The Fault In Our Loyalties

Photo by Thomas Evans on Unsplash

Having the wrong “first team” may be driving intergroup conflict throughout your company

Regardless of your position in a company, you’re probably a part of multiple teams. You have an immediate team — the people you work with every day. There’s another team made up of everybody in your department, and you might also be on a team with peers from other departments. And within those teams, there might be even more virtual teams that you belong to.

The point is, you’ve got a lot of teams beyond the one you’re assigned to on the org chart.

But, all those teams have a common goal. They all want the company to grow and succeed and be an awesome place to work. If everybody and every team wants the same thing, what’s the problem? Why do you need to know your “first team” and prioritize your allegiance?

The plan is nothing, strategery is everything

For most of my life, commitment & accountability have gone hand-in-hand as the formula for success. Set a goal, commit, and get it done. So, as I’ve landed in leadership roles, it’s something I’ve emphasized a lot with my teams.

That’s not bad, per se, but I was encouraging commitment at the wrong level. I wanted team members to commit to completing an assignment within a certain timeframe, then hold themselves accountable to get it done. However, that sort of commitment has proven to be too low-level and individual-focused.

You can’t emphasize execution without buy-in on strategy.

What I’ve come to realize is that commitment is much more effective when used to obtain buy-in from the team on a particular strategy. In other words, it’s really powerful when the team can agree, “We’re going to accomplish X by doing A, B, & C,” and commit to the approach. You can’t emphasize execution without buy-in on strategy. I’d been looking for people to commit to A, B, & C without understanding or agreement on what we were trying to accomplish.

I was doing everything I could to make execution of assignments go as smoothly as possibly — and being marginally successful — but it wasn’t until I read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni that I came to see I was prioritizing my teams incorrectly and creating unnecessary turbulence as a result.

In the book, members of a fictional executive team learn to prioritize shared objectives above the goals of their individual departments so the company can succeed. They prioritize themselves as a team and align on strategy. Departments begin working together to achieve common goals rather than competing for resources, and they experience success as an organization rather than as disconnected teams. It’s beautiful.

Overarching goal, all the way across the sky

Every team will have an opinion on what’s most important and how to achieve success. The sales team will tell you sales are the key: “Great product doesn’t mean anything if nobody buys it, and revenue is our lifeblood.” The product team notes, however, that this is why investing in the product is so crucial. “If you have a superior product, selling is easier!” Finance might say sales and product mean nothing if you spend irresponsibly and manage money poorly.

The thing is, each of these teams is right. Their perspectives are valid and true. What’s most essential, though, is to have an overarching goal— an objective that all the teams can get behind and rally around. Something to unite the clans.

“If everything is important, then nothing is.”

An overarching goal is important because, as CEO Kathryn notes in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, “If everything is important, then nothing is.” The goals of individual teams are certainly important, but the leadership of those teams needs to commit to a greater objective. Without agreement at the top, conflict will trickle down through the ranks and become more severe at it seeps deeper in the company.

The whole is greater than some of its parts. Or whatever.

In order for the company to be truly successful, all teams need to achieve some level of success. No single team can carry all the others, but one failing hard enough could lead to disaster. It doesn’t matter if your team hits its numbers if everything else burns to ash.

I’m a competitive person. I want my team to be the best and most successful. It’s easy to look at peer teams and think, “Not my problem. We’re doing our part.” There’s even a certain amount of pride in that, right? To know that you’re winning by out-pacing the others? But I also know that my team’s only part of the puzzle, and our performance won’t mean as much without the other teams succeeding.

For the company to succeed, all teams need to work together to maximize strengths, mitigate weaknesses, and understand how they’re doing collectively so they can adapt and win. This is where the concept of your first team becomes so important. You shouldn’t just listen to your peers explain what’s happening on their respective teams. You should be invested in it. You should be on the same page about what you’re trying to accomplish together— the overarching goal — and be willing to adapt as a group in order meet your objective, because that will make the company successful.

The concentric safety dance

One of key themes in Simon Sinek’s book Leaders Eat Last is the importance of the circle of safety. The idea is that when a group trusts each other and doesn’t need to worry about internal threats, it can focus all of its energy externally which allows the group to succeed.

Imagine an organization where all the leaders are in the middle of circles that represent their departments, divisions, or teams of direct reports. The individual teams are united and working together well, but they’re treating other teams within the organization as external threats. That makes for a tremendous amount of energy wasted on intergroup conflict.

Now let’s adjust the picture so that the leadership team forms their own circle of safety in the middle. When this group trusts itself and has a shared vision, its energy can all be focused outward to the next layer of team. When all teams are being directed toward common objectives, they can also learn to trust each other eventually form their own greater circle of safety.

