Have you ever gotten in your car, driven to work, found a parking spot, sat at your desk, and wondered: How did I get here? If you ever experienced this, you were probably on automatic pilot, unconscious of what you were doing because you do it so often. Now let’s say you got in your car, started to drive, and suddenly a detour took you far out of your way. What happened then? Perhaps you began to worry about missing an important morning meeting. Probably, you drove with heightened awareness, your grip tightening on the steering wheel. And maybe you arrived at the office grouchy, immediately complaining to your co-workers about those so-and-sos who messed up traffic during rush hour.
Everybody believed Paul was the problem. His teammates complained in anonymous interviews that he was overly critical and negative. They said he dominated conversations, and became aggressive when someone disagreed with him. Despite acknowledging his deep technical knowledge, Paul’s teammates said that if he left the team they would be more effective. Ouch. But Paul wasn’t their only complaint. They also grumbled about not having influence with the senior executives who sponsored their work. And they criticized Mary, the team leader, for not confronting Paul or their senior leaders. I had been hired by Mary to facilitate the development of her team. Part of my agreement with Mary was to provide the team with the anonymous input from my interviews. I commonly use this approach (called action research), but I had never heard such a hairball of negativity from a team before.
One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons depicts two excited executives sitting in a meeting. One says to the other, “Let’s keep things here exactly the way they are.” The other responds, “Yeah, let’s not change anything!” Many of us want to change our organizations so they are collaborative and innovative, with a focus more on customers than on internal politics. Yet leading change can feel like pushing a boulder uphill as people cling to the familiar ways of the past, while nodding in agreement that things need to change.
I’ve always studied teams. The youngest of three boys, as a kid I was mostly a bystander to my family’s tumultuous interactions. While my teenaged brothers and parents sparred in cycles of argument, cooling off and reconciliation, I stayed under the radar, vigilant to any verbal shrapnel that might fly my way. My friends’ families were even more interesting to observe. Some were yellers; some were quiet and civil, yet each seemed more exotic than my own, “normal” family. How, I wondered, could these families be so bizarre and still stay together? More formal education enriched my study of teams, and I’ve worked over the past twenty-five years supporting teams to get better results. But my curiosity has never diminished. Why do some teams flourish while others struggle? A few years ago I came across a body of work that greatly influenced my practice. I recently adapted this system for a senior executive team that was rife with conflict, which led to breakthrough results in their performance. And it was fun…
Motivational speakers used to turn me off. As a facilitator of leadership and team development processes, I viewed these gigs mostly as ‘edu-tainment:’ sentimental yarns or heroic exploits that rarely left a trace. But then I had the experience… Several years ago I was invited to present ‘best practices in leading organizational change’ at the annual convention of a sock manufacturers association. It seemed their industry, like many others, was buffeted by foreign competition. While giving a talk to a large group was new to me, my boss thought it might be a stretch assignment to accept the invitation, so I did.
Silence often makes people uncomfortable. But remarkably, leaders can also use silence to generate breakthroughs in performance. Let me explore: I recently facilitated a two-day strategy retreat with 10 senior leaders of a company that had been reorganized. One objective of the retreat was to check in on the progress of the reorganization, which was designed to encourage more collaboration and decision making lower in the ranks. I had just summarized the findings from interviews I conducted with each team member, as well as with some managers the next level down. My report to the group was not pleasant to hear, but was consistent with what just about everybody had said: The company was not benefiting from the reorganization. Most people reported that cross-functional collaboration had become more stressful, less frequent, and less successful.
Last April we received an intriguing call from the Deputy Director of one of the world’s largest professional Societies.. “Do you remember 5 years ago, at the end of our conference in Dallas, when we all felt we accomplished something very special that we had been trying to do for years?” she said, “Well, we need to do it again, and the stakes are even higher”. Back then we had helped plan and execute an organizational change strategy that culminated in what they now refer to as a “watershed event’ — 140 engineers representing 8 different working Boards came together to create a radical change in their Organization’s strategy and structure. The conference built a consensus that at the time no one believed was possible. This time they wanted all the Boards and Committees that worked on different technical issues and didn’t know each other, to learn about each other’s work, find ways to collaborate, and create the foundation of the overall strategic plan. And this meeting, which we facilitated in San Diego last month, led to comments like. “I’ll never forget Dallas, but San Diego was really amazing.” Over the last 13 years, we’ve learned a lot about how