Why Workplace Teams Struggle—And What to Do About It

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

Many workplace teams I observe are not much better than the typical nightmarish college class group project that most of us have lived through at one time or another. The goals are vague, roles are poorly defined, leadership is absent or misdirected and there are varying degrees of enthusiasm for participating, ranging from the loner’s cry of, “Get me out of here!” to the naïve whine of, “Why can’t we all get along?” Oh, and don’t forget that there’s always a few simply along for the ride while others practically kill themselves in an effort to prop up the rest of the team.

Too many of our workplace teams stumble along in search of performance and quality output, while we as managers look on with a mix of horror and disappointment at the slow-motion pile-ups occurring in front of us.

And while we would like to point to senior management teams as best practice examples, those groups are most often “teams” in name only, struggling to get out of the starting gate on anything more than showing up and sharing functional and operating status updates.

At Least 4 Big Reasons Why Our Workplace Teams Struggle:

1. We’re naïve. We ignore the reality that groups of otherwise competent professionals don’t necessarily and naturally combine and produce. 1+1+1+1 should = 5 or more according to the theory, yet without guidance, coaching and structure, breaking even on productivity is a long-shot in most cases.

2. We don’t teach people how to work in groups. And yes, working successfully in and with groups is a learned skill. Sure, all of your team members have been through leadership development programs, but helping individuals develop their own leadership skills doesn’t necessarily translate to performance in a group setting. The skills, practices and behaviors necessary for team success and success on a team are different than those required for leadership success.

3. We don’t coach our teams. This simplest of all steps…ensuring that our key project teams, our senior management teams and other related work groups have valid, objective coaching support is almost summarily ignored in the corporate world.

4. We don’t walk the talk when it comes to teaming. Our values might include the word “team” or “teamwork,” but we don’t teach and reward the behaviors that make teams work.

9 Ideas to Help Strengthen Team Performance in Your Workplace: 

1. Embrace the idea that cultivating high performance teams in the workplace is hard work. Too many of us ignore this reality. Acknowledge this publicly when forming a new group. Share ideas on the challenges and opportunities of group work and leverage the ideas and tools below liberally as part of the teaming process.

2. Extend professional development efforts in your organization beyond individual skills development. Add a “team” track to the work and provide widespread access to this content. From brainstorming to making decisions to learning to adapt based on momentary failures or risks, doing this in a group setting is difficult and merits investment in training.

3. Define behaviors critical for team success and openly discuss and debate those behaviors with any new team you are forming. Codify these behaviors and strive to keep them visible in the process of group work. Individual team members must understand they are accountable to supporting and exhibiting the behaviors spelled out in the values.

4. Encourage teams to examine primary contributors to project or group failure. While it’s fairly intuitive that vague goals, unclear roles and a lack of understanding of the customer are contributors to project stress or failure, many otherwise smart people contribute on groups who step all over those landmines. It’s healthy for people to be challenged to recognize the problems and press the stop button.

5. Challenge teams to define what success looks like in their own terms. This firm definition of success (perhaps shared via a custom scorecard) is priceless context that supports performance.

6. Make a religion out of choosing team leaders right for the situation. Seniority or title are almost never the right reasons to choose someone as a team leader. Choose the individual who offers each unique group the best chance of success.

7. Provide a coach for critical projects. Every team struggles to learn how to talk, debate, brainstorm, decide, provide feedback, learn and of course, execute. A coach is your best chance of helping a group learn how to navigate these challenges.

8. Recognize that teams cycle through phases of storming, norming and performing. Leadership and coaching are essential to help not only with the early-awkward phase of start-up, but also as projects progress and new or unanticipated challenges arise.

