How to Design a Team

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I attended your workshop on organizational structure and levels of work. I am a manager without much influence in the company. I want to implement the principles you talked about to design my team. Do I have to wait for the rest of the company or can I start without them.

Response:
Start without them. In the midst of any organization, any manager can be a more effective in the design of the work. Start with your own team. Ask yourself these questions –

  • What is the work output expected from my team? Quality standard? Volume of output?
  • What are all the elements required? Materials, people, equipment, tools, consumables?
  • What is the sequence of work elements? What are the steps in the production of output?
  • Does each step in production require a dedicated role or can multiple steps be combined into a single role? What roles are required?
  • In each role, what is the level of work required? What decisions have to be made by each role? What problems have to be solved by each role?
  • What is the sequence of work between roles?
  • What is the work output standard from one role handed off to the next step in the sequence?
  • How often are standards inspected? Are standards inspected embedded into production roles or are standards inspected a separate role?
  • What decisions have to be made, problems have to be solved in the inspection steps?

You may find that drawing this sequence on piece of paper will be visually helpful in creating your team design. As you create this drawing, you may find value in more detail or less detail.

This is an exercise in designing work. One of the biggest problems most teams face is that managers do not adequately think about or design the work of their teams. With the work designed, including decision making and problem solving, you can now describe, in detail, each role definition.

Only with an accurate role definition, can you now be more effective at hiring the right people for the role. -Tom

The Attractiveness of Work

“What is it that this game has, that is so attractive to your son, that he will go without food, water and sleep, in spite of discouragement from his mom (manager)?” I asked. “Your son has achieved a high level of competence in this video game without the traditional trappings of learning, without the traditional trappings of inducement. Yet he continues to play hard.”

“Well, for one thing, it must be fun, it’s play, not work,” Jamie explained.

“And, as a manager, what can we take from that, when we think about our teams and their behavior?”

“Yes, but work isn’t all that much fun,” Jamie protested. “People don’t like work. They like play, but they don’t like work.”

“Jamie, I have looked at your son playing a video game and it doesn’t look all that different than what some of your people do at work. They both sit at a keyboard, staring at a computer screen. As they touch the keys, things move on the screen.”

“I don’t see your comparison, they are two different things.”

“But if you could see the comparison, what would you see?”

Jamie had to think, but she finally spoke. “In the mind of my son, he is part of something bigger than himself, trying to achieve certain levels in the game. As he makes progress, he gets real-time feedback (automatically), so he can adjust his play. When he makes the level, there is a small electronic celebration on the screen.”
_____
Leaving Shanghai today, bound for San Francisco. Quick trip around the world in five days.

Didn’t Do It For the Money

The conversation was now personal. We talked about Jamie’s son and his behavior related to a video game. We had established that he never attended a training program, never read a training manual, was discouraged from learning the game by his manager (Jamie, his mom). Furthermore, in spite of all these front-end adverse conditions, he achieved a high level of mastery, in playing the game.

“So, Jamie, you also told me that you did not pay your son a bonus when he achieved certain levels within the game?”

Jamie started with a chuckle, but it quickly turned to an outright laugh. “You clearly don’t know my son. Paying him to play a video game is not part of our family culture. That would be a bit over the top. As his mom (manager), I would have to be crazy. He doesn’t play the game for money.”

“What? Teenagers don’t have expenses?” I asked.

“That’s not the point,” Jamie explained. “He doesn’t play for money.”

“So, what does he play for? What does he get from the game that has caused him to spend hours achieving a high level of competence, without external inducements for his performance?”

“Well, he must be getting some internal reward for it.” Jamie guessed.

“And how would describe that internal reward? What is it?”

“Motivation?”

I nodded. “Yes, motivation, and here is where the conversation gets interesting.”
____
First day in Shanghai. This place is very Chinese.

Sacrificing Sleep and Food

“So, what gives?” Jamie asked. “Our company spends a lot of its resources on training, planning, development programs. Why do they always seem to run out of gas? You suggest we are missing something on the back end.”

“When I look at behavior, I think we, as managers, truly miss the boat. We are always looking at the front end of the behavior instead of the back end. And the back end, the consequences of behavior, are much more powerful drivers than the front end.”

“I am not sure what you mean,” Jamie responded.

“Jamie, you have a teenager at home, right?”

“Oh, yeah, somewhere in his room, beneath the glow of some Realm vs Realm computer game, I think there is a teenager in there somewhere.”

“Tell me, how complicated is that video game?”

