How to Defeat “Best of the Best” Teams Consistently

This is part 6 of a series exploring what makes an effective team. Read this if you are interested in great teamwork and high-performance teams in businesses.

Key points:

  1. The higher team diversity, the greater the chance of solving complex problems
  2. Diversity that is most useful for a team comes in two shapes: A. Diversity of Skills and B. Diversity of Personality
  3. Team’s made up of “the best and brightest” are often bested by teams made up less skilled, but more diverse individuals
  4. More homogenous teams are better suited for repetitive tasks
  5. Diversity is an investment: You might get novel solutions, but you have to invest first and provide time for the team to form
  6. Keep a team stable. Period.

The diversity of people and the stability of membership are crucial for a team. Each person brings into the team a set of skills, intrinsic drive, and beliefs. What matters is the way those individual assets can be employed for the team.

Diversity

Let’s talk about diversity first. Diversity breeds innovation. The more diverse people are, the more original and innovative the solutions that the team can come up with. Diversity is a crucial driver of innovation.[1]Get together a crazy bunch of highly skilled people with wildly divergent world-views and backgrounds and the team will likely deliver highly innovative results. The only thing that stands in the way is the integrative ability of the team to get from immense social stress to the right level of social bonds that allows a joint team effort.[2]

We tend to glorify innovation, but innovation is finding small creative solutions in daily work, too. Any effective team is a team in search of big and small solutions, every day.  Diverse teams find it easier to come up with novel solutions.

There are lots of things that make people different, but the two elements with the most impact on team performance are skills and personality. A team needs to have all the required skills available to do a job. The more complex and unpredictable the environment is, the more diverse skills are required. It might turn out that some of those skills are not actually needed. However, complex situations are hard to predict. Who would have thought that calligraphy would be a useful skill for Steve Jobs while designing the User Interface for Apple IOS Operating system? So, it is not only important to have the right kind of skills inside a team, it is beneficial to have more diverse skills available than one would think are needed, too.

Then there is personality, which is much harder to measure. Combining different personality types, like introverted thinkers and extroverted achievers, optimistic and cautious people, inventors and perfectionists is important. A practical way to think about different team roles has been described by Meredith Belbin in 1981, the “Belbin Team Inventory.”[3]While such and other psychological tests are useful for choosing the right people for jobs, not many companies use them, or they fail to apply the insights gained from such an analysis in a carefully crafted decision process.[4]

Philipp Tetlock, a British researcher 2016 writes in his 2016 book “Superforecasting”, that diverse groups of problem solvers consistently outperform individuals as well as groups composed of the best and the brightest. That’s not to say that skill is irrelevant, but a better-rounded set of skills is more useful than more of the same. One rocket scientist in a team of ten production engineers makes a HUGE difference, but ten rocket scientists and no production engineer leaves the team with no idea how to manufacture that good dam rocket.

Philipp Tetlock, a British researcher 2016 writes in his 2016 book “Superforecasting”, that diverse groups of problem solvers consistently outperform individuals as well as groups composed of the best and the brightest. That’s not to say that skill is irrelevant, but a better-rounded set of skills is more useful than more of the same. One rocket scientist in a team of ten production engineers makes a HUGE difference, but ten rocket scientists and no production engineer leaves the team with no idea how to manufacture that good dam rocket.


Still, diversity has its drawbacks. The more diverse a team is, the less cohesive it is. But it is cohesiveness, which makes the team stable. It is tough to align a bunch of very different persons into a productive way of working. The more diverse the team, the more time is needed for people to bond with one another, and the higher the potential for conflict. Diverse teams are great for innovation, but homogenous teams are great for stability.

There is a trade-off between innovation and the stability of a team.

Stability

The integrative ability of a team is limited. It is time-consuming and emotionally stressful to integrate new team members or part with existing ones. A team needs stability. A team that is changing every day or week, where team members keep dropping in or out is no team. There is no time to bond with another, and there can be no shared feeling of commitment, there can be no “us.” Again, this sounds rather obvious. There is a tendency in business to ignore stability. There are always unforeseen things happening, and there are always other priorities emerging, so often there is no other way then exchanging team members, at least for some periods of time. Just a day of the week, maybe, how bad can that be?

Pretty bad. A team which is continually changing might have no chance to perform.  People might never get sufficiently close for effective teamwork. Even worse, if people keep on dropping in and out, people learn that it makes no sense to build up good working relations. People might be gone tomorrow.

A lack of stability hurts the performance of a team tremendously. People need time to get to know each other, and they need to have the time to familiarize themselves with the collective work. Only then the group will build a shared mental model of the way work is done. The academic evidence comes to a universal verdict: The longer a team is stable, with no team members entering or leaving, the better the team’s performance.[5]In a study of research teams, Mr. Hackman has found that exchanging one or two team members in a team of 5 to 7 team members doesn’t hurt performance only if it happens every two to three years. If a team member is to be added, exchanged or dismissed at all this should be done in the early phases of a team’s life cycle, for example with an eye on increasing the skills available to the team.

Yet it is hard to keep a team stable in a dynamic business environment. Certain things can be done to increase the resilience of a team against excessive fluctuation:

•    Get the team composition right from the start. Invest extra time and care to recruit the right people, free them up, and back-fill vacated lines positions. Compromises made early, during the forming of a team, will come back to haunt you manifold later. It is easier to start a team if you allow for some compromises, but it is hard to deliver the results that make the team a resounding success

•    Set the team’s task broadly. A broadly defined task is likely to be more stable if business priorities keep changing. Thereby, while priorities for the team might change in detail over time, the overall direction of the team will still be stable. A team faced with a broadly defined direction in a dynamic business will likely configure itself to use frequent iterations of work, reflection and adjust to evolve their work to the changing priorities. That’s a core idea of the Agile movement.

•    Go for more homogenous teams at the costs of diverse teams. The team will properly not come up with a lot of innovation, but it is inherently more stable. It starts up with much less motivation and coordination debt. Diverse teams find it easier to come up with novel solutions. Homogenous teams find it easier to apply already known solutions. If my house is on fire in Bordesholm, my hometown in the north of Hamburg, I want those local volunteer fire-fighters rushing in, who know themselves since elementary school. I am not interested in novel solutions to fight the fire. I am interested in getting it out, fast and reliably.

Sometimes – and I guess not to infrequently- innovativeness might not be what is called for. It might be more important to get a job done

•    Finally, consider doing less things with teams. Teams start with debt. It takes time to recuperate this debt. If the payoff period is likely to be not long enough to achieve break-even prior this or that change ripping the team apart, it is better to work on things in a manager led, workgroup setting. Only the most important things should be done in a team, as these tend to be more immune from ever-shifting priorities

The Integrative Ability of Organizations

But wait, there is another thing you might want to try. What about if forming and reforming, norming and re-norming teams is a natural part of an organization? What about if the integrative capabilities of groups are so high, that they allow for much more instability without hurting performance too much? Think for example of consulting teams, especially highly specialized ones. Those kinds of teams need to reform and re-norm all of the time, with each new engagement and each new client. While research has shown that even their performance would benefit from more stability of the team itself, good consulting organizations have usually achieved a high integrative capability. In fact, integrative capacity needs to be part of their very business model. However, consulting companies are project-based organizations. So, their model of operating won’t help other types of organizations.

Now imagine an organization that comes with a high degree of integrative capacity, so that effective teams bond fast.  Where people are used to work in effective, high performing team environments. They know what is expected of them and the forming, storming, and norming phases are mastered rapidly. Indeed, some norms for teamwork comes inbuilt in each coworker because it is wired into the DNA of the organization itself. Such organizations are those that rely more on self-managing teams than the traditional hierarchy.

(More on self-managing teams can be found in the previous post https://liberated.company/2018/10/18/forget-about-agile-reduce-overbearance-in-management-first/)

That’s it for today. Let me know what you think!

By the way, I decided to reduce the frequency of posts a bit, as I am busy writing a longer text for the next couple of months.


[1]Pentland, Alexander (2014) ‘Social Physics’

[2]American Psychologist, and disciple of Abraham Maslow, Clayton Alderfer calls this Under- and overboundedness. Alderfer, Clayton (2005) ‘The five laws of group and intergroup dynamics’

[3]Belbin, Meredith (1981) ‚Management Teams‘

[4]Bock, Lazlo (2016) ‘Work Rules!’

[5]Hackman, Richard (2002) ‘Leading Teams’

And: Tetlock, Philip (2016) ‘Superforecasting’; Page, Scott E. (2008) ‘The Difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups…’

Forget about AGILE! Reduce Overbearance in Management first

This is part 5 of a series exploring what makes an effective team. Read this if you are interested in great teamwork and like to explore different types of teams.

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Condition 4: Clear Boundaries

Effective teams are groups of people that act towards a particular direction. Although everyone is different, people inside a team align actions with one another. A crude but essential way of achieving alignment is setting clear boundaries.

By setting boundaries, two things are achieved: First, the freedom to act is clearly defined. The team can do everything that is within the limits of the team.  Second, everything that is set out of bounds is simplifying the mission: It is one less thing to take care of – which is very welcome as long as the boundary does not overly restrict the team’s ability to deliver. Cleary stated limits create certainty for the team. They are giving the team something to work with. They lessen the risk of the team running into major, unyielding, yet unstated boundaries later.

Boundary conditions are everything that is framing the team’s mission: Resources, scope, and deadlines are the three classical boundary conditions given to a team. However, it is although its decision-making power and the very definition who is on the team and who is not, and what is means to be on the team.

Who is on the team?

To merely assign team members is not enough. There are two things to consider. First, what does it mean to be on the team? Which rights and obligations come with team membership? A decision on team membership is a decision to include a person – but it is a decision to exclude a person, too. There should be no in between, and there should be no half-baked assignments, no “extended teams”- just universal clarity. Extended teams are a backdoor to increase team size and dilute responsibility, often for the sake of political convenience. There are always persons outside the team who need to contribute, but usually, that contribution can be limited to consulting with the team, delivering some tasks, contributing to workshops, reviewing and testing.

Second, in high-performance teams being on the team does mean to spend a lot of the time on it, the more, the merrier: Everything being equal, a full-time dedicated team will always outperform the part-time team in efficiency, speed, quality, and any other target dimension. This is not to say that the team needs to be together all the time. It may be necessary to split up the work or explore different paths, while all the time working on the team’s task.

These two demands, clearness who is on the team and who is not, and full-time dedication are so immensely essential and easy to understand yet appear so often utterly unrealistic in most companies. All the right people are already over-assigned.  Restricting the number of assignments is often hard to do, as there is always some constituency to please by demonstrating action. This is all too understandable. Well then, go ahead and over-commit your team to multiple endeavors simultaneously. Just do not expect high performance.