9. Get the executives involved. One of the critical contributors to project or group success is an informed, empowered executive serving as a sponsor and resource for a team. The ability of this individual to cut through corporate noise is priceless. A good executive sponsor is part advocate, part coach and part accountability guru, and is present and involved at the right level.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Great teams don’t happen by accident. They are products of very deliberate work to form the environment for success. While our natural tendency on groups is to bypass the squishy front-end of purpose and behaviors definition and get to work, the time spend defining what success looks like is the most valuable time of all. Teach, coach and support your teams for success. Anything less is a formula for individual and group stress and poor performance. It’s time to quit watching the group pile-ups and start building in the values, behaviors and programs that help these teams succeed!

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s latest book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Art of Managing—Sometimes You Have to Slow Down to Go Faster

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

Today’s management literature is filled with references to speed. If we’re following the trends, we’re all growing more “agile” and likely “lean” in the process. We’re working in “sprints” and “bursts,” and of course, we’re “teaming” whenever possible.

Other firms are “reacting aggressively” to competitor moves and one CEO I was talking with described a “blitzkrieg move” (lightning warfare) into a new market segment. Another top executive emphasized wanted his team to be more nimble in response to competitor issues.

All of this motion may be helping our waistlines, dancing moves and cardio health, but I’m not convinced that speed is always the right answer.

Sometimes you just have to slow down to go faster.

4 Key Situations Where Pausing Before Acting Makes Good Business Sense

1. Hiring Key Talent. While you might be critically short of talent in certain areas of your business, this is one area where haste will indeed make waste that you can ill afford to create. Hire slow. Get to know your candidate over time and in multiple settings. Work hard to assess mutual culture fit and involve the candidate with his/her potential team members. The opportunity cost of a poor key hire is too big to let the need for speed govern your actions.

2. Learning to Better Understand Your Customers/Prospects. Surveys, focus groups and executive customer visits are no substitute for taking the time and doing your best imitation of an anthropologist, observing customers or prospects in their natural settings. Watching individuals interact with your offerings or, better yet, trailing them for a period and cultivating a deep understanding of “a day in their life,” is a slower moving, deliberate process that has the potential to gain more insights and ah ha moments than a lifetime of online surveys.

3. Responding to Competitor Moves. While this might seem like the perfect situation to employ instantaneous response, there are many situations where a pause to better understand the move and cultivate a thoughtful, complete response may be in order. If your competitor is playing checkers, you might want to redefine the game as chess. The danger on one hand is being lulled into an unwinnable and ongoing set of tit for tat moves that destroy value for both firms. Also, a good competitor will throw strength against your weakness and if your response is from that perspective, you end up chasing your tail for a long time. Consider a broader response. Use your superior understanding of your customers to redefine your package of offerings. Kick back with something you do very well that is meaningful to your clients and let your competitor chase you. In most cases, simply matching a response is a fool’s game.

4. Restructuring the Team/Organization. This is one that some firms engage in like clockwork, and while organizational design is indeed a competitive tool, it is one to use sparingly and only based on a crystal clear strategy. Too many firms restructure first and then look for the strategy, when the right approach is to do just the opposite. Beware the temptation to simply move boxes on charts and think you are solving something. Most often, you’re not.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I prefer adjusting my team’s cadence to the demands of a situation over an ungoverned pursuit of speed. And yes, sometimes the cadence is fast…quick cycles, sense and respond, but in the circumstances above and many others, good managers see the risks in speed and the gains from slowing to consider the next actions. This coping with speed places huge pressure on top management to clarify strategies and goals and for all members of a firm to strive to connect their work and their pace to the bigger picture. While speed is inherent in our world, sometimes it truly pays great dividends to slow down and assess the situation.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s latest book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Art of Managing—Shiny Objects and the Senior Management Team

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsOne of the value killers found inside many organizations is the out of control pursuit of too many new initiatives. The resultant too few resources chasing too many projects, is a sure-fire way to create organizational stress as initiatives fall short, inefficiencies skyrocket and employees, stakeholders and customers grow perturbed.

