not what they once were. A widely used perspective on team development, created by Bruce Tuckman in the 60’s, suggested that teams go through four stages en route to learning to operate with high levels of proficiency. These are forming, storming, norming, and performing.
- Forming is the process by which a new team comes together, characterized generally by politeness, excitement, and a desire to get going on the team’s task.
- Storming happens some time into the project or program when disagreements and differences begin to appear between members who are now getting to know one another, not always in the most positive way.
- Norming sometimes follows, as the generally subpar performance of the storming period gives way to the establishment of productive ways of working together and effectiveness begins to be routine.
- Performing is the stage at which a team is able to seamlessly and effectively work together to produce results.
Tuckman later added a fifth phase, “adjourning,” as a team completes its mandate and moves on.
That traditional teaming model is starting to look a tad battered. It was designed in an era where “teams” were far more stable creatures than those we have today. Teams don’t necessarily progress neatly through the stages—in fact some may not progress at all and get stuck in “storming.” Or “storming” pops up again at another point in the process. The sheer velocity of change organizations are asked to absorb has accelerated.
With the advent of widespread virtual working, the “normal” team processes are much harder to accomplish. Teams form and disband at an unprecedented pace—who has the time for all that “norming”? And we’re beginning to understand the effects of newer constructs around what makes a team effective—such as Amy Edmondson’s discovery of psychological safety—that don’t have a place in that model. Just to recap, Edmondson found that an environment in which people are afraid to speak up with divergent data or a disconfirming point of view is an environment in which mistakes are more common and opportunities are overlooked.
You can see a replay of my Friday Fireside Chat with Edmondson here.
Team effectiveness is even harder to create if team members are on opposite ends of deeply polarizing issues, as those that are boiling up in workplaces and communities worldwide. We urgently need to get better at creating effective teams. Here are some ideas to get you started.
How to Have a Lousy Meeting
This is a great exercise to use when a new team is coming together. I use it with teams working on projects in groups at my Columbia Executive Education classes.
The task? Ask people if they’ve ever been in a lousy meeting. Then have them spell out what made it so awful—and you’ll get a litany of horrors. Latecomers. Digital distractions. That bore who won’t stop talking. No agenda. No clarity on purpose … you are probably groaning inwardly by now, dear reader.
With that introduction, send the team off to create its own “lousy meeting” list and then (this is the important part) commit NOT to do those things when they are together. These should be recorded for posterity and put up on a flip chart or whiteboard when the team gets together. This is the equivalent of Alan Mulally monitoring the processes of his leadership get-togethers.
Another useful idea along these lines is to assign roles for when the team gets together. A process checker (to make sure we’re not falling into lousy meeting behaviors). A time-keeper, so that we don’t waste valuable time on low-priority items. And an organizer, who sets the agenda and figures out whether the group is on track. And perhaps a scribe who captures what’s going on. I recommend rotating the roles—don’t fall into the trap of assigning women or the lowest power person in the room to be the note-taker, for instance.
If I Can’t Storm and Norm My Way to Progress, What Do I Do?
To create psychological safety, a strong underpinning of effective teams, Amy Edmondson suggests three specific leadership activities. The first is setting the stage—the leader in this case emphasizes what’s at stake, and why it matters, as well as their expectations with respect to experimentation, failure, and the need for everyone to have a voice. The second is to invite participation. This involves asking good questions and genuinely listening. It involves creating structures such as discussion guidelines and forums for people to engage. Finally, leaders can respond productively—handle failures well and sanction bad behavior. This all goes a long way to creating a team that can freely share information.
Once you have an effective team, how do you get that good stuff to spread? Some ideas:
- Divide and Grow: This idea, pioneered and adhered to by companies like 3M, is that you let a great team grow until it starts to get unwieldy. Then you can split it apart and because the members have already worked with one another you don’t have to start from scratch with creating team effectiveness.
- Onboarding: This is a great practice that I first learned at Chubb and then Nokia. When a new person joins, existing staff are expected to help them learn about the organization, who they should meet, who the influencers are, and so forth. Making the time for this is crucial to get the best out of your newcomers.
- Temporary Task Forces: These are super useful when you’d like to get diverse points of view weighing in on an issue. The task force members leave their “home” team to work on something specific, then rejoin when that topic gets to closure. Bonus points—this is a great way to bring your diverse, younger, and underrepresented talent in contact with more senior people!
- Shadowing: In this practice, members of a team can shadow someone from another team or organization to see how they do things. Satya Nadella credits shadowing Reed Hastings of Netflix as an inspiration for decisions he made later at Microsoft.
- Seconding: In this practice, team members trade places for a bit with people from another team, which teaches them how other teams work and helps spread good practice across the organization.
A Time-Tested Diagnostic
In next month’s newsletter, I’ll be sharing a research-based, well-vetted diagnostic that you can use with your team to assess its effectiveness and get to the bottom of any issues that people aren’t talking about. If you’d like to benchmark your team, see where you stand on different topics relative to team effectiveness, or begin to make some interventions with a team you are afraid is running off the rails, this can be hugely helpful.
Want to learn more? Please contact Missy@ritamcgrath.com to schedule a presentation.
Toward Effective, Inclusive, Psychologically Safe Teams
Teams that work effectively together can accomplish wondrous things, as the example of Alan Mulally at Ford illustrates. That being said, getting to that stage often involves working on the team, not just in the team. And if you, like so many other leaders, are newly concerned about how to get the best out of all your talent, creating the space to work on the team can pay back, massively.