“Oh, boy, I can’t make heads or tails of it. When I look at that screen, there is so much stuff going on, including multiple chat channels, voice over the Internet, status panels, swords, animals, shields, walking, running, flying, transporting, vaporizing.”

“So, to learn how to play that game, you must have sent your son to an expensive training class?” I asked.

Jamie started to laugh. “Are you kidding? He just sat in there for hours and hours, without eating or sleeping. I don’t know how he learned it, but it wasn’t from a training class.”

“You mean, you didn’t encourage him. You didn’t bring in a motivational speaker. You didn’t make him practice?”

“No way, quite the opposite. We discourage him from playing the game, sometimes we even ground him from playing.”

“So, let me get this straight,” I began, “your son has learned to play a computer game at an extremely high level of competence, without going to a single training program. Sometimes he skips meals and sleep to continue playing this game. He does it in spite of his manager’s (mom’s) discouragement. Everything that has been done, up front, violates everything we know about competence and mastery. So, what’s happening?”
____
At this moment, I am likely in the air between Vienna, Austria and Shanghai, China. Presenting to two groups of managers on Levels of Work.

Failure of Front End Influence

“So, what do you think was missing?” I asked.

Jamie retraced the steps of her company’s Quality Circles program. Like many good ideas, there was nothing wrong with the program. It was clearly designed to bring out the best in her people. It had short term results, but, in spite of a great deal of up-front planning and expense, the program experienced an early death.

“You are suggesting,” Jamie began, “that we did our front end work well, but we were missing something on the back end?”

I nodded. “One primary function of a manager is to influence behavior. Indeed, to influence behavior, we spend a lot of time in meetings, developing programs, teaching, training, writing manuals. We spend a lot of time up front, trying to influence behavior.”

It was Jamie’s turn to nod. I continued. “While those things we do up front do have an influence, most behavior is not prompted by what comes before but by the consequences that happen after. As Managers, we spend a lot of time training. We see high performance in the training room, but a week later, nothing has changed in the field. The fire is out, the behavior gone.”

What Curbed the Enthusiasm?

“Why do you think your Quality Circles program eventually ran out of gas?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Jamie explained, “people just lost interest, I guess.”

“And why did they lose interest?”

“Well, at first, there was this gung-ho enthusiasm. It was new, but eventually the newness wore off.”

“When you look at the Quality Circles program (or any program) that your company developed, what did you design in, to sustain the program?”

Jamie almost chortled. “Design? We figured if it got started, it would just keep going.”

“Jamie, if you could, think back. Exactly how long did it take for the Quality Circles behavior to die off?”

“I remember, pretty clearly, we started right after the new year, but by March, it was over.”

“So, it took two and half months for the behavior to die off,” I guessed. “And you spent a bunch of money on a consultant to show you how to do this?”

“Oh, yeah, we had a couple of books that we had to read, and we had meetings, planning sessions. It was a big production, right down to the costumes.”

“Costumes?”

“Well, yeah, we had these shirts we were supposed to wear. It was okay, at first, but after a while, people started making fun of the people who wore the shirts.”

“So, there was a great deal of activity, planning and thinking about this beforehand, but not much thinking about what happened after. Jamie, I want you to think long and hard about this sequence.

  • A lot of activity before the behavior
  • Then the behavior
  • The behavior died off.”

Jamie squinted her eyes, clearly imagining the sequence. “So, we did a lot of stuff up front, but didn’t do much on the back end.”

“Yes, so what do you think was missing?”

Goodbye, Irma

I want to thank everyone for the warm wishes during the hurricane. We missed a bullet over here on the east coast of Florida. Got pounded for 18 hours, but most winds stayed under 90mph. We lost power Sunday morning around 8a, probably won’t get it back for a week or so. Funny, I can’t brew a cup of coffee, but I can send a post to all my friends around the world.

I am afraid those on the other side of the state were not so lucky. Lots of other folks in desperate need, more than me.

Lots of re-building to do. Here’s a link to donate to the Red Cross. You can designate where you want your donation to go.

For those of you in Houston, we will see you Thursday, flying into IAH. -Tom

How We Get to Customs and Rituals

Some time ago, writing a role description, I added Culture as a Key Result Area. What is the accountability of a manager in the Key Result Area (KRA) of Company Culture?

There are several frames in which to look at company culture. The one I currently kick around is –
That unwritten set of rules that governs our required behavior in the work that we do together. It is an unwritten set of rules in contrast to our written set of rules, policies, procedures. And, culture is often more powerful than any policy we may write or attempt to officially enforce. Sometimes, culture even works against our stated policy.