In one client firm, the sure-fire path to success was to attach oneself to as many high visibility initiatives as possible, in the hope of being associated with the success of one of them. It was a political portfolio game, with most projects flailing and failing. Nonetheless, the politically charged environment and the visible path to success catalyzed a seemingly endless number of new initiatives designed to optimize the visibility and executive attachment of the idea generator without really focusing on solving critical problems.

The root cause of this undisciplined pursuit of new initiatives rests squarely on the collective shoulders of the management team. Both success and struggle are equal opportunity contributors to this situation.

Success generates the ego that tells management, “we can do no wrong,” and struggle or strategy disappointment (either the idea or the execution) generates political flailing that rationalizes the search for a quick fix.

Another team rationalized maneuvers several degrees off of a still-evolving core strategy in the name of revenue coverage. “Until we figure out the strategy, we’ve got to show growth,” was their mantra. Their lack of discipline led to to a collection of disparate initiatives that struggled for room to breathe in an environment where every idea was good and no ideas attached to revenue were turned away. They failed.

Effective management teams learn to recognize the signs of a breakdown in discipline and they redouble their efforts to promote clarity and minimize the tendency to fill ambiguity with unqualified activities.

These groups recognize the dangers of hubris born of success (Jim Collins) or the tendency to flail in search of quick answers when things go wrong. They understand that they are accountable for setting direction and ensuring that each and every choice to apply company resources must create the right kind of value. And they accept that determining just what the right kind of value truly is, is an exercise that can only be resolved through debate and deliberation.

One particularly effective management team holds themselves accountable to evaluating ideas against the filter of,  “Does it create the right kind of value?” They live by the mantra that not every dollar of revenue is created equal, and they’ve learned to separate interesting ideas from ideas that move them closer towards a desired future state (new markets or new customers). They’ve also learned to effectively and passionately make a case for new ideas and then make a decision and move forward. They credit their success to the senior executive who has worked tirelessly to depoliticize their environment and focus them on moving towards the future.

 The Bottom-Line for Now:

Whether you sit on the senior management team or you sit in the middle of the organization where the real work takes place, strive to cultivate intelligent filters for new initiatives. Anchor to key corporate goals and strategies, and always ensure that your initiatives connect to a real customer…not a customer of myth or imagination.

Ideas are wonderful and you don’t want to stifle their generation, however, not every idea deserves to turn into an initiative. Choose carefully. You need just enough to push the team or organization forward and not too many to promote distress. If the people around you are running around trying to keep the spinning plates from wobbling off of their sticks and crashing to the ground, it’s time to reassess.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Leadership Caffeine—Breakaway Leadership Part 2

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

In the first post in this blended, Leadership Caffeine/Art of Managing series, I focused on leadership and management behaviors that stifle or derail efforts to escape the gravitational pull of the past as organizations work to achieve what Geoffrey Moore calls, Escape Velocity.

In the words of that business pundit, Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” when it comes to building new on top of old (For those too young to have met Pogo, he was a popular newspaper cartoon character from another era.)

In this post, we look at behaviors and approaches that YOU and your management counterparts directly control that contribute to success with this challenging endeavor of building something new while managing the existing legacy business.

8 Ideas to Help Improve Your Odds of Success in Building the Future:

1. Create organizational awareness and understanding of the new endeavor. Every day. Seriously. I’m invoking Kotter’s dictate that, “in times of change, you cannot over-communicate.” Every time a firm’s senior leaders stop working at this, the cultural storm clouds emerge. Take care of it. Daily.

2. Position the new and legacy efforts as two equally critical but very different endeavors. It’s true. The existing business pays the bills and funds the future, while the new endeavor strives to ensure a future. One is no more critical than the other. They are both critical. Share the over-arching strategy (or opportunity) far and wide; create an understanding of how the firm will execute on the opportunity and share results, good and bad. Help the entire organization become invested in the success of the new endeavor!