Again, this sounds a bit passive-aggressive. I do not mean to. The fact that people are overcommitted again illustrates the underlying theme in this series of posts: Organizations do not care about individual or team effectiveness too much. They are willing to sacrifice performance for other priorities, like stability and predictability.  Sometimes, they even choose to sacrifice performance to uphold the appearance of busyness. Where results are hard to link to individuals, hierarchies tend to reward people who appear to be busy. It takes much discipline for a company not to overload its co-workers with work. More on that in part III.

What is the authority level of the team?

What is the team allowed to decide on its own? What is the team’s freedom to act? Hackman describes four levels of authority:

  • Level 1: Authority to execute the task
  • Level 2: Authority to monitor and manage work processes and progress
  • Level 3: Authority to design the team and its organizational context
  • Level 3: Authority to set overall directions

Based on these authorization level 4 types of team’s can be identified.

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Type I: The Workgroup that is executing the team task

At the first, fundamental level, the team needs to be authorized to execute the team task. That may sound very basic, but in more political companies even this authorization level is sometimes not given to a team.

One of my very first projects, as a young consultant, was of this kind. Our team was supposed to fix the multi-billion investment management process in the Volkswagen Group across all its brands, VW, Audi, Skoda, Seat. For this, we were supposed to be using a brand new shiny new software package from a south German company called SAP, which offered work-flow functionality to fully digitalize the very communication intensive review and approval process of investment projects. Albeit the very same corporate grandees that initiated this project didn’t want any change in the way work is done to not upset the powerful brands. To implement standard software without changing historically grown processes is a blatant contradiction. Still, our mission was: Implement but do not change anything. While informing a senior partner in our company on our straits, he just smiled thinly and said: “Oh well, they are playing their old game: Go wash me, but do not get me wet.”

Every boundary set on the way the team task is to be executed closes down an avenue to a solution – possibly up to the point that the job is no longer feasible – or becomes bereft of economic sense. An example for this is the demand often faced by teams to keep within just one silo of the organization: You can do everything here, but do not change process X or System Y, that is a given. It is the nature of really important changes to have an impact on multiple organizational silos. Most modifications done to just one part of an organization quite often result in a local optimum – and global dysfunction. They might make sense for a unit, but not for the company a whole.[1]Such boundaries can turn an otherwise pretty sensible team mission to one might make limited or no sense at all.

Type II: The Self-Managing Team that is Monitoring and managing its work process and progress

Once that first, existential hurdle is cleared, and the team is all set to execute the task the next question is: Who is to monitor and manage the work process and progress, i.e., to lead the team? Usually, a manager (or project manager) is assigned to do this, no questions asked. The alternative that a team can monitor and manage its own work is not even considered. Yet this amount of freedom to organize in a way it deems best is precisely what a high-performance team needs. Mr. Hackman and all the researchers specialized in the science of high-performance teams have delivered an abundance of evidence about that.

Managers are not irrelevant in ta Self-Managing team. They still set the overall direction, convene the team and provide the working environment, including setting the boundary conditions. However, they refrain from intervening in the way the team does the work. If managers intervene, for example by coming up with meticulously detailed work break down structures, teams just won’t perform on a high level. Such manager-led teams are workgroups: Collections of individuals to whom work is assigned by a manager. A workgroup might be good enough to do a job, but it is unlikely to achieve high-performance levels. If the work process is managed by a single person, the team cannot build its emergent properties, not integrate in a way to deliver results that are more than the sum of its parts. In such a one-sided power structure, the openness and integration needed for a genuine team effort are unlikely to occur.

Beware about the overbearing manager (especially in projects)

Wait a minute! I just said that the manager led teams are a killer to a team’s performance. I even said that those are workgroups and not teams at all!

This is true. Workgroups are the way most company units or departments are organized. A loosely bound collection of individuals coordinated by a manager. Their performance will never be as high as a team, but their results are predictable and controllable. Work-groups are the norm, and Self-managed teams are exotic. Performance aspirations of line units might not justify a team effort, but within more significant projects, performance aspirations are usually higher. A good case for a high-performing, self-managed team. So how often are project teams self-managed?

Conventional project teams are headed by a project manager. Although Agile Methods like SCRUM discourage the use of project managers, most companies hold on to the notion of project managers. A manager leads a business unit. A project manager leads a project. Someone needs to be in control. It just makes so much sense to them.

Here comes the snag: Effective teams are NEVER manager-led workgroups. They are at least Self-Managing teams, where every team member can engage more wholly. Science has proven that classical, manager-led teams that come with micromanaging, intrusive, administrative procedures, overbearing interventions into the team space do not lead to exceptional performance.

The trouble is that most project managers approach projects with the same mindset as line managers. To be in control is their core concern. The question of control is at the heart of the world’s leading project management methods like PRINCE2 or PMBOK. To reliably come up with projects that deliver on time, in quality and to budget. Control is what is expected by them by the line organization. Get out there, take charge of a project and deliver according to the plan.

The problem with big project management frameworks is not that they do not solicit good advice. The problem is rather that they give too many methods, tools, and advice. If you learn the whole curriculum, you are likely to end up with a zoo of intrusive management interventions that patronize team members and undermine their initiative. There is a commercial incentive to blow up what it takes to manage projects successfully. Project managers tend to think they need to apply all those methods. I am not saying that learning about project management is a bad idea. However, I am saying that a core condition of effective teams, the freedom to determine its path on its own, is often threatened by overbearing project managers. Those types are keen to show what they have learned and are eager to display to the rest of the organization that they are in control.

That sounds like a fundamental attack on the time-treasured ancient art of project management. Old style project management may lead to great charts, great reporting and the illusion of control, but seldom to a great performance.

What’s the alternative to run successful projects? The standard answer nowadays is Agile and Scrum. The trouble is, Agile and Scrum can just be as overbearingly intrusive to teams as classic project management methods can be. The underlying solution lies, according to a host of research on high-performance teams, in managers not intervening too much: Hands-off – Eyes on. The actual project method, waterfall style or SCRUM, is of secondary importance.

Great team performance needs managers who enable teams to do their best. For that, they need to devolve control to the team and give people the freedom to act. According to Hackman and other researchers, a manager should design the team and its organizational context, but not interfere and intrude into the group dynamics of a team. A useful manager is an environment builder and coach, not an overbearing patron or a dictator. Alas, the sheer size of world-leading project manager standards leads people to believe that the more interventions, the merrier. The contrary is true.

Type III: The Self-Designing Team that is designing itself and its environment

Time to go even further. A team can also be trusted with designing itself and its work environment. For example, and contrary to popular belief, it is not a law of nature that managers need to “staff” teams. People can assign themselves to teams and teams can decide on shedding team members themselves. They can produce their own boundary conditions, setting targeted costs, marshaling resources, and to determine the scope of the project without managerial oversight.

Teams can be “self-designing.” In such a context, a manager points a team at a direction and let the team figure out everything on their own.

Wait a minute! That sounds like a free for all. A chaotic commune. Anarchy. Sure, if you make a team Self-Designing, without doing anything about the other 11 conditions for effective teams, you are bound to get into trouble. Those things only work if one takes a holistic approach to work design. What’s more, this holistic approach needs to extend not only to the management of teams but to the management of the company as a whole. Precisely what this blog is about.

Type IV: The Self-Governing teams that set its own directions

The fourth level is to authorize the team to set its overall direction. Such a “Self-governing,” free-ranging team is subject to the same team dynamics described in this part of the post but needs an entirely different organizational context to operate in than a traditional hierarchical organization provides. Such a team is found in Self-managed organizations that replace hierarchies of authorities with hierarchies of purpose – a  phenomenon that is explored in this blog, e.g. Holacracy, Liberation and Management 3.0.

How common are these four types of teams?

What is the empirical frequency of the four different team authorization levels in today’s companies? I have found no studies about this, but here is my hunch:

  • The overwhelming majority of teams are managerial led, co-working groups, let’s say 85% in a line organization and 70% in a project context
  • Self-Managing teams are about 13% in a line organization and 25% in a project context. These are those teams, where a manager is shrewd enough to take on an enabling role to the team and keeps his interventions to a minimum. Such a team might call itself “Self-managed,” but it is.
  • Self-Designing Teams make up the larger share of the remaining 2% in line and 5 % in project contexts. Using such a high authorization level on teams would seriously undermine the appearance of being in control and decisive that a manager needs to uphold, so this is seldom done. It is most common in informal groups, like for example communities of interest.
  • Very few teams are Self-governing. Self-governing teams are only possible in a self-managing organization, and those are very few. They are in the vanguard of today’s organizational thinking.

Managers relinquishing control is a rare phenomenon. Yet it is what is required for great team performance. However, without a manager being in full control, how can a team stay on track? How can low performance be sanctioned? Please hold on to these questions until we make through all 12 conditions of effective teams, as all of those deliver important pieces to the answer.

That’s it for today. In the next post, in two weeks, I will show why diverse teams are sometimes a good idea, but not always.

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Audible…no: I hope you enjoyed this post. Let me know what you think!

Key points

  • There is just one team. Not an extended Team, too.
  • Full time dedication of people to a team is king. Period
  • Authorize the team to organize on its own. There simply is no other way to high performing teams.
  • Good Managers refrain from intervening in the way the team does the work. People call that Self Management.
  • Effective teams are NEVER manager-led workgroups.
  • Agile and Scrum can just be as overbearingly intrusive to teams as classic project management methods can be

Previous posts in this series on effective teams:

  1. Performance in general and what makes individual performance: You call yourself a Great Manager? Let Me Hear Your Theory of Performance!
  2. Why Most Companies Should Not Seek to Work in Teams
  3. The twelve conditions for effective teams, including condition one, a compelling direction

Sources and Footnotes

[1]For more on local optima and how to find out the things that really need to be changed in businesses check out Goldratt, Eliyahu (1994) ‘The Theory of Constraints‘

One Hell of a Task Needs Two Pizzas

This is part 4 of a series exploring what makes an effective team. If you want to know how to shape the task given to a team and the optimal size of a team, this post is for you.

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Condition 2: A True Team Task

A true team task is one that cannot be reached by working individually. A task that needs the close cooperation of every person in a team if it is to be successfully mastered. Creating a new system for customer service, expanding to vastly different geographies, coming up with new products and services are all things that surpass the abilities of what workgroups can successfully deliver. It is not that work-groups can’t deliver those things, but results will likely be less than optimal. The typical rate of project failure in today’s businesses is often portrayed to be as high as 70%.

A true team task is often not defined by its nature, but by the performance aspiration.

