Playing to your strengths on teams

March 19, 2007

You’ll recognize this scenario: The team understands its common objective, agrees upon a general strategy, and has identified the tasks to be completed.

The time comes to assign various tasks to individuals. Each person secretly knows which tasks appeal to them; those they enjoy performing ; the ones they are good at; the tasks that motivate them; the assignments that will allow them to shine!

Team leader: What about you, Bob, which tasks would you prefer?

Team member Bob: I’ll be glad to work on whatever the team needs.

In his new book Go Put Your Strengths to Work, Marcus Buckingham identifies three myths that can prevent someone from capitalizing on their strengths. According to Buckingham, ninety-one percent of people believe the following:

Myth: A good team member does whatever it takes to help the team.

At first glance, this statement sounds quite reasonable; an approach that could be taken by the quintessential “team player.” I mean, who doesn’t want a teammate who “does what it takes?

However, Buckingham convincingly argues that this approach is neither good for the individual nor the team, because it does not align teamwork tasks with an individual’s strengths. To create a win-win situation for the person and the team, Buckingham proposes the following:

Truth: A good team member deliberately volunteers his strengths to the team most of the time.

When all team members are playing to their strengths, individuals are able to get even better in areas where they excel and the team gets the benefit of “consistently near-perfect performance” on tasks that naturally align with team member strengths. Team members are not being selfish by volunteering for strength activities. Rather, they are providing a valuable service to help the team maximize its effectiveness.

(Because team tasks are unlikely to align perfectly with team member strengths, Buckingham adds the obvious caveat, “…occasionally each team member will have to step outside of his strengths zone and ‘pinch-hit’ for the team.”)

So let’s try again..

Team leader: “What about you, Bob, which tasks would you prefer?”

Team member Bob: “I really get a charge out of doing “x” and I’ve had a lot of success at it. I think the team would benefit if I took ownership of the “x” assignment. How does that sound to everyone else?”

By the way, I will post a review of Go Put Your Strengths to Work by Marcus Buckingham at Joyful Jubilant Learning’s A Love Affair with Books on March 30.

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Telling versus selling

March 18, 2007

Every team must determine what tasks and activities are needed to meet its objectives and decide which team members will work on which tasks.


Team leaders can make these decisions, then tell the team of the overall plan and the responsibilities of each team member. Using this approach, team leaders will often consult with some or all team members before making decisions about tasks and assignments.

A wagon wheel provides a good analogy for this type of team structure. Think of the team leader as the center and team members as spokes. Wagon wheels can work efficiently and cover a lot of ground once they gain momentum.

However, wagon wheels are entirely reliant on the center to hold them together. The center serves as the wheel’s connection to the rest of the wagon, just as a ‘telling’ team leader might serve as the team’s primary contact with the larger organization. Although the wagon wheel functions as a unit toward a common objective, the individual spokes have no dynamics between them. The wheel does not serve as a source of energy for the wagon, but rather relies on external motivation.


Alternatively, teams can collaboratively make decisions about tasks and assignments. Instead of the team leader ‘telling’ team members their plan, decision making becomes a matter of each team member ‘selling’ others on why various approaches should be adopted. As the process of selling convinces the team which are the most sound strategies, team members become committed to the plan, the tasks and their assignments.

An analogy of this type of team structure is the atom. Individual team members, including the team leader, are the electron, protons and neutrons. The team’s primary objective is the nucleus, and serves to hold the team together around its common purpose.

Dynamics between and among the members of an ‘atomic’ team generate energy and synergy, which serves to propel the team’s work and provide additional resources for the larger organization. The role of the team leader varies based on the needs. In self-managing ‘atomic’ teams, leadership is dispersed across its members.

How is your team functioning? Are you telling or selling? Is each team member a cog in the wheel or integral parts of an energy-generating, ‘atomic’ team?

Building high performance cultures

March 15, 2007

Jeffrey Pfeffer’s recent congressional testimony has received a good deal of attention around the blogosphere. Most that I have read have highlighted Pfeffer’s critique of pay-for-performance incentive structures, which he argues are systems that “effectively motivate the wrong behavior.”

