Tag Archives: teams

Slide Food Under the Door

“Why, do you think the company made you a manager, last week?” I asked.

“I am not really sure,” Maggie replied. “Many, on my team, have been here longer than me. They are smarter than me. They are older than me. And most of them are men.”

“All true,” I smiled. “So, why you?”

“My manager told me, things run better when I am around.”

“And, why do you think that happens?”

Maggie paused. “These guys are really smart. Engineers, you know. But, they don’t seem to work together very well. It’s not like they fight, they just focus on their own work, without thinking of what is going on around them.”

“And, you?”

“I knock,” Maggie laughed. “I knock and slide food under the door. Not really. I pull them out of their shell, get them to talk to each other. In that instant, they can be quite helpful to each other. Doesn’t seem like a big thing, but, bigger problems get solved when that happens.”

“So, why do you think the company made you a manager, last week?”

On Your Left

It was a late weekend morning. I was headed south on A-1-A, returning from a solo bike run to Boynton inlet. The headwind was light, but enough to knock the speed to an even 19mph. Three hours into the ride, I was in no position to hammer the wind, yet impatient to keep the speed up.

“On your left,” was a friendly heads-up as an unknown rider with fresh legs slipped in front. I downshifted and picked up the reps to catch his wheel. I settled into the quiet space of his draft at 21mph. Seconds later, I sensed a third rider on my tail. Now we were three.

For thirty minutes, we snaked down the road, changing leads, holding 21, taking turns on the nose. I was struck with the purity of teamwork between three people who had never met before, with only three words between them, “On your left.”

A team will never gain traction without a common purpose.

This was a team with nothing, except a common purpose, executing skillful manuvers, supporting each other, communicating precisely with each other. There was no orientation, no “get to know you session,” just a purity of purpose.

When your team works together, how clear is the purpose? What is the commitment level of each team member to that purpose? You don’t need much else.

The Smartest Person in the Room

Don’t try to be the smartest person in the room. Dialogue is not to see who is right and who is wrong. Dialogue is about discovery.

The most important discovery is self-discovery. Have the humility and the courage to allow other team members to see your authentic self. It is your authentic self that needs the help.

Comfortable with Discomfort

The armed and dangerous team tackles the tough issues. Its members run toward the fire, not away from it. Armed and dangerous teams become comfortable with discomfort. The pit of discomfort often holds the real issue.

When a team is comfortable and in total agreement, there is high likelihood they are not dealing with an issue of high consequence. It is only when there is disagreement and debate, where the team is in discomfort, that important issues are on the table.

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

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.”
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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.