Category Archives: Teams

Stars Can Win Trophies

“Look, I have the best engineer, I have the best mechanic, I have the best designer, I have the best installer,” Ted complained. “Then why do we get such mediocre production?”

“I don’t know, what do you think?” I asked.

“We just can’t seem to make our numbers,” he started. “It’s like we have all the best talent, but just can’t put it all together.”

“So, it’s the putting together part?”

“Well, yeah.” Ted stopped. “You’re right, it’s not the talent part, it’s the putting together part. They don’t sync up, they are all running in a different gear. They don’t relate.”

“So, you just found your constraint? How well you connect is how well you do as a team. Your production will never be as good as your star player. It doesn’t matter how well your star plays. Individual stars can win a trophy, but it takes a team to win a championship.”

Requires a Conscious Mindset

“So, how do I get the team back to productive work?” Miriam asked.

“Facing the issue of having to work together, in a conscious, cooperative way, takes effort,” I replied. “It doesn’t happen by itself. As the manager, when you push the issue back to the center of the table, there are four predictable responses. The team will go into fight or flight. They will freeze or appease, not necessarily in that order.”

“I just have to outlast the panic,” Miriam remembered.

“To work together, the team has to change its belief about the way it works together. Culture starts with the way we see the world, the way we see our circumstances. Teams that work together have a different mindset. They don’t cooperate (for long) because we tell them to. They support and help each other because they believe that is the way things are done around here. It may not be comfortable at first, but high performing teams not only live with the discomfort, but create rituals to meet adversity head on. I can always tell a team is making progress when they trade in (solve) old problems for a new set of problems.” -Tom

Level of Work of a Team Lead?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I run a private industrial disaster recovery business. We respond to natural disasters and clean up the mess. We are very hierarchical, but I am having difficulty understanding the level of work in the teams that we dispatch.

Is it possible to have a supervisor in stratum level one? For example, we deploy teams of three people consisting of two technicians and a team captain. The two technicians are obviously working at S-I, one or two day time span, while the team captain works on a day to week at the most. The team captain directs the activities of the two technicians, but is he their manager?

We have several three person teams supervised by a single Project Manager. The Project Manager role, for us, includes team member selection, coordination of support resources, equipment, machinery, consumables as well as training for technicians and team captains. Our Project Manager clearly works at S-II, 3-12 month time span.

My question is, what is the level of work for the Team Leader?


You describe a classic case of a First Line Manager Assistant (FLMA). Elliott was very specific about this role. You are correct that the role is an S-I role and illustrates that within a single stratum level of work, we have different levels of work, illustrated below –

S-II – Project Manager, supervision and coordination, manager of the entire S-I team.
S-I-Hi – Team Captain, directs on-site, assigns tasks, but is not the manager of the team.
S-I-Med – Technician, works under the on-site direction of the Team Leader
S-I-Lo – Technician trainee

This works for project teams, deployed field units, multi-shift operations where the S-II Project Manager or Supervisor is not physically present at all times. The First Line Manager Assistant (FLMA) has limited authority to direct activity and assign tasks within the larger authority of the S-II Supervisor. The FLMA has recommending authority for advancement and compensation, but those decisions remain with the S-II Supervisor.

Biggest Variable in Workforce Planning

“What things do you need to pay attention to that will have an impact one year from now?” I asked.

“This company is pretty stable in what it does,” Melanie replied. “We may replace a machine or our volume might go up or down. But what is really volatile, is the people. You never know what is going to happen with the people.” Melanie’s mind began to race like she had just discovered uranium. “The biggest change is always the people. And even if the people don’t change, the people change. It’s still the same people, but, they are not the same people.”

Melanie’s discovery of uranium was shifting to panic. This new world that opened up just a few seconds ago, suddenly got very scary.

“It’s not just the people that change,” I smiled. “It’s the relationships. Organizational structure is the working relationships between our team members.”

“So, as a manager, I have to see the way things are now, and think about the impact a year from now?”

“Yes,” I nodded. -Tom

Built on a Dollar More?

“Now, you have me confused,” Max protested. “Yes, the bonus becomes an entitlement, so it loses its power to motivate.”

“Is it possible,” I asked, “that the bonus never had the power to motivate in the first place? Let’s talk about you. You said, that sometimes you enjoy work. Why do you work?”

“I told you. I get a sense of accomplishment. Some of the work, I actually enjoy.”

“Like what?”

“Sometimes, I get someone on the crew, it’s their first job. They become part of a team, working together and I can see a sense of pride on their face. As a manager, I enjoy that. I get my own sense of accomplishment.”

“And, their first paycheck?” I prompted.

“Yes, there is a smile on their face.”

“So, compensation is important, but if that is all there is, your team members will jump to another company for an extra dollar an hour. So, how do you build your system? How do you, as a manager, build your culture? Do you build your culture around a bonus, or do you build it around accomplishment? You only get what you focus on.”

Sure Fire Participation

“Yes, but if people are afraid to participate, afraid to contribute their ideas in a meeting, how do you deal with that?” Reggie asked.

“Do your team members have ideas?” I responded.

“Well, yes, some sort of an ideas.”

“So, the problem is, to get the idea out of their head, with zero possibility that it might be rejected by the group? How would you do that?” I stared at Reggie while I reached over and pulled a pen out of my pocket and set it on the table.

“Get them to write their idea down?” Reggie guessed. I nodded. “But still, how do you get them to share their ideas with each other, with the group?”

“It’s too late, the idea is already out of their head. By the way, what happens to the quality of any idea as it moves from the mind to a piece of paper?”

“Well, it improves.”

