Culture

Putting people into a room together doesn’t make them a team

Originally published on February 1, 2016 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/putting-people-into-a-room-together-doesnt-make-them-a-team/article28439210/

Sometimes the simplest insights are the most telling. And the most important.

Some time back, while I was working with an engineering client, our conversation circled back to his firm’s past attempts to encourage collaboration and innovation. In one sentence, he crystallized the challenge many of my clients have encountered in their attempts to change their corporate culture: “Just because you put us into a room together doesn’t make us a team.”

In a previous innovation exercise, his firm had taken steps towards creating its first cross-functional team, a popular tool for accelerated innovation. This “task force” model draws people from different areas of the organization – sales, marketing, HR, admin, research and development, and so on – to generate insights from all points of view, from customer needs to new product ideas, production and distribution. Theoretically, these teams can move forward fast, because they don’t have to wait for feedback or permissions from other departments. But this firm’s initial results with a cross-functional team were less than stellar.

Why? Because without a leader and a conductor who can provide the big picture and co-ordinate all of the players, you’re asking your people to work outside of what they know and do every day. Understanding how everything fits together isn’t a part of their job descriptions.

In addition to technical know-how, teams need strong leadership, direction, objectives and accountability (at minimum) if they want to be successful. As my client noted, these skills aren’t often taught in schools. His staff needed additional training to ensure that they could translate their business skills or technical brilliance into a team dynamic where the whole could truly be greater than the sum of its parts.

At my firm, we call this process transitioning the cross-functional team into a Dynamic Working Group (DWG). The purpose of the DWG is to create an environment in which high-functioning individuals are taught collaborative skills to help them work together to deliver productive, measurable outcomes.

Based on my facilitation of working groups within client teams, I can share some of the insights I’ve gleaned about successful collaboration and how to get everyone pulling together.

1. Leadership for performance: People don’t respond well to an inflexible “boss.” They are more successful when their leader attracts commitment and energizes people by creating meaning in their work. When the leader’s focus is truly on partnering with their team members to drive performance, leveraging frequency and quality of conversation, employees are more likely to commit to the goals at hand.

2. Discovering everyone’s strengths: There are benefits in building diverse teams of individuals drawn from different backgrounds with a range of skills, experiences and perspectives. Collectively, they represent your company’s DNA. The leader’s challenge is to take the time to understand and tap into the individual strengths of each team member.

3. Objectives and accountability: Successful businesses set objectives that are company-wide. Without objectives, a company lacks purpose. But simply setting business objectives is not enough. They need to be achievable, inspiring, easy to visualize and people must be held accountable for achieving them. If objectives are not aligned to a common strategic direction, then everyone in the organization will be working at cross purposes – leading to conflict, project slowdowns and reduced commitment to achieving results.

4. Meaningful meetings: In many organizations, meetings are taking up an ever-increasing amount of time. When meetings are held without preparation, agendas and action items, or used as a stalling tactic for decision-making, they diminish productivity and morale. Given the high number of people who normally attend cross-functional team meetings, strong leadership and a sense of purpose are essential.

To drive innovation and meaningful change in your organization, you need confident, vigorous cross-functional teams. Sustained innovation success depends on having team leaders who understand the big picture, relate well to individuals from different backgrounds, and have the communication skills to galvanize and inspire.

First you bring people together in the same room, and then you bring them together on the same page.

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Leadership

Says easy does hard…really?

Why is it we struggle with the tough business decisions that impact people? Time and time again I see leaders struggle with emotions that add complexity to the business decision making process. What makes us human can also get in the way of us making good business decisions. Feelings, either in the form of too much empathy or a lack there of, can make an already difficult situation even more challenging.

So how do you strike the right balance? Here are some tips from over twenty-five years of leading people. For me personally, as well as from participants attending my leadership learning events, the techniques below are the ones found to be most valuable…

One: Influence vs. Control

The business world is full of challenges. As a leader, one of the many skills you need to exercise is the ability to prioritize and pick your battles. Being able to take on the ones where you will realize the largest return and leave others behind is a talent. To help with this filtering process, consider focusing on those issues where you have direct control. Clearly there will be situations that you can influence but those that you truly control will be fewer. Know the limitations of your sphere of influence and the boundaries of your sphere of control.

