Tag Archives: teams

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.”


“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.

How the Team Avoids an Issue

“How do I know, working with my team, when we are dealing with a real issue?” Deana wanted to know.

“How does your stomach feel?” I asked.

“It feels fine,” she replied with a quizzical look.

“Then, we are just having polite conversation,” I nodded. “Have you ever sat in a meeting when someone said something that made you feel uncomfortable?”

Deana’s eyes glanced to the ceiling, then back to the conversation. She nodded with me. “Yep. We were working on a big project, tight deadline, behind schedule, angry client. In the meeting, the project manager jumped all over the ops manager, accused him of manipulating the project schedule to cover up the ops team being late. It was kind of creepy. Usually if someone has a beef with somebody else like that, they talk about it in private.”

“What impact did that have on the discussion?”

“Everything stopped. My manager was in the room. She called a halt to the meeting, said if they couldn’t get along, they would have to leave the meeting.”

“Then, what happened?”

“Everyone shut up and moved on to talk about the next project. It was under control, so things calmed down so we could finish our meeting.”

“So, what do you think was the real issue? And how did your stomach feel?” I prodded.

“So, if the conversation has my stomach doing flip-flops, then the team is probably facing a real issue?”

“And, did your team deal with the issue, or did they avoid it and move on?”

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  • Session One – Aug 25, 2017, 1-4:30p
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  • Session Three – Sep 8, 2017, 1-4:30p
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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

Don’t Be the Critical Parent

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

I’m a new manager for a staff of about 65 people. It seems that my predecessor was not a good manager. I was left with people misinformed about company and regulatory policies. Anytime I point out something being done incorrectly, I end up being the bad guy. I’ve tried to be nice, explain my reasoning and show proof, but it doesn’t work. They just keep saying the previous manager didn’t tell them. One staff member even called another department to complain. How can I get them to listen and comply with rules and regulatory policies we have to follow? Should I start writing people up or just keep explaining myself?

One thing I learned a long time ago, no one listens to me. It doesn’t matter how brilliant I am. It doesn’t matter how I nail the solution to the problem, I get no respect. It’s the Rodney effect.

Why should they listen to you? Whatever you have to say, means a change for them. And it doesn’t matter if you are right.

There is one person, however, they will listen to. If you can figure out who that person is, and get that person to dispense the helpful advice, you will make some headway.

I have found the only person from whom people will take negative criticism is themselves. The advice has to come from them.

Here is how I would start. Observe the kinds of things that people are doing outside of guidelines and policies, take some notes and build a list. Then call a meeting to discuss how we could make improvements in various areas. Describe one difficulty or problem or one process in which we would like a different result. Divide the team into smaller groups of 2-3 to brainstorm ideas to get the best ideas, then invite team members to take the new actions and try them out.

I would conduct these five minute meetings 2-3 times per week, looking at all kinds of ways to make improvements. Pretty soon, they will see new ideas you never thought of. And you don’t have to be the critical parent.

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.”