In reviewing the testimony, I was struck by the alternative Pfeffer laid out for improvement. He explained that rather than tinkering around the edges with payment incentives, organizations seeking better outcomes should concentrate on building high performance cultures.

Although the list of high commitment or high performance work practices differs slightly among authors and studies, most such lists include:

a) sustained investment in training and development, including job rotation, both formal and on-the-job training, and a tendency to promote from within as a consequence of the successful internal development of skill and people;

b) an egalitarian culture in which formal status distinctions are downplayed, salary differences across levels are less than in the general economy, and in which people feel as if their contributions are important and valued;

c) delegation of decision making responsibility so that skilled and developed people can actually use their gifts and skills to make real decisions;

d) high pay to reduce turnover and attract the best people, coupled with rewards that share organizational success with its members; and

e) employment security and a policy of mutual commitment, so that the workforce does not fear for the outcomes of events over which it has no control and instead, feels reciprocally committed to the employer.

It is quite a feat for organizations to meet a majority of these ideals, meeting all five is phenomenal. Where does your organization fall out, and what discussions can Pfeffer’s comments help begin toward improvement?

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Strong teams clarify objectives and desired outcomes before strategies

March 2, 2007

Have you been here before?

  • The team has a project to provide some uncertain deliverable(s) to meet specific internal needs or the needs of a client.
  • The team meets for the first time.
  • Item #1 on the agenda is to clarify the objectives and desirable outcomes.
  • Five minutes into the meeting, without ever exploring where the project needs to go, the team is weighing pros and cons of alternatives for how to get there.

Cliche time: The cart is before the horse. If you don’t know where you are going, it really doesn’t matter which road you take.

Read on as Elton Billings at Extractable shares his team’s experience with this phenomenon.

Conducting the Conductors
Do you have any idea how difficult it is to sit in a room of people who spend their lives proposing solutions and ask that they state only the desired outcomes? Every idea about what should happen was accompanied by a method for making it happen.

But to me, one very interesting side effect of the meeting was getting an amplified example of one of the major traps of web strategy: getting to the solution before fully stating the goals of the site.

There is a very strong desire to quickly get to the solution phase. Having a defined solution is much more comfortable than not having one. The issue is that defining a solution too quickly can miss the mark by not allowing time to explore all possible outcomes and really get important details about the goals of the site.

Action-oriented, smart people are often eager to develop and implement strategies to accomplish objectives. Folks like these are wonderful for teams and it is critical to steer their energies toward the right objectives.

I find it more valuable to have the team members actually identify the key objectives, as opposed to some else handing the team pre-defined outcomes. As I discuss here, when teams go through the process of thinking about what outcomes are desired, it helps ensure that the doing that follows is most effective.

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Business results essential for achieving culture of collaboration

February 19, 2007

gap_logo2.gifGood intentions about collaboration and teamwork are great, but they must be matched with solid business results. That’s the lesson I take away from reading Business Week’s article about Paul Pressler’s Fall From The Gap.

Pressler sought to instill a culture of collaboration that, unfortunately, met with less than stellar results. Certainly Pressler’s cultural change initiatives were not the only factors in the Gap’s decade-long decline, but it may have contributed.

It was Gap’s longstanding corporate culture that caught Pressler’s attention early on. At the time, the no-nonsense corporate mantra was “Own it, do it, get it done.” But Pressler thought this ethos didn’t sufficiently promote collaboration. He set out to promote a new environment built around the slogan “Purpose, Values, and Behaviors.” Among the catchphrases were bromides such as: “Explore, Create, and Exceed Together.” Pamphlets promoting communication and teamwork landed on employees’ desks. Posters and banners trumpeting the bland new slogans went up around headquarters.

In the beginning, “people were very receptive” to the effort, says Alan J. Barocas, the company’s former senior vice-president for real estate. “It was embraced.” But eye-rolling started as the initiative began consuming a lot of time. Former employees say they had to sit through countless meetings, workshops, and role-playing seminars where Pressler and his hr executives discussed the new culture. Many staffers felt they were wasting their time in get-togethers that didn’t address the crucial matter of creating and marketing clothes. “hr was out of control,” says a former insider.

