Category Archives: Teams

Most of the Time, It’s the Manager

“Oh, man, they did it again!” Ralph exclaimed, covering his face.

“And how did you help them screw up?” I asked.

Ralph peeked between his fingers. “What do you mean? I didn’t have any part in this.”

“I know, I know,” I agreed. “But if you did contribute to the problem, what was it?”

Ralph started to chuckle, hands now propped on his hips. “Well, if I did have a hand in this, it was picking this group of knuckleheads in the first place. And I probably didn’t explain what needed to happen very well.”

“Indeed. As a manager, before we jump to blame the team, it is always important to ask the question.

“How did I contribute to the problem?

“The Manager is usually at the center of what goes wrong.” -Tom

What Went Wrong?

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

We had a deliverable and the engineers on the project came in 3 days late. They finished the project and the quality was solid, so we want to acknowledge their success AND we also want to understand why they didn’t deliver on time. Extra hours were not put in near the end of the project to meet the delivery date. We struggle with acknowledging success when they are simply just doing what they were hired to do.

Response:

It really doesn’t matter what you, as the manager, think. The only thing that matters is what your engineers think. Based on your description, time sensitivity, or sense of urgency was not top of mind.

Project effectiveness, in this case is mixed. While the technical side may have been solidly constructed, the client may have lost several thousand dollars per day because of the delay. Many construction contracts contain liquidated damages for failure to meet deadlines. Most construction litigation is based around damages due to delay-claims.

So, time is important, in many cases, critical.

At the conclusion of every major project, I always insist on a post postmortem meeting to review the following questions:

  • What did we expect?
  • What did we do well?
  • What went wrong?
  • What can we do next time to prevent this from going wrong?

These questions would allow your engineers to pat themselves on the back for things done well and give them the opportunity to address real issues of underperformance.

On an extended project, I use these same questions at interim checkpoints.

  • What do we expect?
  • What are we doing well?
  • What is going wrong, what is beginning to slip?
  • What corrective action do we need to take, now, to get back on course?

Expecting engineers to call their own meeting to ask these questions will never happen. That is your responsibility, as the manager. Remember, what you think doesn’t matter. What matters is what your engineers think. -Tom

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 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

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.

How to Move a Team from Non-Work to Work

“And?” I asked.

“And, the ops manager spoke up,” Deana continued. “He said he was sorry he had been so defensive, and that he had been so secretive about the project schedule.

“It was funny, the ops manager spoke for himself. And, when he spoke for himself, you could see the tension in the room relax. It was still intense, but the team went into problem solving mode.”

“No one rolled their eyes at this point?” I smiled.

“No, it was like something came over the team. Something shifted. In that moment, they stopped avoiding the problem and started solving the problem. They went from non-work mode to work mode. In non-work mode, they were in a trance, unconscious. They were talking in pairs outside the meeting, talking about each other behind our collective backs. There was collusion, a revolt was brewing. Worse, the problem was untouchable.”

“And what was the problem?” I asked.

“It had nothing to do with the schedule,” Deana nodded. “It had to do with the team.”

“And, what made the shift?”

Deana had to think through the chain of events. “Part of it was persistence. I knew the problem was still there, we just couldn’t talk about it. But, I talked about it anyway. And you made me speak only for myself.

“And, when I put the issue back out on the table, the team went right back into panic mode. Bob rolled his eyes. When I told him how it made me feel, that was the shift. The issue was on the table and it was going to stay there. No rolling of the eyes, no sarcastic remark was going to move the issue off the table. Even my manager didn’t dare shut down the discussion. This team was going to dig in and deal with it. That shift took about five seconds. Everything changed.”

“And your manager?”

“Yes, my manager,” Deana smiled again. “My manager was afraid the discussion would blow the team apart. Turns out, it welded the team together.”

How to Confront a Team in BAMs

“How did it go? You had your team meeting yesterday. Did you speak up?” I asked.

Deana nodded. “Yes, I was nervous. My manager already shut down this discussion once before, but I took the risk.”

“So, what did it sound like?” I wanted to know.

“You told me I would be okay as long as I spoke for myself. I knew my manager would cut me off if she began to feel uncomfortable, if she felt the discussion might get out of control. So that’s the first thing I talked about, speaking for myself.”

“And?”

“I told them I knew we had talked about this before and that it made me uncomfortable to talk about the project schedule. I looked around the room and asked each person to be patient with me. I told them my stomach was upside down, but I felt that if we, as a team, myself included, could tolerate the discomfort, I felt we could make some headway.

“Then, I repeated what we practiced two days ago. I looked straight at the ops manager. I said that I got a call from the client and she told me they were worried about the project schedule and that I was worried, too. I said I had a copy of the updated schedule, but that I didn’t know who updated it or how frequently it was updated. I said, speaking for me, I couldn’t tell if we were on-schedule or behind.”

“And what was the response?” I asked.