Let’s take the practical example of implementing a big, enterprise-wide IT application. To implement such a complex system is entirely feasible by working in a workgroup fashion. An experienced project manager is dividing up the work into chunks assigned to team leads, as team leads divide up the work further. While there is some level of cooperation required between team members, this can be organized, for example through the approval of blueprints and in integration tests. Cooperation is limited. Work is parceled out to individuals by managers. Managers rely on project plans that break down all the things to do into detailed tasks and who should do them by when. This proven way of working that will produce results if competent professionals drive it.

So, is implementing a big, enterprise-wide IT application not “a true team task”? There are two answers to it.

  • No, it’s not. It does not really require close cooperation between its members. Instead, such a project is relying on a proven, scripted way of working that allows all individual efforts to be summed up into the final product, the IT system.
  • Yes, it is, if the performance aspiration is high enough. For example, if the ambition is to do that in say two years, a manager led workgroup can do that in the mode described above. However, if the team is supposed to do that within one year, a genuine team effort is what it takes. To cut a year in throughput times needs people to rise above their competent selves and come up with something together that is collectively greater than themselves.  Most of us tend to agree with this instinctively. We know that if we want to achieve something extraordinary, we need some team magic. Moreover, our intuitive understanding is supported by scientific evidence, like the one from Mr. Hackman: A true team can achieve magic.

But unfounded ambitions, won’t do any good, too

The problem is that companies often set extraordinary high-performance targets, because ambitions at the start are high, or they need to overcome the hurdles of budget approval and low bids are what is asked for.  However, usually, the way a project is executed reveals a lack of understanding of the art of building high-performance teams. I have seen this dynamic playing out multiple times in my career in business. While I know that a project could be done in a fraction of time and costs, I did not advise some customer to put in the low numbers. I knew that some clients we not ready for a high-performance approach. Sometimes, most often really, companies as a whole are not prepared to embrace a genuine team approach, as described in the twelve conditions of effective teams. Organizations which embraced my advice may have ended up with long, tedious, but ultimately successful projects. Organizations which rejected that advice and went for ambitious performance targets while relying on traditional workgroup ways of working ended up with significant time and quality problems, budget fiascos, vastly increased employee and management turn-over.

Companies got to lay the groundworks for their ambitions. I have described that point in general terms in a 2016 post Execute crisply with sharp tools.

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Besides the occasional major project, true team tasks are essential for day to day operations of teams too. If the performance aspiration of maintenance, customer service, or sales teams is extraordinarily high, the chances are that a high-performance approach is called for and one should have a look at the 12 conditions. If the sum of all individual contributions is not enough to reach the overall target, a true team approach is called for.

Teams are needed if it gets real complex

All this might be understood as a call for overly ambitious targets. Indeed, there is a blurred line here: It is tough to judge whether the combination of skills and minds in a team will make the goal possible or the target is just wishful thinking. Even for those well-meaning, competent managers who know and do everything in their power to provide the 12 conditions of effective teams, an over aspiring, unrealistic or outright silly target might doom the exercise right from the start. As a rule of thumb, it is useful to understand the level of collaboration between team members that is really needed. The less the need to discuss with one another, the less the need for a high-performance team, the less critical the twelve conditions are.

It takes much collaboration between individuals to deliver good results in complex environments or systems. Complex systems are those where cause and effect can neither be predicted with certainty nor is the relationship between a cause and an effect stable. A machine, for example, is not a complex system. It is just a complicated system, but not a complex one, as its parts are known and behave predictably. All social systems involve humans, and therefore are rather complex than complicated systems, as humans act inconsistently from time to time. Therefore, all teams are complex, and companies tend to be very complex.

Groups of individuals can reliably master less complex tasks without much need of collaboration between them. Take for example service teams in call centers. The core of the work is done by individual agents on the phone, during the conversation on the phone. Co-workers can be useful to reflect with before and after the customer call, but all work is centered on the individual without the need for much collaboration.

The thing is: The more complex the task, the more it becomes a “true team task,” the more collaboration is needed and, in turn, the more critical it is to consider the 12 conditions in the work design of a team.

Most companies have configured themselves to be less complex

Indeed, in most organizations, most performance contexts may not lend themselves well for a true team task. Only if the performance ambition is high enough and the nature of the task requires intense communication between team members, a team effort is called for. Many businesses use the term “team” in an inflationary member and think of all groups of people as teams. So, they invest in nice team building events sponsored by HR budgets and helped by a host of business trainers. This is as inefficient as it can get: To spend money or time on team building while the need for collaboration is really not that important at all is to create waste.  It usually suffices to give such a work-group a good understanding of expected behaviors, control the application of those behaviors and let them do their work.

The point is: On a case by case basis, the work group is a better choice to organize work inside traditional organizations. But on the whole, if the whole organizational design of the company would not have been set-up to contain complexity and promote predictability, the team would be better choice. Most companies have configured themselves to be less complex, to suppress the complexity of the market. Designs that allow the complexity of the market inside the company usually involve a bit more structures that promote self-management within a company. But I am getting ahead of myself here.

Condition 3: Team Size 5

Defining a true team task is tricky. It’s time for some refreshing simplicity: The optimal team size is five people. Do not build any teams much bigger or smaller than that. The standard variation around the optimal team size of five is two. So, any team size of 5 +/- 2 is the optimal team size.  Beyond that size, split teams. Beneath that size, is just the pair. For two people working together, the laws of teams are not as relevant as the laws of psychology and good communication.

Even the science on team size is rather simple. With every member added to the group the number of relations which each individual needs to build and maintain increases linearly. In a team of three, a team member needs to develop and maintain two links to the other team members, in a team of four three links, in a team of 5 four links.

However, in order to effectively operate within a social group, it is not sufficient to build and maintain links with all other team members, it is vital to theorize about the ties that others have with one another, too. If you know that Joe and Sue do not get along well in a particular aspect, it may be better to circumvent that problem before it arises. Effective social groups do not only care for the relationships that they have individually, and they care about the links that others have between them. They care for the collective. They care for the team.

The trouble is that the total number of links in a team does not increase linearly. It grows exponentially. The total number of links between team members = N * (N-1)/2, whereby N again stands for the number of people in a team.:

  • A team of three everyone has a total of three links.
  • A team of four has six links.
  • A team of five has ten links, and in a team of seven has 21 links.

This number rises exponentially. In a team of 20 persons, every team member would have to build and maintain 190 connections. Why the jump from seven to eight team members might not seem like a big deal, the total number of links in the collective increases from twenty-one to twenty-eight. While the number of links per person is just increasing by one (from 7 to 8)- that is 14% –  the number of total links in the system is increasing by seven (from 21 to 28), 33%. Increase the team size by three from seven to ten, and this ratio goes up from a 42% increase in the number of links per person to 214% for the total number of links in the group.

This a mathematical way of saying: Size matters. The negative performance impacts of increasing group size are hard-wired into teams. With rising team size people can relate to one another less and less. To invest more in coordinating the team helps a bit but can never offset the negative impact on performance fully. Jeff Bezos is known to have coined the phrase “two-pizza teams” as a rule of thumb for determining team size at Amazon: A team that cannot be fed by two large pizza’s needs to be split.

  • If intense collaboration is what is needed, low team size is the way to go.
  • If intense collaboration is not required, don’t go for the team approach at all and organize the group as a work team instead.

It might not always be easy to cut down on team size, as this or that skill or organization needs to be represented. In this case, consider two things: Either split the team in two and manage those separately or come up with a better definition of the team boundaries, especially who is on the team and who is not.

That’s it for today. In the next post, in two weeks, I will get to discuss a very exciting subject: Do teams need a manager?

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Audible…no: I hope you enjoyed this post. Let me know what you think!

Key points

  • Most tasks can be made a great one for a team if you just level up the performance aspiration
  • HOWEVER, do not level up the ambition, without having laid some solid groundwork inside the organization for those conditions that make teams great
  • Most companies have configured themselves to be less complex, to suppress the complexity of the market. Therefore the workgroup is often a better choice
  • Team Size 5. Team Size 5. Team Size 5. GOT  IT?
  • Two Pizzas – one Team

Previous posts in this series on effective teams:

  1. Performance in general and what makes individual performance: You call yourself a Great Manager? Let Me Hear Your Theory of Performance!
  2. Why Most Companies Should Not Seek to Work in Teams
  3. The twelve conditions for effective teams, including condition one, a compelling direction

The 12 Conditions for Effective Teams

Part 3 of a series that explores the effectiveness of individuals, teams, and organizations

The factors that drive team performance are very well researched. This post is based on Richard J. Hackman’s research on team performance.   Mr. Hackman has been a Harvard professor who specialized in organizational psychology.[1]He is recognized today as the most authoritative voice on the topic of team performance. He devoted his academic life to the research of teams. In his 2002 book “Leading Teams” he came up with a list of five conditions that foster team performance. I took the liberty of re-ordering and often re-naming these factors for better understandability.[2]

This re-ordered model of team performance is based on a total of twelve conditions. Nine conditions internal to a team, and three conditions external to it. This effectiveness model aims to be collectively exhaustive and mutually exclusive.

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All the twelve factors listed do matter, for any team. There is no weighting given with this model. Weightings depend on the specific performance context the team is in at a certain point in time.

The twelve factors are no menu card. You can’t choose to run a team by, say “a compelling direction “and “small size” only while neglecting the other factors and still expect high performance. In general, all 12 conditions must be there for a team to achieve great things. They are reinforcing one another.

Meaning and Spirit – the Internal Conditions of Effective Teams

The internal conditions are those that held within the team. Some of those might be set externally at the start of the team effort, but once the team effort starts they are the essence of what this team is all about. They become internalized into the fabric of the team.

There are two categories of internal conditions: Meaning and Spirit. The five conditions subsumed under Meaning describe what the team is all about:  The direction of the teams work, the tasks that they are doing, team size, the scope of the effort and its composition and stability. Meaningful work engages people. Meaning does describe why something is to done and what people do. It’s a reason to climb up to a summit and a clear view of the mountain. To be clear on the meaning to a team is a good start to pay off the motivational debt of teams.

The Spirit of a team is describing how the team approaches their work: The impact people they feel their work has, their level of aspiration to do great things, the way they think about their ability to speak up, and the level of transparency and trust.

Let’s start with exploring the five factors that make up teams Meaning first.

Condition 1: A Compelling Direction

A compelling direction has several functions in a team setting:

  • Harnessing the team to the targets of the organization
  • A source of motivation
  • Provide direction for decisions to be made
  • Align the actions of all team members towards the common goal

Setting a compelling direction is more than goal setting. To set goals is a classic, often useful management practice. Goal setting is the art of laying out clear goals, for example by using the SMART criteria that decrees that targets should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-based. Setting a goal implies setting an end-point, a definite location that to achieve.