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Come down from the mountain

Deciding that you’re more committed to one team than another doesn’t mean the other team is unimportant or somehow less valuable. Those other teams, especially the one made of your direct reports or day-to-day peers, are extremely important. It’s critical to invest heavily in those teams and relationships, but prioritizing your allegiance will improve the efficiency of all your teams immensely.

Google research has shown that psychological safety is the number one most important factor for effective teams. When leadership agrees on an overarching goal and strategy for achieving it, it leads to commitment. Commitment within leadership translates to clearer messages around what needs to be accomplished by their teams — the commitment travels down and across the organization. Cross-team alignment means less conflict and less internal threat, which in turn allows teams to focus more of their energy outward and toward achieving the common goals. A tidal wave of commitment can wash over the entire organization.

It starts with leaders prioritizing themselves as a team and putting the interests of the company ahead of those of their specific departments.

Ask yourself, who is your first team? What’s the overarching goal that the team is trying to achieve, and what’s the strategy for achieving it? How is the team progressing, and how can it use its collective resources to adapt?

Work together as a leadership team. Set an overarching goal, commit to a strategy, and hold each other accountable to execute your parts. With clarity and commitment, all teams can contribute and support each other in helping the company achieve its goals, and the company will grow, succeed, and be an awesome place to work.


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This article was originally published in ILLUMINATION on December 23, 2020.

Conference Call Less, Smile More

How to keep engaged with your team when you can’t stomach another #$@!ing conference call

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Photo by Siavash Ghanbari on Unsplash

It’s 2021. The offices are closed, and you’re working from home. It’s 8:59 am, and in 1 minute, your next day of conference calls begins. And you just don’t want to do it. <expletive>.

It’s okay. We’ve all been there, so much so that the idea of “no meeting days/weeks” is gaining in popularity. If you can get your team and boss to buy-in, that’s probably the best way to give everyone a much-needed break. That’s not always an option, though, and even if it is, it’s something that needs to be scheduled and coordinated with the team. What if you need relief today?

The bad news is that you can’t ditch your team entirely; you need them, and they need you. However, take it from me — a grizzled work-from-home vet — there are ways to isolate yourself and fight call fatigue without completely ghosting your coworkers.

That last point’s worth repeating: don’t just disappear. When you go dark, your boss and teammates start to question your contributions and effort, and the more you do it, the worse it gets. Before you know it, you’re on the downward spiral of broken trust and poor performance. It’s much better to wrestle this beast out in the open, where everybody can see, and leave no question about your commitment and dedication — but, just, for the love of god, not on a video call.

Know thy tools

The first thing you need to do is assess what’s available in your toolkit. How does your team communicate? Most teams have a few different ways. Mine, for example, uses Slack and Teams in addition to everyone’s good friend, email.

In addition to those pure communication tools, you’ve probably got some collaborative tools, too, like Jira or SharePoint or Miro or Asana. You know, the apps you use to actually get things done? Yea, those. The reason these apps are so popular is because they make sharing & collaboration easy.

Here’s the secret with these tools, though. If you’re going to use them in lieu of actually talking to the people you work with, you need to use ‘em, like, extra. Catching up on email? Post a message. Writing a report? Share it. Taking a bathroom break? Okay, keep that one to yourself… But, updating those revenue projections? Shout it out! It doesn’t need to be every 5 minutes, but it should be enough so that there’s no question about whether or not you’re there or what you’re working on.

Maintaining this level of visibility isn’t just so people know you’re working — it also lets the team know you’re available for them. That’s half of what makes all these calls and meetings necessary. You know things! And people need to suck those things that you know out of your brain in order to do their jobs. You might be loving life and having the most productive solo day you’ve ever had, but if three people are stuck on a call trying to figure out what they know you know because they think you’re unavailable, it’s not going to reflect well on you.

Honor your commitments

We were on a break.

— Ross Geller

Just because you’re on a break doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want. Making all that noise about the things you’re doing won’t mean much to your team if you don’t deliver. You’re exhausted. You don’t want to talk. That’s okay, but it’s going to take a little extra work on your part to get the same results.

A critical part of honoring commitments is having some commitments. This goes hand-in-hand with my previous point of over-communicating and keeping visibility high, but it requires a little planning and forethought. Lay out the next few things you plan on doing so the team can coordinate and avoid duplicate effort.

Don’t be afraid to be a little ambitious with your goals, too. You’re on a team that’s trying to accomplish important things. Don’t phone it in while you’re… not phoning in — sign up for something meaningful.

With a few commitments in hand, it’s time to demonstrate your worth. I’ve got no problem with anybody on my team working whatever hours they want when they get their work done — so get your work done. And you better double and triple check it, too, because you lose some some quality safety nets when you fly solo. The goal is to make sure nobody has anything to complain about, so you need to make sure you catch the problems that would’ve been caught by doing the same work collaboratively with the folks you don’t want to talk to.