3. Share the cool new toys! New endeavors often introduce new processes or approaches to innovation, development and market testing. Find opportunities to cross-train and cross-pollinate new approaches with legacy teams where appropriate. I’ve seen this most often in the move away from waterfall development to an agile approach. Frequently, all teams can benefit from understanding and learning to apply the new techniques.

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management terms4. Recognize and manage the inertia of your legacy business in creating new opportunities to invest. Your product managers will naturally identify opportunities to improve existing products and introduce new offerings into legacy markets. Marketing associates will find ways to spend their budgets in pursuit of the business, and rarely do the volume of development asks or marketing opportunities shrink of their own accord.

Senior leaders must manage the incremental requests with a clear filter and a firm hand. See also points 1 & 2 and recognize that creating context for “No” on new requests is critical to avoiding a cultural rift over the team with the shiny new toys and the other team with yesterday’s retreads.

5. You get what you measure…use the right progress measures. Moore does a good job of reminding us in Escape Velocity that you cannot measure new ventures with the same metrics you apply to existing businesses. New ventures are about engaging innovators and early adopters, gaining feedback and step by step, increasing activities, pipelines and then dollars and profits. We expect our existing businesses to quickly translate activities into revenues and profits, but the new ventures have to grow into those measures.

In larger entities, particularly holding companies and conglomerates, there’s often little consideration for the meaning of the numbers in cells on a spreadsheet…it’s up to you and your peers to establish this understanding and ensure proper context for costs without revenue that occur in most new endeavors.

6. Be prepared for the “Stuff Happens” phase. I don’t care how well you define the project and anticipate risks, something always happens that the team did not anticipate. The unknown-unknowns bite hard, and it takes leadership to stand firm in the face of the onslaught of finger-pointing and second guessing, and prevail. A senior leadership divided against itself will not stand. (OK, sorry President Lincoln.) The firm’s senior leaders and the new venture’s executive sponsor must fight the knee-jerk reactions and guilty before proven innocent tendencies of others vying for resources.

7. We think, therefore we are prone to errors and traps. Be merciless about avoiding group-think, dodging escalation of commitment and side-stepping other group and individual cognitive decision-making traps. Use outside perspectives to challenge your strategy and your assumptions. Promote outside-in discussions with target audience feedback and competitor analysis. Ask others to frame your perceived opportunity in a different way and challenge them to identify alternative approaches. And importantly, cultivate the leadership team dynamics needed to ask hard questions about insights, direction and strategies.

8. Avoid starving the new endeavor. One of my favorite managers often intones, “We’ve been doing so much for so long with so little that we can now do absolutely anything with nothing.”  He always gets a laugh, but it’s no laughing matter when promising ideas die on the vine due to lack of care and feeding. If you’re making a courageous leap to push into a new arena, back it with the people, equipment, tools and organizational support needed to improve the odds of success.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

This is a big topic contained in a couple of small posts. Many organizations never move beyond the business that made them successful. They are yesterday’s name brands and tomorrow’s answers to trivia questions. The effort required to add something new in an environment of existing (or old) is not to be trifled at. Use the ideas here and in post #1 as prompters and engage in the hard discussions and invoke the courageous leadership it takes to move beyond the gravitational pull of your firm’s past.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s latest book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Leadership Caffeine—Exploring Breakaway Leadership, Part 1

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

In a recent “Art of Managing” post, I focused on the challenges that almost all organizations face when trying to move beyond the successes of a fading past towards new markets and new ways of doing business. In the excellent book that prompted the article, Escape Velocity, by Geoffrey Moore, the author raises the idea of Breakaway Leadership, but leaves us groping in the dark a bit, wondering  just what this leadership looks like in the wild.

If you’ve lived through a successful migration of a business from a legacy market to a new world, you know that it’s a sometimes messy, often emotionally turbo-charged experience laced with a fair amount of doubt and fear. It’s also a time rich in experimentation and learning filled with a whole lot of “new” in the form of new people, new customers, new offerings, new products, new partners and so on.

