Category Archives: Teams

Practice in the Dark

It sounded like a beer cap hitting a marble floor, then like a rifle shot. 100 pounds of air pressure escaping in a nanosecond. The sound ricocheted off the high towers, piercing the early morning silence. Bike number three had a flat.

The undercurrent of grumbling was short-lived. The back of the pace line maneuvered around as bike number three dismounted and hopped up the curb onto the sidewalk under a street light. Within ten seconds, the entire pace line assembled around this carcass of carbon fiber and limp rubber tubing called a bicycle. Two headlights brightened up the rear gear cluster. One held up the bike, another spun the crank moving the chain down to the highest gear. Another popped the brake, grabbed the quick release and jerked the axle free. Two bikers set up a perimeter to ward off errant traffic. Someone had already unfolded a fresh tube and spiked a CO2 cartridge. The old tube was out and careful fingers were searching the inside of the tire for a shard of metal, a piece of glass.

Now, the rider of bike number three was actually doing very little through this entire process. He was trying to look in control, but truth be told, his bike was being fixed without him. It was really a smooth process, not a lot of talking, mostly joking going on. Seven minutes later, with a small tailwind, the pace line was back at 24 mph, snaking their way down the quiet city street.

When your team encounters a problem, what do they look like? When a team member runs up against an immovable obstacle, how quickly does the rest of the team pitch in? When the rest of the team assembles, how cooperative do they work, how synchronous are their efforts? How often does your team practice having flats in the dark and fixing them by flashlight?

Wasn’t My Fault (Was It?)

Eight managers and a senior VP sit around the table, this table of Eager Beavers, Vacationers and Hostages. What will prevent them from participating? What will drive them to contribute with enthusiasm?

“Houston, we have a problem!!” booms the senior VP. Enter FEAR stage right. The VP just raised the spectre of fear. Here’s the question, “Does the way you state the problem have anything to do with the way people approach the solution?”

I could see the Face of Fear as I looked around the room. The silent responses were predictable. The darting eyes spoke volumes. Beneath the whisper level, emotions pounded.

  • It wasn’t my fault, (was it?)
  • It couldn’t have been my fault, (could it?)
  • It was supposed to happen that way, (wasn’t it?)
  • Since it wasn’t my fault, it must have been Tim’s fault (right?)
  • I didn’t approve that, (did I?)

Multiply those responses by the eight managers and then calculate what has been accomplished so far. What headway has been made toward solving the problem in Houston? Worse yet, if no headway has been made, what direction is everyone looking?

Does the way you state the problem have anything to do with the way people approach the solution? The mindset around the table is looking for blame, a scapegoat, something, anything to deflect responsibility for the problem in Houston. Everyone is checking out, the quicker the better, last one standing holds the bag. Disengage, no eye contact, pass the buck, Chuck.

As the Manager, you don’t know who has the idea that is going to save the day. You cannot afford to have a single person disengage from the meeting. You need full engagement from everyone in the room for the entire meeting. One idea, one phrase, one twisted word may trigger the solution.

Does the way you state the problem have anything to do with the way people approach the solution? Take the problem and create a positive question that points toward the solution.

IWWCW. In what way can we increase sales in our Houston territory? Take the problem and create a positive question that points toward the solution. Now, look around the room. You will find positive engagement. It is impossible not to. (Sorry, for the double negative.)

A bit of science. The human mind cannot “not answer” a question. (Another double negative.) The way the human brain is wired, when presented with a question, it is impossible for the mind to do anything other than search for the answer. If you want to engage the mind, ask it a question. If you want to engage a team, ask them a question. If you want to engage a team to solve a problem, state the problem as a postive question that points toward the solution. In what way can we…?

Action First

“Sometimes, I feel like I am fighting an uphill battle,” Camella explained. “I call a meeting and describe what I want done. We go over all the details, but some just want to rain on the parade. They talk it down in the meeting so it has no chance when it makes it to manufacturing. I know I want to do the right thing and get buy in before we get started, but I feel like I am stalemated.”

