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Creating Leaders in your Organization, Part 4: Leading Teams

I define team as a group of people with common commitments.  In sports, it is obvious that a group of people sharing the commitment to winning a game will at least try to operate in harmony, while the same group without that commitment will not. In some sports, it is obvious when there is a player who is committed to standing out even at the expense of the rest of the team.  This person is often referred to as “not a team player” and even worse.

However, creating a team in an organization requires more than just a common commitment to winning the game . Organizational teams run for months if not years versus the few minutes or hours that most games take.

What it takes to create an organizational team that remains “team-like” for an extended period of time is to deal with the team members’ commitments beyond just the game.  In my opportunities to work with corporate groups ranging in size from six to over one hundred , a process emerged to form effective, cohesive teams.  This process consisted of the following steps:

First, in a meeting with the entire group, if possible, establish an expression of the game that everyone in the group can commit to.  In several cases, when this initial meeting was held, the participants drastically and powerfully changed the expression of the commitment. In one case, management came into this initial meeting with a goal of increasing engineering productivity by a large factor. Not surprisingly, the engineers in the group were not inspired.  As the meeting went on, the idea emerged that their product could be industry leading within a year if substantial productivity increases were realized. The group got excited about this new expression of the game, and committed to it.

In the process of this first meeting, there may be someone who is reluctant to make the team commitment.  It is important to deal effectively with this situation because it is likely to come up again and again in the future as obstacles are encountered.  Moreover, there may be other people who are not authentically committed to winning the game who lack the courage to express their doubts. The hesitant person should first be acknowledged for the courage it took to express their concerns.  This person should then be asked if they are committed to having the team fail.  No one in my experience ever says that they are.  At this point the person should be allowed to choose to leave or stay on the team.  It is rare that people choose to leave at this point.  If the person sees obstacles to the realization of the team’s commitment, it should be pointed out that identifying such obstacles is an important function in the team.

In this initial meeting or soon after, it should be made clear that people might have personal commitments that could conflict with the effort that it is going to take to win the game that was set up in the first step.  It is imperative that these commitments get included in the overall team’s common commitment.  For instance, in many situations, teams have expressed concerns about work-life balance.  This was handled by including a team commitment that no one on the team would work more than so many hours per week.  To put teeth into this commitment, everyone also agreed that they would be vigilant in making sure that none of their teammates violated this limit.

Individual commitments should also be addressed.  Personal commitment to taking a vacation at a certain point, a leave on the arrival of a new child, leaving early on certain days to go to a class, and so on should be identified and made part of the team commitment.  In this way people see that the other team members support their personal needs, and later criticism for being absent for these purposes is forestalled.

Inevitably, a powerful team commitment will encounter obstacles.  These should be taken head-on, the earlier the better.  The general term we use for an obstacle to fulfilling on a commitment is breakdown.  Dealing with breakdowns so as to produce breakthrough results is what a team must be adept at to produce anything other than mundane results.  By definition, if a team is committed to producing extraordinary results, results that are unprecedented, there will be breakdowns to overcome.

Breakdowns in the path of realizing the team’s commitments will inevitably cause team members to question their commitment.  Breakdowns present two opportunities:
•        The opportunity to renew the commitments of the team members to the team goals and to each other, and
•        The opportunity to discover a breakthrough that resolves the breakdown

The former is dealt with in essentially the same way as the initial meeting with the team, described above.  Since the first thing on most people’s mind when encountering a breakdown is to look for someone or something to blame, this must be dealt with.  Assigning blame is counter-productive.  The first productive question is “what are we committed to as a team?”   Answering this question anew often leads to a reformulation of the team’s commitment such that a new opening for a solution appears.

For instance, there was a situation where all of a new customer’s documents had to be put up on a web site by a certain date, and the automated document-processing program could not handle about 20% of them due to format problems.  There were tens of thousands of documents. Manually correcting the format issues would take the realization of the goal far past the deadline and blow the budget.  However, when the commitment behind this breakdown was examined, it became clear that having 80% of the documents on line would satisfy the customer’s requirement, and that the customer could be asked to correct the formatting errors in their documents.

The solution in this example sounds trivial, but that is the way many of the obstacles are handled.  At first appearance, they seem intractable, but when the solution becomes apparent, people wonder what the fuss was.  The role of leadership in this process is to keep people committed and focused on solving problems, not on assigning blame.


Read the series finale…

Part 5: Leading and Organizational Culture

And if you haven’t yet, read…

Part 1: Talk is Not Cheap

Part 2: Leadership and Delegation

Part 3: Leadership and Listening


© ALS Consulting 2014

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