However, the higher the performance aspiration of a team, the less traditional goal setting will suffice. First, in complex environments where solutions cannot be known at the start of the effort, being too SMART in goal setting, will be limiting for the team. If the problem is complex, it is not wise to be too specific. Goals need to be described on a high level and vague level. Being too specific will determine outcomes in ways that are hard to anticipate before the team gets its hands dirty on the complex matter itself. Second, for a team, it is often crucial to figure things out for themselves. It is tough for any team member to latch her intrinsic drive on to the team’s mission if too much is already defined. By supplying overly detailed goal criteria, the freedom of the team to do what it deems to be best is limited.

It is a better idea to get a team to work itself into the subject matter – to advance in a given general direction. It will find out new things and will over time and decide then what to go for and where to end up. For teams, a direction works better than specific goals.

Let me give you a prime example of how to set directions, but not goals.

Mission Type Tactics

Providing a direction is nothing else than giving a mission. This style of command is known as “Mission Type Command” in military command theory. Its origin is the German “Auftragstaktik” is attributed to the Chief of Staff of the Prussian Army Erich von Moltke. Auftragstaktik and has been a core element of German military thinking, and modern military tactics, ever since.[3]

In mission-type tactics, a subordinate commander is assigned a mission, the resources available to attain it, and a time frame. The subordinate leader then implements the order independently. The subordinate leader is given, to a large extent, the planning initiative and freedom in the execution. Thus, a high degree of flexibility at the operational and tactical levels of command is achieved. Mission-type orders free the more senior leadership from tactical details.[4]

The opposite of Mission type tactic is the Command tactic. People using command tactics give exact orders, SMART orders. Maybe too SMART.  To manage teams effectively, managers need to learn a new trick and refrain from providing precise orders. Instead, they need to be vaguer. They need to point in a direction. Now, this might seem like an ideal excuse to give sloppy orders: “I do not need to be exact in what I am ordering you – go find it out yourself.” Sloppy orders would leave the team wondering what to do, wasting time and possibly never get anywhere.

To specify missions and not end up issuing sloppy orders is hard. Giving an excellent mission to the team requires much thoughtfulness on the part of the one defining the mission. Here is some guidance:

  • Describe the mission as an intent, not end-point[5]
  • Give boundary conditions, that act as guard rails
  • Refrain from determining the ways of getting towards the intent

Mastering the art of mission command might be one of the most crucial things that distinguish an ordinary boss from a great leader, both of military as of business organizations. It takes much humility to accept a variation in methods and a variation in outcomes.[6]  It takes the willingness to accept the risk that one’s intent is misinterpreted. It takes willpower to refrain from being too explicit and not declare once own perception to be the truth. There is a lot of doubt and uncertainty involved in trusting other people to do your bidding to their best of abilities.

These are all reasons why mission-type tactics are seldom used in traditional businesses. Mission type tactics are best used in environments of uncertainty, complex situations where swift action based on local knowledge on the spot of the action is crucial. Alas, traditional businesses and management practices are aiming at eliminating uncertainty, to fence it in, to produce predictable, constant outputs. Things that worked fine in the industrial revolution, but that are deeply problematic for many challenges posed by the digital age.

There is another snatch: Mission-type tactics alone do not work well if used in a traditional business environment. To understand a direction, the intent and not the end-point, in spirit and not only to the letter, the team needs to have a splendid view of the organizations need, with all its various constituents who are invested in or impacted by the team’s efforts. Even more than a genuine understanding of the situation, the team needs to have a view on the dynamics of the situation: Is the stated intent really what a constituent wants? The more complex and dynamic the situation is, the more the team needs to develop, maintain and test a hypothesis how the intent of the organization might be changing over the course of the team effort. This level of visibility needs much more close bonds between people and a level of transparency that is hard to find in most companies. It requires a supportive organizational environment geared towards shaping intense personal relationships and a culture of organizational transparency.

Who set’s the Teams Direction?

The first thing is to be clear about is who is setting the overall direction of the team. This is usually not the teams’ job, but the person or group that want something to be done. The need to get something done is, of course, the very reason why a team exists. A team is a tool at the hands of someone or a group to get something done.

There is just one exception to that rule: In a self-governing team, a form of organization used in highly innovative or egalitarian organizations, which are not bound to conventional hierarchy, a team may choose its own direction. An example is a community of interest, which can work even in hierarchical business, where co-workers are forming teams on their own initiative and waiting for followers to “vote with their feet” and self-assigning them to a cause. While this form of a team is still somewhat exotic in a business environment, its results are often attractive. Organizations employing those teams at scale are Google, Netflix, IDEO, Haier, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Microsoft, and many others. For the overwhelming majority of businesses, most goals need to be set by the hierarchy in a way to serve its needs.

A Mission does not need to be Inspiring

While it is difficult to set a good mission, it is still not enough. The mission needs to be compelling, too. Nowadays we tend to understand the word “compelling” synonymous with adjectives like inspiring, purposeful, or motivating. However, compelling can as well be connected with attributes like coercive, forceful, or void of alternatives. A compelling direction may not at all be a positive one. Take for example the need to close some operations and lay-off people. This can be a compelling target, too, because management has decreed this, and might frame it as a cut necessary for the survival of the whole organization. Most of the time, we tend to think of teams and business of being a growth story, forward-thinking, providing opportunities and winning. This is quite silly, as leading organizations and teams means not only to be starting things but to be ending things, too. An inspiring mission is excellent and much preferable – but a sincere one will do just fine.

But if the direction of a team is not inspiring, how can a team member ever give her or his best? She might be compelled or even coerced to do things, but surely her intrinsic motivation will take a hit and limit her performance, right? Perfectly right, an uninspiring (but still compelling) direction results in intrinsic motivation taking a hit at the start of the project. However, it is just the start of the project. This debt can be recouped. People are terrific to find their sense of purpose once the team progresses. One of the most potent biases there is, the confirmation bias, lets people reinterpret their world in a way to see their actions and the actions of others in a more positive light over time. Individual autonomy enables people to find their purpose even within a compelling but uninspiring setting. This personal purpose might not be felt at the start, but a good team context might enable every team member to find her or his purpose while working towards the goal of the project.

The quest to come up with an inspiring, instead of just a compelling direction is morally laudable, and it is beneficial for team performance. However, it is not needed to achieve high performance in teams. Think of it this way: What is an inspiring target for one person, might have little attraction for another. What can be inspiring on a high level, might be lost entirely in the daily struggle to get things done.  Motivation is a very individual thing. To come up with an inspiring direction that motivates everyone, independently of personal idiosyncrasies, is hard. Not every company is there to save the world. There is a job to be done, and it needs to be done for a compelling reason. That’s good enough. Inspiration is laudable, but it also is optional, often unrealistic and therefore usually ends up existing in shallow corporate slogans only.

To seek congruence between the direction of a team and the motivation of individuals often means to fight a losing battle. Instead, come up with a sincere direction, and let the group dynamics their individual motivational dispositions to the overall direction over time, while working towards the target. A sincere direction is often more practical and meaningful than sending people on an inspired mission invented by someone else or during a group “visioning workshop.”

 Warning: Directions release Energies

The more compelling the direction of the team is for its members the more energy will be released. Surely, releasing energy is a good thing to get things done, but releasing energy is dangerous. Usually, if given a choice between an under-energized and an over-energized team, most managers and organizations would choose an over-energized “squad”. The over-energized team might break things, in its push to get things done, but it gets things moving. But there are problems.

If the organization is not mobilized to a sufficient level for the change that the team is supposed to bring into life and the team is not able to pace its enthusiasm to what the organization can absorb, clashes will occur. These clashes might destroy the team’s energy level and burn significant relational capital that the team needs to succeed. A team’s effort is a lot about pacing. A team leads a change effort inside a company. Therefore, it needs to be visible to the other co-workers and not disappear out of sight of the rest organization. Enthusiasm is a virtue but might lead to frustration. A measured pace is often preferable over short-term euphoria. After all, most really significant changes are rather marathons than sprints.

Next post will take a look at Condition II:  “A True Team Task”. I hope you enjoyed this post. Let me know what you think!

Key points

  • Effective teams require 12 Conditions: 9 internal and three external to a team
  • Two types of internal Conditions can be identified:   Meaning & Spirit
  • The first condition is: A Compelling Direction
    • Mastering the art of mission command might be one of the most crucial things that distinguish an ordinary boss from a great leader
    • Mission-type tactics alone do not work well if used in a traditional business environment
    • To seek congruence between the direction of a team and the motivation of individuals often means to fight a losing battle
    • A team’s effort is a lot about pacing

Sources and Footnotes

[1]Hackman, Richard (2002) ‘Leading teams’

[2]According to Prof. Hackman there are 5 factors that driving team performance: 1. A Real Team 2. A Compelling Direction 3. An Enabling structure 4. A Supportive Context and 5. Coaching. All these factors and not more are represented in the model I give here. Just that I extended those factors to 12, as I think there is too much of importance hidden underneath some factors, especially in factor 3 “enabling structure”.

[3]Mission type tactics has been at the heart of German military doctrine ever since the three successful campaigns for German unification against Denmark, Austria and France at the end of the 19thCentury. A large part of the successes of the World War I’s “Sturmtruppen” (Small team tactics) or World War II’s “Blitzkrieg”, can be attributed to the vast discretion given to commanders at the front. For more an Moltkes command style see Barry, Quintin (2015) ‘Moltke and his Generals – a Study in Leadership’.

[4]Paraphrased from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mission-type_tactics

[5]In western military this is known as “Commanders Intent”. It is the second item on any mission briefing, just behind a description of the situation.

[6]Does anyone remember the “Fuzzy” Movement in the 2000’s? A hype term borrowed from electronics (“fuzzy logic”) that has been used in business to praise the virtues of vagueness and heuristics.

You call yourself a Great Manager? Let Me Hear Your Theory of Performance!

“No theory of Management is worth anything if it has no underlying theory of performance”. I am not sure where I read this sentence, but it stuck with me ever since. The performance question is the “holy grail” of any organizational theory. The very reason why companies exist is that they are there to perform something. The very function of the market is to root out low performing companies.

Still, most management advice is of the self-help nature: There is much advice given how to do this or that, without ever being clear on why this or that management action should work. This article is the first one in a series that drills down on the conditions of performance, the underlying theory of human performance as individuals, of groups and of companies.

After all, performance is the crowning discipline of anyone who is managing. A manager/ leader’s job is to get people to do things.

Screenshot 2018-08-13 09.39.19.png

But there are ways of getting people to do things which will cause people to achieve much and ways that won’t achieve much. So how can management practices be designed in such a way to maximize performance? To answer this question you got to look at the conditions that drive individual effectiveness.