“So, now, each person owns a much improved idea on a piece of paper in front of them. Divide the group into teams of two or three and have them share their idea with that small group. I guarantee, there will be no hesitation in that small group.

“The next step is to have the small groups report their ideas to the large group. The quality of ideas will be very high and everyone will have participated. Remember, the purpose of this meeting was simply to get your people discussing ideas with each other.”

Before the Team Can Get Better

“I am really disappointed in my team,” Carole began. “I really need to get them to step up their game.”

“Whenever I watch a team,” I replied, “to see how it is performing, I always end up watching the leader. Most times, the competency of the team reveals the competency of the leader.”

“Are you saying that the lack of performance of my team, is my fault?” Carole defended.

“No, I am saying, before the team can step up, it’s the leader who has to step up. Before the team can change, the leader has to change. The team you have right now, is the team you deserve. If you think your team should be more effective, you have to become more effective. Your team and their output is the product of your effectiveness as a manager.”

“Zappos just abolished bosses” – Baloney

“The latest management trend to sweep Silicon Valley requires CEOs to formally relinquish their authority and grants special protection for every employee to experiment with ideas. It’s called holacracy and big name tech leaders have jumped on the bandwagon,” proclaims Gregory Ferenstein in his post on Vox, July 11, 2014.

“Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh announced that he will transition his entire Las Vegas company — with a billion dollars of revenue and 1500 workers — to holacracy by the end of 2014.”

Holacracy is described as the latest management craze and it is just that – craziness. The problem with craziness is that a manager or CEO will read his article and naively follow a prescription that will cost hard dollars and create untold havoc. Following Ferenstein’s prescription could be fatal.

Holacracy is a weasel word. It attempts to use new (made up) terminology to mask a vague notion of contrived credibility.

“Holacracy is management by committee with an emphasis on experimentation. The CEO formally relinquishes authority to a constitution and re-organizes everyone into decentralized teams that choose their own roles roles and goals,” explains Ferenstein. Think about this. What is delegation? Delegation is the assignment of accountability and authority to complete a task. Delegation shifts the accountability and authority to a “decentralized” team that chooses to complete the task (or not).

And believe me. If the “decentralized” team chooses not to complete the task and adopts a six hour lunch break, some manager will step in and say “Guys and gals, that is not what we had in mind.”

If you read this column regularly, you know I am a structure guy focused on the research of Elliott Jaques. This notion of giving a team direction (an objective) and providing them latitude (time span of discretion), within limits, to solve a problem is not a new notion. Holacracy is baloney (weasel word).

Ferenstein would argue with the words “within limits.” He would argue that Hsieh would set those limits free. That will not be the case. Hsieh will define those limits (discretionary authority). Holacracy obscures what is really happening using words without meaning.

“Advocates for holacracy argue that centralization of power suffocates innovation.” Here is the biggest problem with Ferenstein’s description – most managers, CEOs and writers about management DO NOT UNDERSTAND the purpose for hierarchy. They believe that management is all about centralization of power. Hierarchy has little to do with power. Hierarchy has everything to do with accountability and authority.

So, is Tony Hseih misguided in his actions and decisions related to his management structure? No. What IS MISGUIDED is the understanding of what he is doing and its description as holacracy. Over my next few posts, we will look closer at what Tony is doing and see that it is nothing new. And if Tony understood his decisions more clearly, in the context that I will describe, those decisions would be more effective in creating his image of an organization.

The purpose of an organization is not to broker power, but to get work done. I know that is what Tony wants to do. The question is, what does that structure look like? It ain’t holacracy.

How to Build a Team, Where to Start?

“So, Roger. I am not going to give you all ten projects,” I repeated. “Not yet. Before I do that, we have some growing to do. You handled three projects superbly, the fourth you began to be late and by the fifth project, things really began to slip. But, you have potential. Ten simultaneous projects will require a different approach from you.”

“You said I would have to build a team,” Roger replied.

“Yes, and building a team is more complex than building a checklist.”

“I think I can step back from all my projects and see the things about those projects that are identical, the things that are similar and the things that are different. That’s why my checklists are helpful. But building a team, I am not sure where to start,” Roger admitted.

“At the beginning, of course,” I smiled. “Let’s start with something you know how to do. You are good at making a list. I want you to make a list of everyone on your current team.”

“I can do that,” Roger agreed. “Any particular order?”

“Yes, you know that some of your team members are more capable than others. You know that, because you have worked with them, watched them make decisions and solve problems. I want you to put your team members in order, with the most capable at the top and the least capable at the bottom. When you have finished that list, let’s get together and you can tell me about each one.”

The Shift in Becoming a Manager

“What would you have to do differently to accomplish ten projects in the same time that you now run five projects? No overtime,” I challenged.

“One thing is for sure, I can’t keep it all in my head,” Roger mused. “You know, some projects, you can manage with sticky notes. When you gave me my third and fourth project, I had to start making lists. When you gave me my fifth project, I realized my lists had similarities and I created a template with all the possible elements. Given another project, I can start with my template rather than creating a list from scratch.”

“But if I give you ten simultaneous projects, what would you have to do differently?” I repeated.

Roger shook his head. “I can’t manage ten projects at the same time, even with my templates,” he concluded. “Something would always be falling through the cracks. I would need some help.”

I nodded in agreement. “Roger, we didn’t start working with you because you could manage a project, or two projects. To manage ten projects, you will need some help, you will need a team. The reason we want to assign you ten simultaneous projects is not so you can build a better template (though that is helpful), but so that you will build a team. This is a dramatic shift from being a supervisor, to becoming a manager. It’s a higher level of work.”