Pressler’s collaboration initiatives may have met with a different fate if retail sales had improved instead of continuing to fall throughout his tenure. Guiding an organizational culture toward greater collaboration, teamwork and openness has been a hallmark of success for many leaders, such as Whole Foods Market’s CEO John Mackey. However, the same initiatives can be viewed as time-wasting distractions from core business objectives when they are not accompanied by positive results.

I like that the Gap’s board gave Pressler several years to achieve results at the retail giant, because a dose of patience is often needed when trying to reverse negative trends. Unfortunately, the article indicates that a series of seemingly bad operational decisions doomed Pressler’s efforts.

What’s the lesson for the rest of us? I believe it is that team leaders and managers should develop both cultural and operational strategies jointly, ensuring that each supports and reinforces the other.

Easier said than done, I know, but imperative nonetheless.

What are your thoughts?

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Understanding limitations for teams

January 23, 2007

I was researching how best to send personalized, mail merge e-mails with attachments to a contact list (using Microsoft Office) when I came across the following disclaimer:

Limitations are inevitable in any task that you try to accomplish with software. Sending e-mail messages by using mail merge is no exception. By understanding these limitations up front, you can sometimes design strategies for working around them. Or, at the very least, you can avoid problems that the limitations might create.

Wow – what goes for software goes can just as easily be said for teamwork.

Limitations are inevitable in any task that you try to accomplish with teamwork.

Each team will have its own unique limitations, based on the skills and characteristics of the team members, resource and time constraints, length of time together, and a myriad of other factors. All teams will face limitations resulting from common factors, such as the human tendencies that Patrick Lencioni identifies: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results.

I particularly like the problem-solving approach the software disclaimer advances:

  • understand your limitations;
  • attempt to work around limitations; and/or
  • avoid problems that limitations might create.

I think the hardest part for high performing teams is to recognize limits in the first place. Teams often challenge themselves to increase productivity and quality; to outperform their last project. However, these goals may be unrealistic when new members come on board, when new processes are being adopted, or when the project ventures into unfamiliar surroundings.

That’s when it becomes especially important for teams to self-assess and understand their limits, given the unique mix of the team, the project and the environment. Then it is incumbant on team leaders along with other members to adapt expectations and strategies to achieve desired result.

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Use teamwork to solve problems

December 2, 2006

Tanmay Vora at Software Quality & Management Insights recently referenced an older post about taking a solution perspective when it comes to dealing with problems.

When I was a team member, I used to escalate a problem to my manager with at least five different possible ways of handling it. This not only saved the manager’s time, it also helped me in finding ways to tackle difficult situations on the job.

No doubt it was valuable to his manager that Tanmay identified possible solutions to the problem. What I find even more valuable is that he identified many “possible ways of handling it.”

baseball.jpgIdentifying and exploring alternative solutions is particularly important in teamwork. Even with the best planning, problems or issues (a.k.a. “curve balls”) arise routinely during the lifespan of team projects. Curve balls are not entirely unexpected, but we seldom know in advance when one will arrive or how it will curve.

When faced with a new curve ball, an individual team member could attempt to formulate a solution based on their lone perspective. This practice may be expedient, but it misses out on a number of benefits of teamwork.

A better strategy is for the team member to follow Tanmay’s model by identifying multiple options, discussing those solution alternatives with the others, and jointly arriving at a course of action. The main benefits of this approach are:

  • identifying and verbally describing solution alternatives helps to ensure that the problem itself is fully understood;
  • discussions often reveal additional information and implications relevant to the alternative solutions;
  • the time it takes to communicate will allow for more considered examination of alternatives;
  • collaboration can help teams tweak and improve the ultimate solution;
  • team members will more fully understand and support the ultimate solution;
  • the shared experience of overcoming obstacles helps to build trust among team members and promotes even closer collaboration in the future.

Not every problem requires broad collaboration, making it important to distinguish minor issues from more significant curve balls. When curve ball do appear, remember to get your team mates engaged so that your project can realize the full benefits of teamwork to solve problems.

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