Individual Effectiveness

Why does individual performance occur?

Here is the synopsis of what I learned from my research over the years.

Screenshot 2018-08-13 09.23.00.png

Internal Conditions

Internal conditions are, first of all, the capabilities that people bring into a job:

  • A set of skills at various levels
  • Cognitive abilities, such as  Intelligence (IQ), Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and specific talents

No big surprises here: You hire for skill. And slightly more advanced, you rely on some personality tests in order to select by cognitive ability (for more on this checkout Hiring like a Pro: Lessons from Google).

But capabilities are not enough. It takes the willingness to use those capabilities, the willingness to fully engage. Engagement can be triggered best by addressing the needs of a person’s intrinsic motivational structure. Of all the literature on intrinsic motivation, I have found the summary that author Daniel Pink made most useful:

  • The urge for mastery, to perfect oneself
  • The autonomy to act
  • To follow one’s own purpose

Of course, no one has the same urge for mastery, the same need for autonomy or the same clearness of purpose. Some people may like to hang loose, spend their time on youtube or engage in social media all day. These people are unlikely to be highly effective. Some may not have found their purpose, their need for mastery and autonomy just yet.

Internal conditions are more or less given to a person, at least at a certain point in time. People are endowed with capabilities and what drives them. It is a package deal. Although these attributes may change over time, they are pretty constant over a longer period of time. It’s hard to change IQ, it takes time to acquire new skills and it takes a transformational experience to shift one’s intrinsic motivations.

External Conditions

A popular myth in western culture is “you are able to achieve anything if you really want it”. Well, I guess that may true – at least as the laws of physics are not violated- but I think a more accurate version of this saying would be “you are able to achieve anything if you really want it, but some things are highly unlikely”. But that kills the motivational intent of this statement, doesn’t it?

To excel as an individual the circumstances of your whereabouts matter.  You need external help. Malcolm Gladwell researched the question of individual performance and dug-out three factors that explain individual excellence best:

  • A supportive context
  • An environment full of opportunities
  • Deliberate practice, ten thousand hours of reflective, focused, professional practice

These claims have been scrutinized in a business context. One of those factors is not important in a business context: Deliberate practice.  Shockingly for Protestant work ethics, which stresses the importance of hard work, deliberate practice is of low value in a business context. It is important for sports and arts, yes. But not in the much more complex, muddled world of business.

A work environment that provides people with opportunity and assistance to perform and grow is very relevant, though. In all organizational or educational research about performance, these factors stand tall.

I have added a third factor: Accountability and Rewards.

In a business context, it is important what people are assigned to do: What is their accountability? People may have great capabilities, possess a great intrinsic drive to excel, they may be part of an organization that provides them with truckloads of opportunities and support, but if they are kept inside a small, narrowly described job they may not be able to fulfill their potential. People need to have the authorization to act.

And not all people are easily intrinsically motivated. Some people respond better to extrinsic motivation, such as money or status that is given to them by others. Extrinsic motivators, financial bonuses, key performance indicators linked to individual pay, are used quite regularly in business settings. They are effective if well used, but tend to crowd out individual motivations or may even encourage reckless behavior, as all those things which are not rewarded will be relegated to secondary considerations.

Combining intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is tricky. The safest path seems to be to rely foremost on intrinsic motivation and to use extrinsic motivators only sparingly.

The Magnitude of Performance: 10X?

Suppose that all internal and external conditions for individual effectiveness are given: What is the difference between the performance of the highest performers and the lowest performers?

An interesting narrative is given by Jeff Sutherland in his 20014 book “SCRUM”. Joel Spolsky, a software developer, compared the time needed to complete a standardized programming assignment at Yale University. Just focussing on those people who managed to get the top 25% of grades, he researched the time spent on the assignment:

  • The top 10% of performers needed 10 times less time than the low 10% of performers
  • The 10X factor was pretty constant over the years and classes

This narrative is showing what the performance differential can be in a laboratory setting. It is illustrative, but not more. In a business setting a quantification of individual performance is much more complex. Even for more routine jobs, such as call center agents, it is very difficult, as there are so many things that are hard to quantify and measure. In a normal line job measuring individual performance quantitatively is nearly impossible. What is the value added by an ordinary accountant? How does that compare to another employee, say in logistics? Therefore, in traditional business settings, one has to rely on qualitative, gut-based judgments of managers.

But two things are sure:

  • Even one good or bad decision of an individual might sometimes determine the fate of the company.
  • The sum of all tiny, daily decisions of all colleagues in a company does a lot to determine the overall performance of the whole company

So optimizing the work environment and management practices in a way to foster the conditions for individual performance is a sure winner. You might disagree with the conditions I laid out, but you absolutely need a yardstick.

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Individual Performance Does Not Equal Team Performance

A question for you: Is most work actually done by individuals or by teams?  That question may sound silly. After all, the sum of each person’s work makes up the work of a team. But here is another perspective: How much of work is actually already structured, in established processes and daily, habitual work practices and therefore does need much personal interaction? I guess the latter is actually the bulk of the work in most companies. I.e. my answer to the first question is: Most work inside companies is done by individuals and not teams. True team tasks, that require intense collaboration between people and can only be solved by their close cooperation, are rare.

I share that view with Richard Hackman, a professor who was specialized in the research of teams. According to Mr. Hackman, most departments are work teams. In a work team, work is parceled out to each individual by a manager, through job descriptions, processes and day to day delegation. Close collaboration, “a true team” as he calls it, is not needed.

Indeed, treating work teams as true teams is very wasteful. Investments in team building of ordinary work teams have no measurable benefits. None, nada, niente, aucun, gar nichts. Still, companies send their so-called “teams”, which are really Work Teams, to team building exercises.

Companies confuse work teams, which make up the majority of teams inside most companies, with true teams. What a waste of resources.

The preponderance of work teams in organizations highlights the need to have a consistent and holistic theory of individual performance in business. The one given above is my best shot.

Let me know what you think!

___

action adventure beach dawn

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This is part one of a series of articles on the underlying theory of performance in businesses.

More on the effectiveness of teams in the next article.

Sources

  • Gladwell, Malcolm „Outliers“, 2009 -> on the external supporting conditions to achieve “outlying” performance
  • Pink, Daniel “Drive”, 2009 -> On the the conditions of intrinsic motivation
  • Rosenzweig, Philip, “Left Brain, right stuff”, 2014 -> On the limits of deliberate practice in business
  • Keegan, Robert et al, ” An Everyone Culture”, 2016 -> On organizational learning that is built on individual growth

…and all the other books found on the Source page.

 

 

 

 

Experimental Management

Meet Emil and Marc. Emil just signed a contract to work for Marc. This makes Emil an employee and Marc a manager. With his signature, Emil has agreed to follow the orders of Marc. Disobedience is an option, but it comes with the risks of being fired.

Marc the manager points Eric to chop a stack of wood. By doing this Marc is using the most basic form of a management practice, the direct order. Next day, Marc orders Eric to stack the firewood on a need pile in that corner over there. On the third day, Marc is late. Eric sees a stack of wood, and being human and not an automaton, starts to chop it, like on day one. Without knowing, Eric has developed a job description for himself: “My job is to chop wood and staple it”. The job description is another basic form of a management practice. It spares Marc the Manager the time and effort to direct Eric. Unlike a robot Eric the Employee is able to see the work and do it, without being ordered. Marc may continue to supervise Eric, but he might find a better use of his time in carting the firewood to the market and sell it.

One day, after a heavy rainfall, Eric sees that the roof of the shack, where the firewood is stored, needs repairs. Without being ordered, he fixes the roof. What Eric did is to use his judgment of Marc’s interest and decided to act autonomously. Marc has not directed Eric to do that, but Eric has developed a sense of purpose in his work, and chances are that he feels responsible for it. Marcs comes back later in the day and wonders that Eric has not produced his usual stack size of firewood, but he sees that the shack is repaired. Marc may tell off Eric for not making the numbers, but he decides to praise Eric for having taken the initiative and prioritizing repairing the shack over his chopping duties. Thereby Marc has embraced another two basic management practices: Feedback and Delegation. Eric is no longer just following orders but he is empowered to do other things necessary to keep up the production of firewood.

Why has Marc opted to praise Eric and accept his autonomous acting? Marc, hard pressed to make living out of his business, see’s those management practices as being efficient. In his mind, Eric has saved him a lot of trouble, as wet firewood doesn’t sell. Marc may not know it, but he has developed the performance hypothesis in his mind that Job Descriptions, Feedback, and Delegation produce better results, than just ordering Eric the Employee around. Marc the Manager benefits from adopting those Management practices. Eric the employee likes being responsible, too, which is part of why these management practices are working. But even if Marc didn’t give a damn about Eric, he knows he would hurt himself by not employing these practices.

Over time Marc might decide to adopt other management practices, like

  • a regular, weekly meeting to discuss issues
  • providing a budget to Marc that he can spend on axes or saws
  • a bonus scheme based on Erics productivity
  • job sharing, so that Eric is assisting Marc at the market from time to time, in order to get a larger picture of his duties and exposure to customers
  • Annual objective setting and performance review  to clarify high-level targets for Erics work

Marc the manager will introduce and maintain these management practices only if he expects that these contribute to the performance. Margins in the firewood business are so slim these days.

The Case for Constant Experimentation with Management Practices

Shouldn’t any company seek to emulate Marc’s way of working? Things like…

  • Adding new management practices if they work
  • Getting rid of those that don’t seem to work
  • Constantly adapting practices to the need of the business

In a business world that is ever-changing, why do we emphasize so much the need to act like a daring entrepreneur, who finds ever better problem-solution fits, but overwhelmingly fail to engage in experiments with the very ways we are working together? Instead of seeking to constantly improve our way of collaborating with one another, we focus hard on business models, productivity figures, financial performance.

Marc would see that fixation with direct business results as being silly. Results are important, yes, but they can not be enforced directly. Instead, they need to be approached obliquely, by working better together. If we can achieve that, results are not guaranteed, but they will come much more easily.

What is a business if not a sum of decisions taken at all levels of the company? If we can just increase the quality of decisions by some minuscule percentage point, isn’t a companies performance bound to increase? Better management practices result in better decisions result in better performance.

Management practices are like the underlying factors of a companies performance formula.

  • Company Performance = f (Strategy, Execution, Chance)
  • Strategy and Execution = f (Management Practices, Chance)

In other words management practices, the way work in done, influence a companies ability to come up with a good direction (strategy) and competent implementation (execution).