“Have you ever reversed the process?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” said Camella, gaining curiosity.

“Sometimes, when I know the explanation is going to draw fire, I don’t explain. Sometimes, I just sweep people into action. Before anyone has a chance to protest or complain that something won’t work, we demonstrate that it will work. We don’t have to go through the whole process, just enough to warm the team up to the idea. Action first, then we debrief and go for buy-in, after they have proved to themselves that it will work.”

Freedom in Limits

“But, I want my team to feel free to approach problems on their own terms,” Monica insisted.  “I don’t want to stifle their creativity.  But often, my team just wanders in a state of confusion, trying to solve a problem that’s not that difficult.”

“It’s a bit of a paradox, isn’t it?” I replied.  “We think if we set limits, then we stifle the team, when limits can be actually be very productive.  If we set the limits too narrow, then there is little opportunity to discover a new or better method.  Yet, if we set the limits too wide, we promote confusion, disarray, introduce delay.”

“That’s what I see, I think I am promoting creativity by giving free reign, but the outcome often falls short,” Monica nodded.

“The thing is, we live with limits all the time.  Social structures are designed to impose limits on those involved.  Organizational structures are designed to define the limits within which reality lives.  They are not designed to stifle, but designed to release creativity in real productive ways.”

“Like, when I tell the team to contribute ideas where money is no object, when the reality is, there is always a limit to the budget.”

“Yes,” I agreed.  “You may gather ideas with an unlimited budget, but there is always that reality that tempers the ideas.  Brainstorming has its place, but so does problem-solving.”

Setting Context

“One of my main responsibilities, as a manager, is to set the context for my team? What do you mean?” Paula asked. “I assume this is more than introducing each other.”

“It’s all about the work,” I replied. “Context starts with a clear understanding of the task at hand. What is the quantity, quality standard, necessary resources and the time frame. QQT/R.

“Next, is how that assigned task fits with the larger picture, that you, as a manager are accountable for. This provides the team with an understanding of just how big their role is, in the larger picture.

“Context also includes the work their teammates are doing, work that intersects with their work, work output they may be waiting for, work output they produce that someone else may be waiting for.

“Context answers the questions – How do I fit in? What is the importance of the work I am doing? What do others depend on me for? One of the primary accountabilities for every manager is to set context for the team.”

99 Dumb Ideas

Todd raised his hand. “I have an idea,” he said, in response to my question to the group. I nodded, he continued, explaining a thumbnail of a solution to the problem.

“That’s a really dumb idea,” I said. There was a silent gasp. Eyes got wide. Blank stares remained frozen.

“What just happened?” I asked.

Marion spoke first. “You just shot Todd,” she said.

“And what was the team’s response? More specifically, how many of you are now willing to contribute your idea to solve this problem?” I pressed. Around the room there were no takers. Weirdly quiet. I smiled with my next questions.

“How many months have we spent working together, to gain each other’s trust? Side by side, we grappled with problems, solving them, trading those problems for another set of problems, working together, growing together?” I stopped.

“And, yet, how long did it take to stop this team in its tracks?” I continued. “Ideas are fragile. In search of an idea to solve a problem requires a risk from each of you in the room. And, we just saw how quickly all the work and all the trust can be sidelined in one sentence. So, ground rules for the next 60 minutes –

  • No idea is a dumb idea.
  • Every idea has the possibility of spurring the next idea.
  • Ideas can be built on each other, subtle variations may make the difference.
  • Ideas can be seen forward, backward and sideways.
  • One part of an idea can be coupled with a different part of another idea.
  • If the best idea is 1 in a 100, then I need 99 ideas that don’t work to find the idea that saves the day.

It’s Just Wrong

“But, that’s just wrong,” Jeffrey pressed. “I tell my team what’s wrong and then tell them to fix it. It’s up to them how. I am not going to spoon-feed the solution. I want them to figure it out.”

“And, when you tell them something is wrong, what state of mind have you left them in?” I asked.

“I hope the state of mind is urgency. When they screw up, they need to fix it and fix it fast,” he replied.