The key word here is “dependability.” You want the team to know that when you take an assignment into your bunker, they don’t need to worry. They can check it off the list. They’ve called in the closer, and you’ll find a way to get it done.

End of day wrap-up

Before you sign off for the day, send a status update to the team. You’ve been keeping your visibility high, so everybody knows what you’ve been up to, and you’ve put a little extra elbow grease on your deliverables to make sure quality is top-notch. Now it’s time to wrap-up all that ass you’ve kicked with a big, beautiful bow on top.

The end-of-day update is important and valuable for several reasons. The team knows you’ve been active but stating what you’ve completed shows them that you actually achieved things, too. It’s a chance for you to punctuate your effort and commitment. Those meaningful things you signed up for earlier? Yea, they’re done.

The status update sends the message that you worked hard to accomplish things for the team. It took you a little longer, but you got it done — and then you cared enough to summarize the journey. This is a great chance to showcase some leadership skills and sense of urgency, too. What needs to happen next? Who’s responsible? Make some callouts to help ensure that none of the momentum you’ve created will be lost.

Conclusion

Being on conference calls all day, every day is just plain exhausting. We all need a break, but the collaboration that pushes us to keep having them is important and valuable — it can’t be ignored. The answer to call fatigue is not less communication but different communication.

These “tips” are great advice for anybody that wants to be more effective, whether you’re dodging your co-workers in meetings and conference calls or not. Similarly, if you don’t do these things, it will ruin your team. People won’t trust you to complete your work. They won’t try to collaborate because it’s easier not to. They’ll resent you for not pulling your weight.

The stakes are a little higher when you’re working asynchronously, though, because you’re not “in the room” to defend yourself against misperception. You can’t explain why something took 3x longer than everyone thought it would or that you didn’t get to one thing because another, more important task cropped up.

None of this is hard, though; it just requires thoughtfulness and awareness. Communication and collaboration. Visibility and transparency. You can follow the same basic formula that’s often prescribed for presentations and writing: say what you’re going to do, do it, then say what you did. This keeps you highly-visible and transparent while also being present and available for the team. Commitment and accountability ensure that you produce results, and the end-of-day report is the cherry on top, helping everyone to build on your success.


This article was originally published in ILLUMINATION on November 25, 2020.

10 Behaviors to Make Your Team Great

Is your team greater than the sum of its parts?

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Photo by Michael Ankes on Unsplash

My team was in a bit of a rut. There was no trust and poor communication. People weren’t collaborating, and there was no transparency into anyone’s days. Updates in our daily standup meetings were vague and non-committal. Morale was low. Things just weren’t getting done.

I knew it wasn’t a people problem. I’d been with most of the team for years, and everybody was smart and talented. No — this was definitely a behaviors problem.

But, while I could feel the problems, I didn’t know how to articulate them. Before I could address the issues, I needed a better understanding of what they were, and I needed to establish a vocabulary with the team to facilitate a discussion. Only then, with awareness and buy-in, could we begin to implement change to improve our effectiveness.

Good Behaviors, Bad Behaviors

I was discussing the team’s underperformance and collaboration problems with a colleague, and they joking-not-jokingly proposed doing a Five Dysfunctions of a Team exercise. (Disclosure: as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

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The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable

It had been a while since the five dysfunctions had been front of mind, and I had to look them up for a refresher. “Let’s see what we’ve got here,” I thought as I clicked through some search results.

  1. Absence of trust — check.
  2. Fear of conflict — yup.
  3. Lack of commitment — oh yea.
  4. Avoidance of accountability — definitely.
  5. Inattention to results — mhmm.

Wow. We had ’em all. People on the team didn’t trust each other to complete assignments. Rather than confront the lack of trust, they preferred to work alone on whatever they felt was most important. Updates in standups would be, “I worked on some things and will figure out what’s next,” and people would leave for a coffee and disappear for the rest of the afternoon. Meanwhile, user stories would drag on for days and weeks with no sense of urgency. Yikes!

The five dysfunctions also reminded me of Project Aristotle. This Google Research project attempts to answer the question, “What makes a team great?” One of their key findings was that effectiveness depended more on how the team worked together than who was on the team. In other words, team dynamics and behaviors matter more than people and individual performance.

…what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together

Google’s “five effectiveness pillars” go with the five dysfunctions like peanut butter goes with jelly, combining to create a gooey smattering of team efficiency — and they gave me exactly what I was missing most: a vocabulary for talking about the areas we needed to improve and ways to communicate the importance & impact.

The Actions in Action

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Photo by Trym Nilsen on Unsplash

I had the concepts. Now I needed to deliver the message. I decided to put together two hypothetical situations based on our very real problems to illustrate the impact of these behavioral patterns & anti-patterns.