This sounds like a no-brainer. But there are three caveats with this logic:

  1. Managers do not care too much about the performance of management practices
  2. Owners care about performance, but can’t really observe the impact of management practices on performance
  3. The empiric, scientific evidence of the link between management practices and company performance is weak

Manager’s Do Not Care so Much About Performant Management Practices

Marc the manager holds four distinct advantages over most other managers:

  1. Direct Feedback: The impact that the management practices he adopts have on Eric’s performance are very direct
  2. Underlying simplicity: The firewood business is simple. Causes and effects are directly visible
  3. Small numbers: It’s just Eric the employee, not a group of employees or a host of departments to coordinate. This spares Marc the manager from the otherwise inevitable power and social dynamics
  4. No agency problem: Marc is the owner and the manager. He is able to prioritize performance of the business very highly – his performance and the business’s performance are the same. Managers, who are not owners, quickly see their well being and the businesses well being as two separate things
  5. No ingrained, legacy practices: Most managers join companies that have a certain way to do things, a certain management culture. It’s much harder to experiment with management practices if social norms are already firmly entrenched

For a typical modern-day manager, it is not only much harder to see whether his way of managing works better than other ways. On top of that, an employed manager does not even share the same passion for performance than an owner. Risk minimization by not sticking out one’s neck, social conformity and self-optimization might be more important than performance optimization. The fact that the performance of one’s management practices employed can’t be measured easily compounds this agency problem.

The result is that performance becomes a secondary concern while selecting management practices. Control is much more important.

Owners Can’t Really Tell What Management Practices Work

Owners care about performant management practices, don’t they? After all, it is their money that is wasted. But even owners care for performant management practices is limited:

  • Ownership might be diluted. If an ownership share is sufficiently small, influence is very limited.
  • The Agency problem, again: Managers, who are in day to day contact with the business know a lot more about the business they are managing than owners. Owners might employ a few checks on managerial powers here and there, but finally, owners have no option, but to trust.
  • There are other factors easily observable, like those found in the P&L or balance sheet. By their very nature management practices do not lend themselves to be measured in hard numbers. Humankind is excellent at measuring financial systems, but we suck at measuring social systems

The point that I am making is not that no one is not concerned with the performance of organizations. Indeed, there are many people caring about profits and corporate outlooks. The point I am trying to make is:  Few people are making a major effort to influence the performance of an organization by virtue of its management practices.

Science found a bit of evidence, just a bit

Financial performance is a primary concern for any company. But it is usually tackled head-on by looking at market share, product portfolio, customer bases, competition, cost structures, distribution networks, business models etc. Management practices get into view only with hindsight: If a company is successful, it must have great management practices. Phil Rosenzweig, a professor at IMD in Lausanne,  has written a whole book about the ex-post sanctioning of management practices. He named this the “Halo Effect”. Huge business books bestsellers like Jim Collins “Good to Great” or its predecessor “Built to Last” or Robert Watermans “In Search of Excellence” fell for the Halo effect. Great stories, but no scientific value.

But there are a few recent studies that imply a link between good management practices and a companies performance. According to one of those (Bloom et al 2011)  management practices explain about 10% of the success of companies. And according to another study (Bloom, Mahajan, McKenzie 2011) that link is causal, i.e. management practices improved first, company results followed.

That is not overwhelmingly strong evidence. But this is only natural: We just can’t measure social matters with the same exactness as physics. Social systems are highly idiosyncratic things. Take for example the human invention of the stock market. The way prices on the stock market are determined is a result of the human social system, the value humans attach to the stocks listed. Despite hundreds of billions of investment, no one can predict stock values with any certainty. Great efforts are being made in analyzing stocks, but finally, all this effort is undermined because we suck at measuring social systems. It hard to predict human behavior with certainty. Social systems are even more complex than the individual human actor, so science is bound to fail. There are no social physics, no immutable rules. There are things that appear to work for a time, but that is no guarantee that those correlations will hold in the future.

Experimental Management

To sum up my argument:

  1. There is a clear logical link between management practice and a companies performance. The sum of all decisions of all employees should make a great deal of difference to a companies success.
  2. There is academic evidence of this link, but it is weak
  3. Owners and Managers prefer management practices that work over optimal management practices. All sing the hymn of performance, but asymmetrical information, the pure opacity of causes and effects in social systems and individual incentives let them focus on the observable, largely financial facts, instead of the underlying intangible social performance of the organization

My point is:

  • If we can’t say what management practice is really working, why are nearly all companies keeping their management practices static?
  • Do such companies suppose they already found the optimum?
  • Those companies implicitly assume that there is nothing to gain from experimenting with management practices
  • Is it not silly that Lean Start-ups, Entrepreneurial and Agile Movements all have a strong emphasis on experimentation, but experimentation with management practices are of a (at best) secondary concern for most companies trying to become fit for the Digital Age?

Therefore, I suggest Experimental Management. If we don’t know what works best at that time, we need to try things, observe the effects and tune and tune and tune our way of “doing things in a group”, of managing.

We do not need big theories of Leadership and Management for this. We just need to experiment and watch. In other words, managers need to work empirically, not ideologically. Find out what works themselves and not following snake oil selling business book authors, leadership gurus or opinionated non-empirically focused consultants.

Liberation?

Experimental Management is a term that is slightly provocative to our cultural norms. First, we expect competent management that knows which practice works. Dabbling in management practices smells like incompetence. We want certainty. For certainty, we are ready to prefer the professional illusionist to the empirically driven realist.

Second, we shouldn’t subject humans to experiments. Manipulating humans is rightly abhorred. We value freedom and self-fulfillment.

My hunch is that experimenting with better ways to work, will lead to more freedom and more self-fulfillment in the workplace. Why? The only way to get better decisions is to employ the abilities and senses of all the people in an organization. And we can’t get that level of engagement without offering more freedom and self-fulfillment.

The arch-capitalist quest for performance might just end up liberating people. 

___

Sources:

  • Rosenzweig, Phil “The Halo Effect”
  • Bloom et al “Mangement Practices Across Firms and Countries”
  • More information about research on the link between management practices and companies performance can be found on WorldManagementSurvey.org

 

The Main Managerial Fallacy and the Full Stack Manager

The way most managers do their job is rather dull. It all begins with the very basic assumptions that managers have about their job. Most managers frame their job as being three things:

  • to lead some people
  • to make most decisions
  • to balance the organizational needs of performance with the needs of the ones performing

Basically, they think they are in charge. Which is perfectly right, only that they picture themselves to be in charge of the wrong things:

The Managerial Fallacy

Managers usually think of themselves as being in charge of a performance mission …but they are really in charge of getting people to do things.

This difference between these two frames is far from being subtle.  Being on a performance missions triggers you to think in terms of the mission, to dissect it into its component parts, to reassemble it into a better organizational machine, and to place the workers to operate that machine. It triggers a rational process of solving a performance problem.  This is exactly the thing we have been trained for at school and at universities. This way of working feels natural and comes easily to us. The frame is: “I am in charge of running this”. But it is wrong.

Analytical analysis is an optimal method to solve a mathematical equation, a physical, mechanical or most problem in natural sciences. Given sufficient information, you can rely on the stable causality of the natural laws to come up with an optimal solution. But an analytical approach does not work in social sciences. Here you never have all information, as the information does not lend itself to being measured well. Plus causalities are always hidden and unstable. You can’t predict individual behavior.

In such a much less predictable, social environment the best method to proceed is not an analytical one. It is an empirical one.  You need to try things to find out the best way of doing things instead of assuming that you found the optimal solution. In social systems there is no thing as an optimal solution, there are only solutions that work better at a certain point in time. People and organizations are volatile. The whole business environment is more and more volatile in this digital age. A stable optimum needs to be replaced by neverending tinkering to always try to come up with a better solution.

Therefore the much superior frame is: I am in charge of getting people to do things.

This frame prompts a manager to:

  • tinker for a better solution, continuously
  • to lead people in such a matter so that they can do things better
  • to consider oneself as a manager of a socio-technical system, the performing organization, not of a mechanical device with measurable in and outputs
  • to understand the work of a manager as a craft. A craft that is to be perfected over time, through tinkering, try, error and learning

After all, management (or leadership) is about this:  Getting people to do things. It is not primarily a problem to be solved by the manager. It is not constantly firing a barrage of orders or motivational messages, as this would be tiring and therefore ineffective. But it is about creating an environment where people do those things that need to be done because they want those things to be done.

Dwight

That environment is built from of Management Practices which are often unlike the ones we commonly take for granted. Here is a comparison.

mp.png

Management practices are the building blocks of the craft of management. There are hundreds or even thousands of management practices available. Many of those practices have their origins in the Agile or Lean Movements. But the goal is not to adopt as many advanced practices as possible. First, these are not necessarily better than existing ones in the context of a specific organizational challenge. Second, adopting too many practices means creating a highly regulated work environment. This is contra productive. The target is to create an environment where people do those things that should be done because they want to do those things.  Keep it simple – allow freedom.

The Full Stack Manager

Let’s summarize this modern understanding of a more clever way to manage. A manager is:

  • the builder of environments
  • the provider of freedom
  • the one who connects the performance missions of an organization to the calling of the individual
  • the one who experiments with different management practices in order to find ever better ways to engage groups of people

If you continue on this line of thinking, an optimal scenario to run a sociotechnical system may be to even delegate designing, building and running this system more and more to its component parts, i.e. the people doing the work. By going down that path you end up with a self-managed organization, that has left behind the hierarchical way most organizations are organized.

While this is attractive to more and more companies – even parts of the likes of Daimler, Porsche, Unilever, and Michelin – not to talk of AirBnB, Netflix, Haier etc. – this is not a natural given end state. Hierarchy, as an easily understood, time-proven coordination mechanism has its merits.

Nobody can say where the optimum is for your organization. Nobody can say which management practices are best for your organization. But you can find it out: Tinker, you Craftsman!

A Master Craftsman in the trade of Management is what I would call a Full Stack Manager. One who knows how to run meetings, to know how to create transparency, to know how to make decisions, to know how to create a feedback and learning-rich environment etc.

So, why are managers (so often) dumb?

There are a number of explanations:

  • Peter principle: Everyone is prompted to her or his level of incompetence. Only the competent get promoted. But their career stalls when they are incompetent. This leaves most managers incompetent. This logical argument is a heuristic, that is hard to prove or to disprove.
  • Principle-Agent Problem: Managers may appear to act incompetent, but they really have their own agenda. This agenda might entail risk minimization (or – less often -risk-taking), personal enrichment or aggrandizement, or just having a good time. They should be taking care of the organization, though. Alas, the amount of information that the principal (a superior or shareholders) is always less than the information the agent (the manager) has.
  • Getting things done is more important than doing things great: Success in business is a function of doing the right things on a strategic level, good execution and a good dose of luck. It’s not fully correlated with good management practices. In fact, there are studies that suggest that just 10% of a companies performance is related to good management practices.In other words: You do not necessarily need good management to succeed. Survival is mandatory, performance is optional.
  • Human Nature: Power corrupts. We tend to warm ourselves in the shine of it, making us blind to things going bad and feeling entitled to the status quo.