Two: Understand vs. Like

Leading people is hard. People are complex entities that can at times act and behave in a totally irrational manner. When having to deliver difficult messages concentrate on the recipient’s understanding of the situation rather than them having to like what you are conveying to them. Sometimes the nature of the situation makes it an unreasonable expectation that the person on the receiving end will like the outcome. Your goal is to have them understand. It is up to them whether they like it or not.

Three: Life’s All About Choices

You are a leader. You’ve chosen a leadership position for a reason. Having made that choice you’ve been bestowed the privilege and responsibility of effecting people’s lives. You need to honour the position and act accordingly. You need to make choices. Not taking action in a responsible way is unacceptable. You will be measured by your choices. Over time the series of choices you make forms your reputation as a leader. Choose wisely.

Four: Keeping it In Perspective

Some of us work to live while others live to work. For me, I’m of the mind that work is extremely important. That being said, it is a distant third to my health and my family. Without them, there is nothing else. Everyone picks their life priorities and to each their own. But for all of us, to help keep perspective in those crazy and difficult times regardless of where your work is positioned on your life priorities list, know that as significant as work is there are things in life that are even more important.

Whether you are a newly anointed Manager or a seasoned veteran, these four guiding principals will help you not only lead better but be a better leader.

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Innovation Culture

There is great interest today by organizations in developing innovation cultures.  And why not?  Creating a mechanism that perpetually harnesses the internal brilliance of your employees is a powerful thing.  Not only is this impactful for employee engagement but, done right, it will continuously delight your customers who will in turn delight your bottom line.

Creating an innovation culture is viewed by most as a daunting undertaking.  While characterized by complexities requiring detailed planning and skillful execution, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming.  Here are some simple techniques that can get you started.

Step One:  Have a Compelling Vision

Having a compelling vision starts with being crystal clear on what your future destination is, including the path to achieve it.  While the future destination should be aspirational and encompass emotional attachment, it must be accompanied by step by step plans outlining the direction in detail.  Your compelling vision should be reflective of your brand and resonate equally with your customers and employees.

Step Two:  Communicating the Vision

Once the vision is created and detailed, a robust communication plan needs to be developed and delivered to begin cascading the vision throughout the organization.  This goes far beyond sending a series of e-mails through various levels of your company.  A successful communication plan includes identification of the types of stakeholders as well as consideration for the various mediums, frequency, timing as well as messaging.  The heart of the communication should address the emotions that customers and employees will experience on the journey to the future destination.  Unaddressed emotions, good or bad, can stall the best planned initiative.  Communicating the vision is one of the first steps in creating a shared goal.

Step Three:  Always Keep the Customer at the Forefront

Like any journey, as your plan for creating an innovation culture unfolds you will face opportunities requiring pivots.  When faced with these junctures, be sure to always keep the customer in mind when determining the best route.  It is easy at times to become distracted by shiny objects along the way.  If you truly understand your customers and use them as the talisman for decision making, you should remain centered on the correct path.

Step Four:  You Just Have to Ask

Part of creating an innovation culture involves tapping into the hearts and minds of your employees.  And who better to understand how to delight your customers then those who work most closely with them.  And the best part, all you have to do is ask the right question to be able to mine this greenfield of opportunity.  Time and time again I am amazed at how few organizations have learned and are utilizing the powerful technique of asking questions.  If you haven’t yet tried this, here’s one to get you started.  Ask a front line employee “If you had a magic wand and could change one thing to make our customers’ lives better, what would you do?”.  Ask it often enough and you’ll begin to see where the pattern of innovation opportunities exist.

Step Five:  Celebrate Successes

Creating an innovation culture takes time.  Along the way you need to mark the milestones with celebrations.  This will help refuel your employees and reinforce the new behaviours you are trying to operationalize into your daily routines.  When creating an innovation culture you will need to celebrate near successes as well as the slam dunks.  Positively calling out selective “almost” wins will help reinforce “trial” behaviour and increase tolerance for risk by reducing fear of failure.  All essential characteristics of an innovation culture.

Creating an innovation culture is one that engages your employees to continuously delight your customers.  While not a simple undertaking, the destination is worth the journey and these five steps will help you get started.

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