“It’s funny,” Deana smiled. “You could see the shuffling and the darting eyes, everyone else in the room was uncomfortable with me. One of the team rolled his eyes, as if to say, here-we-go-again. I looked straight at him, and said, ‘Bob, when you roll your eyes, it makes me feel like my opinion doesn’t matter. It makes me want to be quiet and for the meeting to just be over. I think this team, everyone in this room, has a stake in solving this problem for the client. I, for one, want to solve it. I want to understand. Here is what I have at stake. I am the primary contact for the client. The client has questions and if I don’t understand, then I can’t respond.’

“And the room was quiet,” Deana continued. “For a moment. Then the ops manager spoke.”
—–
BAMs is the mental state of a group. Non-work is collusive (pairing behavior), uncontrolled, irrational and UNCONSCIOUS. Teams go into BAMs to avoid a real issue. It is an unconscious behavior. One powerful way to shift the group back into work mode is to break the cycle of pairing behavior by speaking for yourself. It requires courage, but moves the team into a state of problem-solving. BAMs (Basic Assumption Mental State) was documented by Wilfred Bion in a tortuous book called Experiences in Groups.

Would You Say It, If It Wasn’t True?

“You described the situation with your team like a rubber band. Your team is stretched, trying to deal with the problem,” I said, “what do you think the problem is?”

“The problem is that we are behind schedule,” Deana stated flatly.

“What if I told you the problem with the team has nothing to do with the schedule?” I proposed.

“What do you mean? That’s the problem, the ops manager is manipulating the schedule so it looks like we are on-time when we are behind.”

“So, you are on the side of the project manager?”

“Yes. I mean, outside the meeting, without the ops manager, everyone on the team talked about it, and the truth is, the ops manager is manipulating the schedule,” Deana insisted.

“The truth?”

“Well, yeah, I wanted to check with other team members, get my facts straight and that’s what everybody thinks. When the project manager brought it up in the meeting, that is exactly the way he said it. He told the ops manager straight to his face, ‘Everyone in here thinks you manipulated the schedule.’ I don’t think he would say that unless it was the truth.”

“There’s that truth word again,” I smiled.

This is the story of a team in the classic struggle of BAMs. BAMs is the mental state of any group that drives its behavior. BAMs is in one of two states, work or non-work.

  • Work Mode vs. Non-Work Mode
  • Rational vs. Irrational
  • Scientific vs. Unscientific
  • Cooperative vs. Collusive
  • Controlled vs. Uncontrolled
  • Conscious vs. Unconscious

Deana’s team has a problem. In a classic move of non-work, the team mis-identifies the problem. The team does not have to deal with the real problem if it can create the appearance of working a different problem. The problem you solve is the problem you name. The team named the wrong problem.

I woke up this morning in a cold sweat. This is not the story of a team (your team). This is the story of a nation. This is the story of a nation in BAMs. Has the nation named the wrong problem?

The Team is Whispering

“So, tell me, Deana, if the ops manager is manipulating the project schedule, so it looks like we are on-time when we are behind, and if we can’t talk about it in the scheduling meeting, what will eventually happen?” I asked.

“It’s like a rubber band about to snap,” Deana replied. “The ops manager is so overbearing that everyone is terrified to bring it up, except the project manager. And my manager made it clear that if the project manager had a beef with the ops manager, they were to take it up outside the meeting, in private. So, it’s hands-off in the meeting.”

“Does this impact the team?” I wanted to know.

“Of course. How can we fix schedule delays, when the schedule says we are on-time?”

“What will happen?”

“I don’t know. The project manager is about ready to quit. He feels helpless, and no one on the team will support him, or even ask a question about it. More than one meeting got so tense that my manager squashed any kind of meaningful discussion. The rest of the team is whispering about all kinds of rumor-mill stuff at the water cooler.”

“How do you know all this?”

“People are coming to me privately. They feel like they can trust me. I mean, no one is stabbing anyone in the back, but if they are willing to talk about other people behind their back, what are they saying about me behind my back?”

“Why do you think your manager stopped the discussion in the meeting?”

Deana thought for a minute. “I think she was afraid of losing control of the team. I think if she allowed the confrontation to happen in front of the team, it might blow the team apart.”

“Tell me what is happening to the team,” I nodded.

“The team is coming apart anyway,” Deana concluded.

What’s Not to Talk About

“So, did your team deal with the issue, or did they avoid it and move on?” I repeated.

“Well, thank goodness my manager was there. When the project manager accused the ops manager of manipulating the schedule, no one knew what to say,” Deana replied.

“So, everyone checked out and looked to the senior-most manager in the room. Was the ops manager manipulating the schedule?” I asked.

“You know, no one is really sure. I was talking with one of my team members after the meeting and he thinks it was a big cover-up.”

“So, the situation was never resolved. We don’t know why we were behind schedule. We don’t if the schedule was accurate. We don’t know how to prevent this in the future.”

“What we do know,” Deana thought out loud, “if we are ever behind schedule and try to cover it up, we won’t talk about it in the meeting.”

Working Leadership comes to Austin TX. Ask me and I will send you a one page pdf about the program. Or you can follow this link to find out more.
Here are the dates –

  • Session One – Aug 25, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Two – Sep 1, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Three – Sep 8, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Four – Sep 18, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Five – Sep 22, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Six – Sep 28, 2017, 9a-12p

To register, just ask Tom.