All of this is true and there is not much we can do about it.

But what we can do to decrease our dumbness as managers is to reframe management from “a solver of performance equations” to a “Gardner of socio-technical performance systems”.

Or to say it in simpler terms: From a Scientific Manager to a Gardner of Sociotops.

___

Let me know what you think.

Sources:

I am such a sucker for recency bias. So here is what I read last and which therefore didn’t fail to influence this post:

  • Nissam Taleb, “The Black Swan” and “Antifragile“. Both great book if you want to learn the differences between physical and social systems
  • Phil Rosenzweig, “The Halo Effect“. If you want to know why 95% management literature are stories, but not science, read this. The bad thing is, you will be deeply depressed. The good thing is, re-read this article to cheer-up: Experimentation is the way to go, not dogma.
  • The other books I happened to rate highly on the Sources page

Other than this have a look at

A Recipe for High Performance: Combine Tough Accountability & Wise Fairness​​

Do you believe in the following three sentences?

  • Hire the best people, give them clear goals, give them the authority to achieve those goals, and then you get out of their way
  • Accountability is holding someone’s feet to the fire
  • If everybody is responsible, nobody is responsible

A company is a Sociotop of performers and slackers, introverts, and extroverts, engaged and apathetic, liers and uprights.  In this wilderness you want people to be motivated and engaged. The first step is to hold any of these personality types accountable for results.

Accountability is an Individual Commitment

Accountability is a necessary condition for any form of organization to succeed. One of my all-time favorite probing questions is “Who is feeling accountable?”:

  • If no one is feeling accountable, get one. Getting someone accountable is more than just assigning accountability. The person must feel a sincere desire to live up to that accountability – the person must commit as wholeheartedly as possible
  • If no single person is feeling accountable, get one person accountable. Shared responsibility – a shared urge to achieve something- is valuable and should not be done away with. Still, if push comes to shove individual responsibility is much more powerful in most situations
  • If no one can be pinpointed to be accountable, the solution is often not to declare a critical thing that must be achieved a shared responsibility but to redefine the problem to a higher level of abstraction. Usually, this means giving out a broadly defined mission and leaving the way how the work is done to the accountable person

This is a recipe for organizational success that has been proven and proven again since time immemorial. Individual rewards and punishment are still vital, even in the digital revolution.

Making Teams Accountable

In classic organizations, that are high on hierarchy and low those structures supporting self-management, making teams accountable does not work. There is simply not enough alignment of purpose, not enough trust and relationship capital around to make shared commitments work.  Therefore, a manager and not a group is made accountable for any more significant task.

In more self-managed organizations, that have invested in the 10 Habits of Organization,  making teams accountable becomes a real option. The need for accountability does not go away, but a team pledge becomes as good as an individual pledge to perform.

Making teams instead of individuals accountable is an option, once a high level of maturity, say level 3+ on the scale of liberated organizations is achieved (see 4 Steps to Release the Full Potential of Organizations).

An Accountable Environment is a Tough, Results-Oriented Environment

Holding people accountable is a tough job: Using carrots and sticks in a manner that benefits the organization, in the long run, is an art. It requires personal impartiality, empathy, and a long-term perspective.

Rewards and punishment do not need to be material (e.g., money or career progress). Often immaterial rewards and punishments work better. Even the pain of having other people let down might be significant punishment for some people. Turn up the heat by highlighting that failure through individual feedback or a team based post-mortem session. The same goes for rewards. There is power is the simple act of giving praise for good work in public.

It takes an active, engaged manager or co-worker to do the straight-talking. But that is the essence of holding people accountable. In traditional settings, managers are somewhat left to their own devices to do this. In more liberated organizations structured meeting formats (76 Agile Workouts & A Fish)  help to deliver feedback regularly, in an environment where it is ok to talk about feelings and failure.

There is No Good Alternative to Tough Accountability

I challenge you to think of any workable alternative to accountability. Taking away accountability means that you end up with two scenarios:

  • Seldom: Hippy island, campfire Comfort Zone where people have a good time, and nothing gets done
  • Most of the time: Working zombies, 9 to 5, “I am in for the money,” Apathy Zone where people have a bad time and work results are uninspiring

There is no alternative to high accountability in human groups that want to achieve something of higher value. But Accountability alone is not enough. It must be combined with Fairness, or as Edmondson puts it “psychological safety”: A climate where people feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings. 

Harvard Business School Professor and psychologist Amy Edmondson sums up the zones in a matrix.

4zones.png

Tough guys, this might come as a shock to you: Psychological safety is universally recognized in the academic literature as being the most fundamental requirement of high performing teams.  It’s the number one of the 5 criteria that make a good, high performing team (see Good Managers – Good Teams: Lessons from Google).

 

Beware of Fear induced Accountability

Accountability can be created by fear.

Harsh punishment of failures, by firing, demoting or shaming persons fosters accountability, which is a good thing – is it not? People will certainly take care not to let their responsibilities slip again. This recipe for accountability has been tried successfully over thousands of years.

And no, strengthening accountability by instilling fear is not a good thing. By focussing single-mindedly on accountability  and employing the methods of fear, people will:

  • Cease to speak-up
  • Cover up failures
  • Choose unambitious, risk-free targets
  • Seek to keep in the shadows: hiding at their desks
  • Feel the emotional costs

Accountability is tough, and it needs tough actions – but fear will kill off innovations, learning, and performance.

Combine Fairness with Accountability

Instead of using fear with all its unintended collateral damage, use fairness. Fairness in the organizational, managerial context has three practical dimensions:

A. Distinguish the type of failure

A punishable offense is any failure that is not based on well-intended efforts. The more complex or experimental work-environments are, the more failure is unavoidable. Alas, with the digital revolution work is getting ever more complex and experimental. That means that failure should even be rewarded, as long as the effort was well intended. Thereby risk-taking is incentivized, a fundamental requirement for any entrepreneurial organization.

B. If faced with a failure, be proportionate 

Small failures should be embraced as opportunities to learn. Learning occurs through feedback or group reflections with the target of understanding the root cause. Some failures are just a fact of life and can’t be prevented in future, but the totality of all failures an organization makes gives it a good chance to learn and improve.

Big failures are bad. But even those should be framed as opportunities to learn. Consequences need to follow and might be harsh, but always based on the factual, cool-headed analysis of what is to be done to prevent or mitigate those in the future

The credo of iterative ways of working is powerful in that context. By working iteratively towards a target, in small increments, failure can be held small, and learning is immediate. The number of big failures can be reduced. That is the very concept of agile projects methods such as SCRUM or modern Start-up methodology (e.g.,missiles Lean Start-up).

C. Be impartial

Handling failure is always nasty for everyone involved. For a manager (or a self-managed team) this means the willingness to face the facts and dish out the hard truth in an impartial manner.

It takes courage to stand proud and upright on the deck in times of failure and crisis. But standing on the deck, you must, in order to direct the ship.  

Even in more liberated organizations, this courage is hard to summon. On the one hand, the level of trust and caring enables much more insight, but on the other hand, people are reluctant to act cool, analytically towards people known well to them.

When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else. (David Brin, Author)

Yet Fairness means different things to different people. Like Truth, fairness is often a high minded concept, as Rawls has shown. In the toolset of Liberated Organizations some tools help to push things towards fairness:

  • The way feedback is given and built into daily work routines
  • The way work is transparent
  • The way meetings are run in an inclusive manner
  • The way teams are set up to resolve tensions themselves
  • The true north that a hierarchy of purpose gives each team and the whole organization

Nothing might be ever genuinely fair. But by building in management practices that implicitly foster fairness, the sense of fairness can be increased for everybody.

The Learning Zone

This is where high accountability meets high psychological safety.

A workplace is the more psychologically safe, the more a team member would agree with the following statements:

  • If you make a mistake on this team, it is dealt with constructively
  • Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues
  • People on this team sometimes do not reject others for being different
  • It is safe to take a risk on this team
  • It is not difficult to ask other members of this team for help
  • No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts
  • Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized

In short: A climate where people feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings is one where the perceived chances of being yourself and straightforward, without being subject to negative consequences, are high.

Intellectually leaders may endorse psychological safety and the voice and participation it enables, but it is difficult to forgo the raised voices or angry expressions that signify dominance. And for the coworkers is more natural to flee into the safety of silence.

Psychological safety does not imply a cozy environment. On the contrary: Make an environment too cozy and groupthink follows and performance drops.  There is a natural tendency to end up in a comfortable environment once you encourage psychological safety. We are primed by Evolution to value warmth, trustworthiness, and morality more than competence. Evolutionary, the intents of others are more critical for survival than the other’s competence.  People with evil intends are more dangerous than incompetent humans. Still, America, you shouldn’t let a world-class incompetent get access to missiles that could destroy the world several times over…

The Learning Zone:

  • It’s safe to speak up
  • It’s safe to admit failures
  • It’s safe to ask for help
  • Every failure is framed as an opportunity for learning
  • But consequences are still tied to results, especially if the effort has not been well-intended

How to Change from one Zone of Engagement to Another

The Apathy Zone is the one dominating most companies today. With disengagement at about 85% of the workforce (according to a yearly, long-term global Gallup study) withdrawal is rampant. Whats even worth, this disengagement level is not different between work and management level: Only 15% of Managers are engaged.

4za

So what is to be done to engage workers and get them out of the Apathy zone?

  • Moving an organization towards a comfort zone does not engage anyone. It helps social well-being, but not economic results.
  • Using fear to spur people into action is much more effective. Results will come from management by the time-proven approach of management by fear. There is a human cost to this, but economic results will improve compared to apathy or comfort.
    The trouble is: The more an organization needs to use the intelligence, creativity, and willingness to experiment and improve the status-quo, the less able management by fear is able to produce positive results. Management by fear violates the fundamental foundation of high performing teams: Psychological safety.
  • The silver bullet is to use the principles of Liberated Organizations (The 10 Habits of Liberated Organizations) to get from Apathy, with low Accountability and low psychological safety, to high Accountability and high psychological safety.
    The downside is: The path towards high accountability and psychological safety is a journey. It can’t be done at once and has to be done in a process. Waypoints for this journey are the maturity levels of Liberated Organizations (see 4 Steps to Release the Full Potential of Organizations)

cm.png

This is what I think. What do you think?

___

Sources:

A Recipe for High Performance: Combine Tough Accountability & Wise Fairness​​

Do you believe in the following three sentences?