Example One. In standup, a dev says, “I’m going to work on implementing the Thingamabob. I’m going to try to complete tasks A, B, & C today, then we can test and close it out tomorrow.” In the afternoon, they say, “Something came up and I need to leave for a few hours, but I’ll be back to finish up. I completed task A and am almost done with B.” They come back later when everyone else is offline, complete task B, and leave a note before signing off: “Completing task B took longer than expected, but I got it done. I wasn’t able to get to task C. I’ll pick it up first thing in the morning.”

Example Two. In standup, a dev says, “Not sure what I’m doing today. I might start working on implementing the Thingamabob.” They start working on the story to implement the Thingamabob and complete task A plus part of task B. They need to leave for a few hours, but they don’t say anything. They come back later when everyone else is offline and complete task B.

In both examples, the person might’ve been equally productive, written brilliant code, and completed the same tasks. In both cases, the person had to leave for several hours, and in both cases they didn’t complete the (stated or unstated) goal of finishing task C.

However, the first example demonstrates all of Google’s dynamics of great teams.

  • Psychological safety. The dev wasn’t afraid to share status or go away because of other responsibilities; they felt safe to let the team know they didn’t complete their stated goal.
  • Dependability: The developer made commitments in standup and was transparent about progress and effort.
  • Structure and clarity: They communicated status so the team had awareness, which allows the team to adjust its actions and priorities. (For example, this could allow someone else to jump in on completing task B while the developer was away, and upon returning they could complete task C versus only completing task B.)
  • Meaning: The developer appreciates having a job that allows them the flexibility to take care of other responsibilities during the day.
  • Impact: Ensuring progress and helping the team achieve its goals feels good.

Conversely, the second example exhibits symptoms of all five dysfunctions.

  • Absence of trust: Low visibility and poor communication lead the team to wonder what the developer is working on.
  • Fear of conflict: Sporadic availability makes it hard to collaborate; team members become exasperated and prefer to work alone.
  • Lack of commitment: The developer was non-committal in standup, and the team has no expectations or ability to coordinate.
  • Avoidance of accountability: No commitments and poor visibility & availability; the dev does nothing to demonstrate their effort.
  • Inattention to results: Individual behavior prevents the team from achieving its goals.

All this is to say that, in order to be an effective team, individuals must focus on their behavior and interactions with teammates more than just being productive themselves.

Staging the Intervention

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Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash

Okay, I had my ideas to share, and I had my plan of how I wanted to roll my message out to the team — it was time to put the wheels into motion.

The first thing I did was to send an email using the examples above. My messaging (paraphrasing) was, “Hey, team — I’ve been thinking that we haven’t been as productive lately as we’ve been in the past. I think we’re exhibiting some of the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and we’ve lost some of Google’s pillars of effectiveness that we had previously. Consider these examples.” I also shared my analysis about how the examples were illustrative of the five dysfunctions and effectiveness pillars.

I didn’t really get feedback on the email, but there was a mention here & there in standups and retrospectives. I feel like the email did a fine job of planting the seed and helping to establish a vocabulary for the conversation. Mission accomplished there, I’d say.

Step two was to solicit feedback in one-on-ones. I’d ask people what they thought about the email and how they felt about the team in that context. These conversations were helpful because it confirmed my feelings and demonstrated that others were experiencing similar frustrations. This also helped to establish that we were all on the same page and had similar perceptions of our team strengths and weaknesses.

Finally, I decided to bring it up in the team’s sprint retrospective. I was blunt with them. I said, “I don’t think the team is doing enough to demonstrate commitment & accountability.” It took some courage, but I had to trust the team and not fear conflict — to practice what I was about to preach. The groundwork I’d laid proved valuable. People referenced the email I’d sent, and we’d all had miniature versions of the discussion in one-on-ones. It was a really productive conversation and a catalyst for positive change.

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Things didn’t fix themselves overnight, but we began trending positively in just a week or two. People started giving updates like, “My goal for today is …” and leaving messages at the end of the day to highlight what they did and didn’t accomplish.

If your team can buy-in on the importance of these dynamics and be self-reflective & honest, it can lead to some pretty incredible growth — even on a team that’s already high-performing and seemingly happy. Awareness of these dynamics can turn things around on an underperforming team or protect a happy, productive team from growing pains and evolution.

My team isn’t perfect, but we’re getting better every day. The next step was to continue the momentum. We planned a recurring team meeting to focus on these behaviors and team growth to increase introspection and awareness, but the best way to keep improving is by walking the walk. Psychological safety, trust, commitment, accountability, and no fear of conflict allow us to continue having productive conversations and ensure that we stay on track to accomplish great things together.

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Originally published at The Innovation on November 20, 2020.