5 things I learned – March ’07

March 28, 2007

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Tim Milburn is host of this month’s Rapid Fire Learning at Joyful Jubilant Learning. Check out Tim’s item 4 and learn what he puts in front of his personal “greater than sign.”

Here are 5 things I learned this month.

Zac Crain for Dallas Mayor 2007. Paid for by the Crain for Mayor Campaign.1. Watching the unraveling of Zac Crain’s campaign to become the next mayor of Dallas, I (along with everyone else) learned that social networking alone is not enough to create a viable campaign. Despite having over 1500 “friends” on myspace, Crain was unable to secure the 473 valid voter signatures required to get on the ballot.

SXSW Interactive2. I learned that the next best thing to attending this month’s South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin is watching the videocasts or listening to the numerous podcasts offered online. [Just click on the image.]


jjl_lawb_banner.jpg3. I learned (from Dave) that if you “Cut off the arm of a starfish and it will grow a new one.” I also learned that JJL’s A Love Affair with Books introduced many outstanding books through a series of excellent reviews.

Social Media Club4. I learned that belonging to a particular generation (age) is only one of the determinates of whether individuals use social media to make online connections. I learned from Ann that curiosity and flexibility are factors, as well as how much utility one gains from online exchanges. Sunni adds that being generally comfortable with technology makes a huge difference when we start to use specific social media tools. Jason adds that the biggest factor may be how comfortable someone is with communicating personal messages in public, open forums.

go.jpg5. I learned practical techniques for identifying which professional activities make you feel strong and how to play to your strengths for the good of yourself, your team, and the organization. All of this courtesy of one book, Go Put Your Strengths to Work by Marcus Buckingham. I recently enjoyed hearing Marcus speak in person (a story for another post.) He speaks as well as he writes, with a pleasant British accent to boot!

Well that’s it for me. How about you? Why not share your Rapid Fire Learning by leaving a comment here or writing on your own blog with a trackback to Tim’s Post?


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Is the tail wagging the dog on your team?

March 26, 2007

Grace Andrews raises a number of good issues in the post Managing to the 2%. She points out that teams, managers, and organizations often go too far when addressing problems that apply to only a few employees.

An example might be implementing a daily written status-reporting structure because a single team member communicates poorly about progress on their tasks, despite the fact that everyone else routinely shares all relevant task status information.

Overreacting, by creating new rules, policies, and procedures, is equivalent to letting the (2%) “tail” wag the (98%) “dog.”

So what is the fall out of this behavior? Think about it. When the 98% wake up, smell the coffee, and realize they are being “ruled” to death because of a few who aren’t contributing, the dynamic of the whole team is in jeopardy. Morale suffers; it takes twice as long to maneuver because of the restrictions put in place for the 2%. Employees end up feeling disempowered, and if the focus on managing to the 2% continues, turnover increases.

Organizations that have worked diligently to foster a strong culture of teamwork and collaboration may find their progress unraveling with each new policy. The most effective team members will recognize that new rules would be otherwise unnecessary if not for the 2% and, therefore, resent the unwarranted burden.

Andrews offers a few suggestions:

  • Before adopting any new policy or rule, consider whether it is for the 2% or the 98%.
  • Don’t let the 2% bog down the team; manage them up or out.
  • Practice transparency; when team members know what is going on it is hard for the 2% to gain a foothold.

I offer this additional suggestion:

Engage the entire team in deciding what policies and rules are needed to accomplish the objectives.

In the example of the single employee who communicates poorly about progress on their tasks, the team is unlikely to endorse a burdensome procedure of mostly unnecessary daily reports. A better solution is more likely to emerge from the combined contributions of the team. Team members will be empowered to establish their own rules and standards. The dog will once again wag the tail.

As an added bonus, the open deliberation process will help demonstrate how the behavior of the 2% is viewed by their colleagues.

Read Grace Andrew’s full article at FastCompany.com.


Photograph comes from Flickr by SoozieQ. I cropped the picture to show only the beautiful tail.


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Does your team understand it’s mission?

March 23, 2007

By definition, teams are created to achieve a specific purpose – the mission. Ensuring that team members understand the mission, and the importance of their roles in relationship to the mission, is essential.

That could be the end of this post…

Unfortunately, teams don’t always ensure that the mission is fully understood. In fact, circumstances often challenge mission-awareness, such as times when teams are geographically dispersed (virtual teams) or when team membership is fluid (e.g., team members have specialized roles on multiple teams.)

This short story from stickyminds provides a good illustration. [via Raven Young.]

One team that I worked with told me this story about what can happen when a vision is not shared with the team. They were using an agile approach to software development, and had a product owner who, every two weeks, would attend the planning meeting to tell the team what he wanted them to work on for the next two-week iteration.

During one of these meetings, he told the team that he wanted them to delete the customer whenever the customer selected an opt-out option. The team completed this work and demonstrated it for the product owner, who was pleased with the outcome and accepted the feature. Another successful iteration followed, and another. Then the product owner told the team that for this next iteration, he wanted them to take the deleted customer records and prep them for data mining by the R&D staff.