“Exactly. And, how does that state of mind contribute to the quality of the solution?”

Jeffrey chuckled. “You’re right. Most of the time, the team acts like a deer in headlights, frozen, unable to move, no alternatives, no solutions.”

“Does the way you state a problem have an impact on the way people approach a solution? Is there a more productive state of mind you could leave with the team other than something is wrong, someone is to blame and there will be a price to pay.”

“But, I want them to know that mistakes are serious,” Jeffrey pushed back.

“And, does that get you closer to a solution or does it stop solution-finding in its tracks? In what way could we restate the problem, to be accurate in our observations, without laying blame, promoting a sense of teamwork, generating alternatives and selecting the best solution?”

Passion For the Work

“Okay, my goal. Our sales targets are my goal. But you assume they are doing their best. What if they aren’t doing their best?” Brent protested. “Then, shouldn’t I be disappointed?”

“Brent, your contract with each team member is that they come to work each day, and do their best. Full application of their capability, completing the tasks they have been assigned by you. Can you tell if someone is violating that contract?” I asked.

“Of course, I have been a manager here for seven years. I can tell immediately if someone is not doing their best,” Brent replied.

“And what reasons would there be for someone to not do their best?”

“Well, it could be a number of things. They might not feel well, they might be sick. They could be fighting with their spouse. They could have a disagreement with a team member. They could be having difficulty because they don’t know how to do something. They might not be doing their best because they are not interested in the work.”

“Yes, and as their Manager, should you be aware of each and every one of those things? Frankly, most of those are easy things to know, but what about that last reason?”

“You mean, they might not be doing their best because they are not interested in the work?”

Too Much Humidity

“It’s not your fault that your most valuable team member is out sick, but I will still hold you accountable for the results from your team. What has to change?” I repeated.

Vicki was still stumped.

“Vicki, let’s look at all the variables that could have an impact on production. You are focusing on the team’s manual assembly. Do they work at different rates on different days?”

“Well, yes, sometimes, they work better when there is loud music playing, awful loud music,” she replied.

“So, some days are up and some days are down. I call that a statistical fluctuation. What other elements could cause a statistical fluctuation?”

“Oh, well, there are a number of things. Sometimes our tooling or tools get worn and they just can’t do the job at the same rate, until we change them out. Sometimes our raw materials aren’t quite the same and we have to stop and make small adjustments to accommodate. Heck, sometimes, too much humidity can affect the setup time.”

“So, all of those things, including the manual assembly can create statistical fluctuations in production?” I noted, making a small list on a sheet of paper.

Vicki nodded her head. A smile crept across her face. “You are right. Those are the things that create havoc in my day.”

“And who is responsible for solving those problems and making decisions, making adjustments to build 30 units a day?” I was looking straight at Vicki. “What has to change?”

Your Fault My Fault

“You’ve talked about this before, but I want to make sure I understand it. We need to get 30 units out of this team every day, 15 in the morning and 15 in the afternoon. Right now, if they don’t make it, as their Manager, I get pissed. If it happens two days in a row, double-pissed,” Vicki stated flatly.

“And if that’s the way you see it, then, your system will create behaviors that don’t help,” I replied. “Thirty units a day is your goal. You are responsible for the results from your team. If I hold your team accountable for doing their best and I hold you, as their Manager, accountable for the results, what changes?”

“But what if they show up late for work, or take too many breaks, or slow walk the line? That’s not my fault. If they do that and I don’t reach my goal, how is that my fault?”

“You are still fighting it,” I responded. “If I hold you, as the Manager, accountable for the results of your team, what changes?”

Vicki was stumped. She drew a deep breath. “If you are going to hold me accountable, then I have to make sure my team all shows up for work. I have eight people and with all the cutbacks, it takes full effort to reach my goal.”

“And, what if, one day, your most valuable team member is out sick, truly sick, and I hold you accountable for the results from your team?”

“But if someone gets sick, it’s not my fault!”

“It is not your fault that someone got sick, but I will still hold you accountable for the results from the team. What has to change?”