Tag Archives: teams

Kicking the Can

“Things didn’t get nasty,” Ron reported, “but, I think it’s because I put the brakes on the meeting, and simply adjourned it pretty quickly.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Two of our managers went after each other in the meeting. One complained about the other in front of the rest of the executive team. That immediately turned into defensiveness. I stopped the conversation from escalating and told everyone we would pick this up next Monday.”

“Timeouts are not necessarily bad, especially when the emotions speak so loudly that we cannot even hear the words. But, tell me what impact this had on the rest of the team? What did this exchange teach them about how things work around the company?”

“Well, for one thing, it clearly communicated that I will not tolerate rude or insulting behavior,” Ron explained.

“And, what else did it teach them?”

“That if the behavior persists, I will shut it down. I won’t tolerate it and I will take action.”

“And, what else?” I pressed.

“You have something in mind when you ask the same question three times,” Ron chuckled.

I nodded yes.

“Okay. The team learned that when things get rough in a management meeting, where emotions surface in the conversation, we will avoid the confrontation and kick the can down the road.”

“Now, we are getting somewhere,” I said.

Storming is Stormy

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Our company is growing. I used to make all the decisions, but I delegated some decisions to my newly formed executive team. I made it clear which decisions I would retain as President, and which decisions I expect them to make. The team knows the guardrails I set and my expectations of discussion that would occur in the team prior to their decisions. But, what I am seeing from them looks more like a land grab with hidden agendas. There is posturing, hints of passive-aggression, smiles and promises without delivery, ass-covering, ass-covering for each other. They are a team of very bright people, who make good decisions within their own departments, but just having difficulty working together.

First, this is all normal. Organizationally, this is moving from S-III (single serial system, or at least a focus on one or two core systems) to an organization at S-IV (multi-system integration). It’s easy to talk about the content at S-IV, looking at work hand-offs, outputs that become inputs to the next function, optimizing output capacity of each function as it sits next to its neighboring function. That’s the highbrow stuff above the surface. But, underneath the surface is “how” that stuff gets done. Underneath the content is the process.

If we skip the process stuff, because it takes time away from the analytic content stuff, we may never get to the analytic content stuff. Pay me now, or pay me later.

As a team forms, from a group with disconnected goals to a team with a common goal, there is a predictable process that must occur. We can spend a reasonable time up front dealing with the process, or we can spend an unreasonable time on the back end trying to manage dysfunctional behaviors.

That process always starts with trust. Much of the behavior you describe indicates the team has not learned (yet) how to trust each other. When each member of this new team was solely accountable for their function and their function alone, you gave them marching orders to be internally focused, efficient, internally profitable (to their own budgets). You now expect them to lift their eyes and see the other parts of the organization they have to integrate with. It requires a subtle shift from an internal focus to an external focus. Each has to keep their eye on the ball with a peripheral vision on and responding to neighboring systems.

There is risk to each individual on this new team. The risk is, working in this new way, their own department (function) may suffer for the benefit of the organization (total throughput). When managers are first put in this new situation, their first response is to armor up. There is a very real lack of trust and likely evidence to prove that lack of trust.

The first step to create trust among the team members is to create a context in which they allow themselves to trust. This is messy. In the sequence of forming-storming-norming-performing, this is the storming stage. Windstorms, gusts, occasional lightening. As the President, it is your job to convene the team and create a safe space for this to happen, and it cannot be skipped. On the other side of the storm, the team will learn, set its own guardrails, determine what is okay and what is not okay (norming) and then get on with the work.


“In evaluating the health of any team, I need to look for states of connection and disconnection?” I asked.

Pablo nodded. “When you see a team in disarray, you will find disconnection. The team doesn’t go there intentionally, it goes there without thinking. Facing any dilemma, the team wants to remove the discomfort. The four typical responses of any team under stress is to fight, flight, freeze or appease. When they do, the group panics and fractures.”

“And the leader?” I asked.

“The inexperienced leader follows. In a meeting, you have seen it. A project is behind schedule because someone dropped the ball. Everyone knows who dropped the ball, but no one wants to call it out. People get defensive, engage in blaming behavior or avoid the subject altogether. There is silence, eyes look down. Then someone looks at the leader, who becomes the target for all eyes around the table. The body language clearly communicates that it is the leader who must save the team.”

“You said inexperienced, how so?” I prompted.

“The leader is being seduced,” Pablo replied. “The seduction is subtle, for the team is looking to be saved by the leader, but needs the leader to be complicit in the saving. And, the leader cannot resist the opportunity to be the savior. It is the hero incarnate. I know it sounds religious, but the mythology is there to illustrate the principle.”

“So, how does the leader prevent the seduction?” I looked sideways at Pablo.

“The team is attempting to put the issue squarely on the shoulders of the leader. The leader must resist and put the issue back on the team.”

“But you already described that the team is in panic, a state of fracture and disconnection?” I said.

“The leader must simply outlast the panic. The issue that has the potential to blow the group apart, has the same potential to weld the group together. It’s all about connection and disconnection.”

The Team Retreat

Naomi had several sheets in front of her, spread out like a game of solitaire. “I don’t understand,” she remarked. “I thought I had this group nailed together.”

I dug deep into my bag of diagnostic questions and asked, “How so?”

“Our company has really been working hard this year on teamwork. We know that higher levels of cooperation and cross support make a big difference on our output. I thought I had this team dialed in, but sometimes cooperation seems to be the last thing on their mind.”

“What makes you think you had this team dialed in?” I asked.

Naomi was quick to respond, “Oh, we started out this year with a big retreat, back when we had budget for it. It was a great team building experience. We had a ropes course and we did group games. I mean, we didn’t sing Kumbaya, but, you know, it was a great weekend. Everyone came out of there feeling great.”

“And how long did you expect that to last?” I probed.

“Well, the consultant told us we needed to create some sort of team bonus, you know, where every one depends on the rest of the team to get a little something extra at the end. That way, if one makes it, they all make it. Shared fate, he called it.”

“I see. And how is that working out for you?”

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?

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?”

Where Trust Starts

“So, it’s that simple,” I prodded. “Hold managers to account for the output of their team? That’s the beginning, that’s where we start?”

Pablo nodded. “Managers, who have before blamed their team, will begin to pay attention to the care and feeding of their team. It starts with who they let onto the team. If it is well understood that the manager is accountable for the output of the team, managers will develop a more rigorous selection criteria. Fogging a mirror will no longer be acceptable. If we can only assume the team member shows up to do their best, the manager has to make sure their best will be good enough.”

“You are talking about hiring?” I asked.

“That’s where it starts,” Pablo smiled.