What Makes a Team Great

Last week, during an internal team event, we organized an interesting activity. Team members were asked to form a human chain by holding hands. A round hoop was then passed through one end of the chain and participants had to pass the hoop through themselves to other end without breaking the chain. The team that passed hoop across in least time would win.

The hoop signified challenges and issues that a team faces. To achieve the goal and overcome challenges, team members had to contribute equally – each link of the chain was important. When a team member was struggling to put the hoop through the head, the other team member would just raise the hand and help put the hoop into next person’s head. They empathized with struggle of the other team member and changed their posture (alignment) to help put hoop through the head. Teams learned that empathy, emotional intelligence, self-alignment (adaptability) are the key ingredients of a strong team.

In the same week, I stumbled upon a 2015 NY Times article titled “Why Some Teams are Smarter Than Others”. According to the research presented in this article, three characteristics that differentiate a smart team are:

  • Equal Contribution: from all members rather than a few team members dominating.
  • Emotional Intelligence: Ability to read  complex emotional states of others.
  • Women Power: Teams with more women were found to be more effective. This had little to do with diversity (equal number of men and women) but just having more women on team. Women are, on average, are more intelligent emotionally than men.

Read the full article here and a summary of the same in sketch note form below:

Related Posts/Sketchnotes at QAspire.com

Leadership: Look For Intention First

Assessing intention is a powerful way for leaders to understand how people and teams operate. Intentions are hidden, not always clarified directly through words, and hence easy to overlook. We therefore end up focusing on behaviors and actions.

A team member who always asks difficult questions (act) is looked upon as a ‘trouble maker’ when the reality could be that this team member cares more about the work or wants to really help the team improve.

Because actions are directly visible, we end up judging actions. And the fact is, when we constantly assess actions, we also end up being more judgmental. But what people seek is acceptance – they want their leaders to understand them completely.

Without acknowledging the intention behind an action, acceptance is not possible. Unless you are working with robots, human beings will make mistakes and act in ways that may not be coherent with your worldview. Constantly judge them and you stand a chance of losing them.

As human beings, we are essentially flawed. If you have to make things work, in spite of these human flaws, you need to assess people by their intentions first and then judge the methods.

The idea here is not to simply accept poor behaviors, substandard work or compromise on results. The idea is to look for the big “why” – the cause of a certain behavior or action. That is because our intentions drives our actions.

If intention is right, you can correct the methods, behaviors and actions. But I doubt if it is as easy to correct someone’s intent even when their methods seem be perfectly placed?

Measuring Right Things: Utilization Versus Efficiency

In manufacturing world, there is a direct correlation between how much machines are utilized and how much they produce. This works because machines do the work that is non-linear and there is very little variation in producing exactly same unit of work. Utilization is the extent to which installed capacity performs actual work. Less idle time means more utilization.

Knowledge work – where people find optimal ways to apply their knowledge to a given context in such a way that it produces the best possible business result – is very different. In this world of work, more utilization does NOT always equate with more productivity and efficiency. With re-usability, someone can churn a great deal of work in a short time whereas a tiny piece of work/defect may take up days to solve. Being busy, in this world, does not mean progress and when people seem to be sitting idle, it does not necessarily mean they are not working.

In HBR article “Six Myths of Product Development”, authors Stefan Thomke and Donald Reinertsen say –

Processes with high variability behave very differently. As utilization increases, delays lengthen dramatically. Add 5% more work, and completing it may take 100% longer. But few people understand this effect.

And when companies focus solely on measuring and improving utilization alone, people will respond to that expectation accordingly. People will seemingly remain (or report) busy all the day when nothing real is accomplished. More utilization without visible gain in efficiency is a waste.

Instead of focusing on utilization, we should focus on efficiency – how much real work gets shipped and how well. Efficiency encourages people to work smart, focus on quality and find best possible route to achieve the desired business results.

For this, we should focus on building a system where efficiency is more likely to happen. We need to engage our people to the purpose of our product/organization. We need to give them autonomy and promote self-organization. We need to share feedback early and often. Most importantly, we need to trust them.

And we need to monitor real progress instead of simply trying to occupy people for 8 hours everyday!

Great Story: A Manager’s Function

I recently re-read a fantastic book “Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams” by Tom Demarco and Timothy Lister.

The book is filled with hard-won wisdom about executing projects and managing people for highest productivity.

Here is a real-life story from the book that underlines importance of the “human aspect” of our work; especially creative work that requires significant emotional involvement too.

In my early years as a developer, I was privileged to work on a project managed by Sharon Weinberg, now president of the Codd and Date Consulting Group. She was a walking example of much of what I now think of as enlightened management. One snowy day, I dragged myself out of a sickbed to pull together our shaky system for a user demo. Sharon came in and found me propped up at the console. She disappeared and came back a few minutes later with a container of soup. After she’d poured it into me and buoyed up my spirits, I asked her how she found time for such things with all the management work she had to do. She gave me her patented grin and said, Tom, this is management.”

Sharon knew what all good instinctive managers know: The manager’s function is not to make people work, but to make it possible for people to work.

Peopleware was first published some 25 years ago, and updated once since then. With such remarkable wisdom available to us, it is unfortunate to see many organizations and leaders still not getting the very essence of leading a knowledge-oriented and creative enterprise. Either they don’t read enough (which is dangerous) or they don’t practice what they already know.

It is all about people. As the book nicely puts it,

“The major problems of our work are not so much technological as sociological in nature.”

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