The team said “Whoa! You told us you wanted the customer deleted when they opted out, so that’s what we did—we didn’t archive that information, we permanently deleted it.”

The product owner was dumbfounded. “How could you do that? Don’t you know that one of the goals of this project is to figure out why we’re losing customers?”

Umm, no.

The team members responsible for the work had never learned the true mission of their efforts. Who knows how this came about…

Perhaps, they were still busy with a previous project and not involved in start-up for this one. Perhaps the team leader hoarded information or communicated poorly about the overall objectives.

Regardless the immediate cause, the effect was wasted time and effort, a dissatisfied client who likely lost faith in the team (if not the entire organization,) and the generally feeling that processes were dysfunctional. No one would be surprised if the client pressed the DELETE key!

How does your team ensure a common understanding of its primary mission? Look around. Is there any chance that team members may not be aware of or fully understand the overall objectives? If so, its worth taking the time to discuss and clarify.

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How team members identify their strength activities

March 21, 2007

One of the chief objectives in forming a team is to find people with complimentary strengths, talents, and skills. The mix provides the team with the necessary breadth to cover a wide range of demands, and allows for more flexibility to adjust to the inevitable challenges that arise during projects.

Steven Covey puts it this way, “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.

To achieve this mixture in teams, it is first necessary for individuals to understand their own strengths. Most of us have plenty of thoughts about our own strengths. After all, we all had to answer the same standard interview question, didn’t we? “So [interviewee name], what are you greatest strengths?”

Answers that I have heard (and used) are typically fairly vague, in the vein of: attention to detail, team player, organized, self-motivated, etc.

GOIn his book Go Put Your Strengths to Work, Marcus Buckingham argues that our greatest opportunity for improvement lies in capitalizing on our strengths. To achieve real improvement, however, we need to get beyond vague descriptions of strengths by focusing on the activities that allow us to utilize our strengths.

Strength activities have 4 SIGNs

  1. Success – you are successful when playing to a strength
  2. Instinct – you are drawn to, and look forward to, strength activities
  3. Growth – strength activities feel natural (more on this below)
  4. Needs – strength activities seem to fill certain innate needs

Under the header of GROWTH, Buckingham writes engagingly about how strength activities make us feel.

It feels easy. It feels like you’re not trying very hard. It feels like an activity that for some reason, proved quite simple for you to pick up. You learned it quickly and now, when you are doing it, you don’t struggle to concentrate. Instead you naturally stay focused and time speeds up, and you still stay focused and time speeds up some more. You have to remind yourself to step and look up at the clock, and when you do, whole hours have flown by.

Sounds to me like being “in the zone.”

Identify your strength activities

Buckingham suggests a process of self-observation whereby you write down what you are doing when you catch yourself engaging in activities that have the 4 SIGNs described above. Continue the process for about 2 weeks, recording each activity on a separate card, along with how it makes you feel.

At the end of the time, review all the cards to reveal those with the highest SIGN rankings. These are the daily activities that most play to your strengths. You will want clarify whether the activity has caveats or special circumstances. For example, attending brainstorming meetings may be a strength activity for you, whereas attending other types of meetings may not.

Related Post: Playing to your strengths on teams


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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Geewiz on using internal blogs for effective team communication

March 20, 2007

If you haven’t picked up the feed for Jochen Lillich’s home of geewiz (a.k.a. blog of geewiz,) then click over and subscribe. You’ll be glad you did!

Jochen provides one of the best accounts that I have read about how to use an internal blog for communicating within teams. He describes how each IT team member makes a “daily” post to communicate four key items:

  • Results
  • Decisions
  • Findings
  • Good news

Our “Daily Blog” has become an important communication tool. Managers and coworkers get up-to-date information about what a team is working on, what’s going well and what problems arose lately—without having time-consuming meetings. And via the comment section, people can respond with questions or additions, therefore starting dialogues.

And there’s another, hidden advantage: by writing about it, people deliberate about their work. So, there’s not only a communication aspect, but also a reflection aspect in our blogging. Both effects combined really make the time spent writing daily blog entries worthwhile.

I am constantly reading (and sometimes writing) about differences between people who do blog and those who do not blog. In teams, however, there is just one group – team member’s who do communicate. The only question becomes how that communication occurs; one-to-one, one-to-many, face-to-face, conference call, e-mail, blogs, and wikis (did I miss something?)

The simplicity of blogs makes them a viable alternative that many teams have adopted. Blogs are both compartmentalized (one post at a time) and comprehensive (all posts are contained in the blog). Blogs are more easily searched than e-mail and not reliant on who kept or deleted which message.

Finally, Jochen points out that the “continuous flow of information about [the team’s] current work fosters transparency and the exchange of ideas and helpful hints.” Read the entire post here.

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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.

Telling

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.

Selling

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?