Category Archives: Teams

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?”

A Shift in Accountability

“They don’t give me an early warning because if production is late, they know I will be upset and I will want to know why they failed to produce the desired result, I guess,” Vicki winced. “If I don’t find out about an order that’s late, I can’t get angry. At least until the customer calls. That’s when emotions flare up.”

“And how many of your customers don’t call when you are late?” I asked. “If you are using your customer as your QC system, is that where you really want to be?”

“I know, I know,” Vicki replied.

“So when you hold your team accountable for your result, as a system, it creates behavior that is not ideal. You don’t truly find out about production pacing until there is a visible breakdown. What can you shift to make that change?”

“You are suggesting that I am the one accountable for the team’s results?”

“More than a suggestion,” I replied.

Early or Late?

Vicki was almost laughing. “Do you mean, that if my team can work faster, finish early, they are supposed to tell me? I’m sorry, my team will expand the work to whatever time frame they think I will buy.”

“I understand that,” I replied. “That is actually Parkinson’s Law. Work expands to the time allotted. So, what is it about your system, as a Manager, that has created that circumstance?”

“Well, it’s not me, that’s just the way my team is. I mean, they are not bad people, but if I give them until noon, they will take the whole time. That’s just the way they are.”

“Vicki, I want you to think about the opposite of the same circumstance. Let’s say, instead of being able to finish early, your team cannot get all the work done and will finish late?”

“Oh, well, that is a completely different story. That’s when things get testy around here, that’s when the wheels start coming off. They never let me know, usually until it’s too late, until the deadline is past. Sometimes, unless I am on top of every order, I don’t find out until the next day that an order is still being worked on.”

“So, what is it about your system, as a Manager, that has created this circumstance, that you are not given an early warning about task completion, early or late?”

Not a Communication Problem

“I am a bit confused,” Sarah explained. “As an executive management team, CEO included, we were frustrated about some issues that were not going well.”

“And, what did you do?” I asked.

“We thought it best to take a survey, kind of a company climate survey, to let everyone chip in and express their opinion about things gone wrong and how to fix them,” she said.

“And, what did you find out?”

“Just as we expected, a large number, more than 50 percent described our problems, related to productivity and morale, as a communication issue.”

“And, how did you go about addressing the issue?” I pressed.

“We hired a communication consultant, and held a series of communication seminars, so everyone could attend,” Sarah stated flatly.

“And, the results?”

“It’s been two weeks. At first, everyone was fired up. People were being nice to each other, but, here we are two weeks later and nothing has really changed. Productivity statistics are unchanged and we still experience heated exchanges about who is to blame.”

“Do you think communication is really the underlying problem?” I wanted to know.

“When you use the word – underlying, it leads me to believe I am looking in all the wrong places,” Sarah sighed. “So, is communication the problem, or only a symptom of the problem?”

“Let’s assume, for a moment, that communication was accurately identified by your survey as a symptom of the problem,” I floated. “What might be the underlying cause of the problem?”

Sarah had to stop, a bit of silence. She finally spoke, “Some people in the survey said they were unnecessarily blamed for things going wrong, that it really wasn’t their fault. Others said that if productivity was really wanted, that the incentive program should be changed. Some said they knew how to fix some of our problems, but they didn’t have the authority to make the decision, they were overruled by their manager.”

“I think we are moving away from the symptom, and getting closer to the cause,” I observed. “Most people, when they call me, tell of a communication problem. After some time, I can usually convince them that communication is not their problem. It’s usually an accountability and authority issue.”