What is the accountability of a manager in the Key Result Area (KRA) of Company Culture?

  • What is the source of culture, where does it start?
  • How is culture visible, how do we see it?
  • How is culture tested?
  • How is culture institutionalized, reinforced and perpetuated?

These are the four questions in the Culture Cycle.

Culture Starts
The source of culture is the way we see the world. It includes our bias, our experience, our interpretation of our experience. Culture is the story we carry into our experience that provides the lens, the frame, the tint, the brightness or darkness of that story.

Culture is Visible
Culture, the way we see the world drives our behavior. We cannot see the bias in others. We cannot see their interpretations of the world. We cannot see the story people carry in their minds, but, we can see behavior. Culture drives behavior. Behavior makes culture visible.

Tested
Behavior, driven by culture, is constantly tested against the reality of consequences. For better or worse, behaviors driven by culture are proven valid, or not. Our culture stands for what we tolerate. This is counter to the notion of the lofty intentions of honesty and integrity. Our culture stands for the behaviors we tolerate.

Customs and Rituals
Behaviors that survive, for better or worse, are institutionalized in our rituals and customs. This ranges from the peer lunch on a team member’s first day at work (for better), to the hazing in a fraternity house (for worse). But, it all starts with the way we see the world. -Tom Foster

It Was Never About the Schedule

Deana had my curiousity. “The ops manager said he was afraid to show everyone what he was doing. But, now that the cat was out of the bag, he explained. He understood the sandbagging. He said each person on the team, and he called them by name, thought they were being sneaky by adding extra days to the project schedule, when, in fact, sometimes things go wrong and those extra days might be necessary. He called those extra days, buffers.

“He showed us his secret project schedule where he took all the buffers away from each segment of the project and put them at the end. He was afraid that if people saw their buffers disappear, they would get mad at him, so he kept it a secret.

“The schedule still had the buffer days, but they were all at the end. As the project went along, some of the buffer days were needed, so he would move only the necessary buffer days back to the segment. So, if a project segment went long, they still had buffer days.

“When the last segment was completed, there were still eleven unused buffer days. Guess what that meant?” Deana teased.

I just stared. Waiting for her discovery.

“That means the project came in eleven days ahead of schedule. In all my time here, we never brought a project in ahead of schedule.”

“What was the most important lesson in all this?” I asked.

“You were right in the beginning,” Deana replied. “The issue had nothing to do with the schedule. It was all about the team.”

This series has been an illustration of Basic Assumption Mental State, affectionately known as BAMs. The mental state of a group can shift in seconds. Teams can go into BAMs in a heartbeat, moving from Work into Non-work. It takes courage, and some skill to shift back into work mode. BAMs is most clearly defined in the book Experiences in Groups, by Wilfred Bion, brilliantly captured by Pat Murray and now by Eric Coryell in the stories they tell.

Project buffers is a concept illustrated by Eli Goldratt in his book Critical Chain.

Underneath the Secret Schedule

“What is different about the team, now?” I was curious.

Deana tilted her head back, looking for the answer in the corner of the ceiling. “The team is in learning mode,” she said.

“Are we back to that search for the truth?” I chuckled.

“I believe we are,” Deana smiled back. “Speaking for myself, of course.”

“So, tell me about the project schedule,” I wanted to know. “That’s how this all started. Now that the team is in learning mode, what was up with the project schedule. Was the ops manager the culprit? Did he manipulate the schedule?”

“Funny you ask.” Deana thought lots of things were funny. “It turns out the ops manager did have two schedules. He explained that when the estimates were made about how much time it would take for each segment of the project, everyone on the team sandbagged the schedule. I stopped him right there, and asked him not to use the word everyone. I said, if someone on the team was sandbagging the schedule, he should tell them directly, in the team meeting.”

“And, how did that go over?” I asked.

“Oh, just peachy,” Deana said. “He started laughing, and said okay. He then went one by one around the room and told everyone about their contribution to this bloated schedule. He told Bob that he only needed three days, but put five days on the schedule. He told Joe that he needed six days, but put twelve on the schedule. Around the room he went, each person in turn.”

“And, how did each person respond?”

“Amazing. They all agreed that they sandbagged the schedule, because they didn’t want to be late.”

“Was the team in work mode or non-work mode?”

“Definitely, work mode. Everyone was paying attention, listening, contributing, speaking for themselves. And we were working the problem. We had sandbagging, a published schedule and a secret schedule.”

“So, what was with the secret schedule?” I asked.