I’ve personally been a part of exactly two of these that worked in a big way, and I’ve counseled clients who have ultimately pulled it off. I’ve also been around colleagues and clients who failed to execute. Earlier in my career, I was along for the ride when the train ran off the rails on a collapsing bridge over a big waterfall that emptied into a lake filled with alligators and sharks. At least that’s what it felt like.

While sensitive to stepping all over the fundamental attribution error when looking in the rear-view mirror, I can tell youGraphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management terms there were and are leadership behavior differences that made a difference in the outcomes in my opinion. For this post, let’s explore some of the behaviors that supported a failure to Breakaway.

8  Leadership and Management Tripping Points that Destroyed Attempts at Breaking Away:

1. Cloistered Cockpit Control. The senior management team assumed the responsibility for the change efforts (good), but failed to adequately involve anyone not seated on Mahogany Row (bad). They worked unceasingly to think through the change, but fundamentally lost track of what the people doing the work needed in the form of context, support and motivation.

2. Left the Legacy Behind. The painful reality is that what got you here won’t take you forward, but when you alienate the good people working hard to optimize outcomes outside of the spotlight, the culture shift crashes. The fact that the legacy business is paying the way for the investment in the future makes it all the more critical to both lead and manage this part of the organization with care and concern.

3. Only the Cool Kids Got to Play. Yes, it takes new people with new schools to facilitate a successful market shift, but it’s a huge mistake to not bring legacy talent along through opportunities, education and immersion.

4. A Shortage of Courage and It Wilted Under Pressure. As Moore points out, the worst of all economic outcomes is an attempt at building the future that wilts due to pressure part-way through the process. Leading major change is not for the faint of heart or the short-on-courage type individuals.

5. Taking a Lazy Approach to Strategy. When senior managers fail to hold themselves accountable to properly defining their new opportunity in the context of audience, problem/solution, competitor set, ecosystem and all those other vexing strategy issues, the lack of clarity creates a brutal case of mission drift.

6. The Royals Arrived and the Dictators Emerged. I’ve observed leaders take on an almost royal or in some cases dictatorial persona, with all of the attendant hubris, arrogance and carnage. Followers who remain take the leader’s every utterance as something between a royal decree and the law of the land, and every discussion in every meeting focuses on what people perceive the leader wants. I observed this in a Good to Great firm (Collins) that is no longer great and arguably not good. It was fascinating and horrifying to watch as good people deserted, messengers of market truths were regularly executed and the remaining shell of the organization was held hostage by one person.

7. Flailing and then Failing. Much like Jim Collins describes in his book, How the Mighty Fall, at least one of the steps on the road to ruin is an undisciplined pursuit of more. In the failed transformations I’ve observed, this malady is present in all circumstances. Frustrated over the lack of quick results, senior managers lash out in pursuit of new initiatives. Projects are started and abruptly stopped and new projects are heaped upon the existing overload of work. Eventually the organization grinds to a halt.

8. Trust Took a Holiday at the Top of the Organization Chart.  A creeping lack of trust between a firm’s senior leaders is nearly almost fatal, and nothing kills trust faster than a team that has not linked arms around a direction and a set of choices. There’s no more heated time in a senior leadership group’s lifecycle than a major change initiative and the trend is towards entropy instead of order.  Always fatal as it unfolds like a Kabuki Play on a stage that all employees can see. My least favorite senior leadership team ended up refusing to ever meet as a group in large part due to their not so secret contempt for each other.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While the focus in this post is on large organizational transformation, the same issues and same behaviors emerge in attempts at team, unit or functional transformations. There’s a group of leadership behaviors that suck the critical energy out of any attempt to breakaway no matter the size or scale. And while part of the answer is to “do the opposite” of the above, life, business and organizational change are never that simple. For now, beware the tendencies described above and plan on a return visit for Part 2, where I’ll explore the behaviors that support success in Breakaway situations.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s latest book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.