  • Hire the best people, give them clear goals, give them the authority to achieve those goals, and then you get out of their way
  • Accountability is holding someone’s feet to the fire
  • If everybody is responsible, nobody is responsible

A company is a Sociotop of performers and slackers, introverts, and extroverts, engaged and apathetic, liers and uprights.  In this wilderness you want people to be motivated and engaged. The first step is to hold any of these personality types accountable for results.

Accountability is an Individual Commitment

Accountability is a necessary condition for any form of organization to succeed. One of my all-time favorite probing questions is “Who is feeling accountable?”:

  • If no one is feeling accountable, get one. Getting someone accountable is more than just assigning accountability. The person must feel a sincere desire to live up to that accountability – the person must commit as wholeheartedly as possible
  • If no single person is feeling accountable, get one person accountable. Shared responsibility – a shared urge to achieve something- is valuable and should not be done away with. Still, if push comes to shove individual responsibility is much more powerful in most situations
  • If no one can be pinpointed to be accountable, the solution is often not to declare a critical thing that must be achieved a shared responsibility but to redefine the problem to a higher level of abstraction. Usually, this means giving out a broadly defined mission and leaving the way how the work is done to the accountable person

This is a recipe for organizational success that has been proven and proven again since time immemorial. Individual rewards and punishment are still vital, even in the digital revolution.

Making Teams Accountable

In classic organizations, that are high on hierarchy and low those structures supporting self-management, making teams accountable does not work. There is simply not enough alignment of purpose, not enough trust and relationship capital around to make shared commitments work.  Therefore, a manager and not a group is made accountable for any more significant task.
In more self-managed organizations, that have invested in the 10 Habits of Organization,  making teams accountable becomes a real option. The need for accountability does not go away, but a team pledge becomes as good as an individual pledge to perform.
Making teams instead of individuals accountable is an option, once a high level of maturity, say level 3+ on the scale of liberated organizations is achieved (see 4 Steps to Release the Full Potential of Organizations).

An Accountable Environment is a Tough, Results-Oriented Environment

Holding people accountable is a tough job: Using carrots and sticks in a manner that benefits the organization, in the long run, is an art. It requires personal impartiality, empathy, and a long-term perspective.
Rewards and punishment do not need to be material (e.g., money or career progress). Often immaterial rewards and punishments work better. Even the pain of having other people let down might be significant punishment for some people. Turn up the heat by highlighting that failure through individual feedback or a team based post-mortem session. The same goes for rewards. There is power is the simple act of giving praise for good work in public.
It takes an active, engaged manager or co-worker to do the straight-talking. But that is the essence of holding people accountable. In traditional settings, managers are somewhat left to their own devices to do this. In more liberated organizations structured meeting formats (76 Agile Workouts & A Fish)  help to deliver feedback regularly, in an environment where it is ok to talk about feelings and failure.

There is No Good Alternative to Tough Accountability

I challenge you to think of any workable alternative to accountability. Taking away accountability means that you end up with two scenarios:

  • Seldom: Hippy island, campfire Comfort Zone where people have a good time, and nothing gets done
  • Most of the time: Working zombies, 9 to 5, “I am in for the money,” Apathy Zone where people have a bad time and work results are uninspiring

There is no alternative to high accountability in human groups that want to achieve something of higher value. But Accountability alone is not enough. It must be combined with Fairness, or as Edmondson puts it “psychological safety”: A climate where people feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings. 
Harvard Business School Professor and psychologist Amy Edmondson sums up the zones in a matrix.
4zones.png
Tough guys, this might come as a shock to you: Psychological safety is universally recognized in the academic literature as being the most fundamental requirement of high performing teams.  It’s the number one of the 5 criteria that make a good, high performing team (see Good Managers – Good Teams: Lessons from Google).
 

Beware of Fear induced Accountability

Accountability can be created by fear.
Harsh punishment of failures, by firing, demoting or shaming persons fosters accountability, which is a good thing – is it not? People will certainly take care not to let their responsibilities slip again. This recipe for accountability has been tried successfully over thousands of years.
And no, strengthening accountability by instilling fear is not a good thing. By focussing single-mindedly on accountability  and employing the methods of fear, people will:

  • Cease to speak-up
  • Cover up failures
  • Choose unambitious, risk-free targets
  • Seek to keep in the shadows: hiding at their desks
  • Feel the emotional costs

Accountability is tough, and it needs tough actions – but fear will kill off innovations, learning, and performance.

Combine Fairness with Accountability

Instead of using fear with all its unintended collateral damage, use fairness. Fairness in the organizational, managerial context has three practical dimensions:
A. Distinguish the type of failure
A punishable offense is any failure that is not based on well-intended efforts. The more complex or experimental work-environments are, the more failure is unavoidable. Alas, with the digital revolution work is getting ever more complex and experimental. That means that failure should even be rewarded, as long as the effort was well intended. Thereby risk-taking is incentivized, a fundamental requirement for any entrepreneurial organization.
B. If faced with a failure, be proportionate 
Small failures should be embraced as opportunities to learn. Learning occurs through feedback or group reflections with the target of understanding the root cause. Some failures are just a fact of life and can’t be prevented in future, but the totality of all failures an organization makes gives it a good chance to learn and improve.
Big failures are bad. But even those should be framed as opportunities to learn. Consequences need to follow and might be harsh, but always based on the factual, cool-headed analysis of what is to be done to prevent or mitigate those in the future
The credo of iterative ways of working is powerful in that context. By working iteratively towards a target, in small increments, failure can be held small, and learning is immediate. The number of big failures can be reduced. That is the very concept of agile projects methods such as SCRUM or modern Start-up methodology (e.g.,missiles Lean Start-up).
C. Be impartial
Handling failure is always nasty for everyone involved. For a manager (or a self-managed team) this means the willingness to face the facts and dish out the hard truth in an impartial manner.

It takes courage to stand proud and upright on the deck in times of failure and crisis. But standing on the deck, you must, in order to direct the ship.  

Even in more liberated organizations, this courage is hard to summon. On the one hand, the level of trust and caring enables much more insight, but on the other hand, people are reluctant to act cool, analytically towards people known well to them.

When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else. (David Brin, Author)

Yet Fairness means different things to different people. Like Truth, fairness is often a high minded concept, as Rawls has shown. In the toolset of Liberated Organizations some tools help to push things towards fairness:

  • The way feedback is given and built into daily work routines
  • The way work is transparent
  • The way meetings are run in an inclusive manner
  • The way teams are set up to resolve tensions themselves
  • The true north that a hierarchy of purpose gives each team and the whole organization

Nothing might be ever genuinely fair. But by building in management practices that implicitly foster fairness, the sense of fairness can be increased for everybody.

The Learning Zone

This is where high accountability meets high psychological safety.
A workplace is the more psychologically safe, the more a team member would agree with the following statements:

  • If you make a mistake on this team, it is dealt with constructively
  • Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues
  • People on this team sometimes do not reject others for being different
  • It is safe to take a risk on this team
  • It is not difficult to ask other members of this team for help
  • No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts
  • Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized

In short: A climate where people feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings is one where the perceived chances of being yourself and straightforward, without being subject to negative consequences, are high.
Intellectually leaders may endorse psychological safety and the voice and participation it enables, but it is difficult to forgo the raised voices or angry expressions that signify dominance. And for the coworkers is more natural to flee into the safety of silence.
Psychological safety does not imply a cozy environment. On the contrary: Make an environment too cozy and groupthink follows and performance drops.  There is a natural tendency to end up in a comfortable environment once you encourage psychological safety. We are primed by Evolution to value warmth, trustworthiness, and morality more than competence. Evolutionary, the intents of others are more critical for survival than the other’s competence.  People with evil intends are more dangerous than incompetent humans. Still, America, you shouldn’t let a world-class incompetent get access to missiles that could destroy the world several times over…
The Learning Zone:

  • It’s safe to speak up
  • It’s safe to admit failures
  • It’s safe to ask for help
  • Every failure is framed as an opportunity for learning
  • But consequences are still tied to results, especially if the effort has not been well-intended

How to Change from one Zone of Engagement to Another

The Apathy Zone is the one dominating most companies today. With disengagement at about 85% of the workforce (according to a yearly, long-term global Gallup study) withdrawal is rampant. Whats even worth, this disengagement level is not different between work and management level: Only 15% of Managers are engaged.
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So what is to be done to engage workers and get them out of the Apathy zone?

  • Moving an organization towards a comfort zone does not engage anyone. It helps social well-being, but not economic results.
  • Using fear to spur people into action is much more effective. Results will come from management by the time-proven approach of management by fear. There is a human cost to this, but economic results will improve compared to apathy or comfort.
    The trouble is: The more an organization needs to use the intelligence, creativity, and willingness to experiment and improve the status-quo, the less able management by fear is able to produce positive results. Management by fear violates the fundamental foundation of high performing teams: Psychological safety.
  • The silver bullet is to use the principles of Liberated Organizations (The 10 Habits of Liberated Organizations) to get from Apathy, with low Accountability and low psychological safety, to high Accountability and high psychological safety.
    The downside is: The path towards high accountability and psychological safety is a journey. It can’t be done at once and has to be done in a process. Waypoints for this journey are the maturity levels of Liberated Organizations (see 4 Steps to Release the Full Potential of Organizations)

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This is what I think. What do you think?
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Can Agile, Liberated Organizations Succeed in Overturning the Status Quo?

To be an idealist is a great asset to the world as it takes a non-conformist to change the world. But the graveyard is full of – mostly young – idealists whose ideas fell victim to the harsh realities of the status quo they were (naively) trying to change.

The whole Agile Movement is an idealistic movement. A movement of smart people who want to change the way people collaborate into a more liberated, engaging and fundamentally more humane way. In this effort, the Agile Movement has much better chances to succeed than many other idealistic endeavors, as it appeals to the profit motive that is so predominant in today’s business world. The obvious success of Silicon Valley and those liberated ways of working provide companies with a justification to try those high minded agile management practices. In other words: The profit motive is a strong reason to embrace Agile.

But still, the odds are steep, and the fight will be one for generations. Let me explain why.

Being a Great Company is Optional

Peter Drucker listed the three things that a company really needs to be great.

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A company can only exist if it serves a customer need by supplying a product.  This is mandatory. In contrast to this, having a great company culture is helpful but not required to build products, good economic results or to simply survive as a company in the long run:

  • A company may survive quite comfortably for a long time if the competition is as badly organized as it is
  • A great culture improves the odds of building a great product, but you might end up with a great product just by chance even with a mediocre culture
  • The law of high numbers is at work here – provided that many try, some will get lucky

According to economic theory, competition will come in the long run and uproot the underperforming companies, simply because there is a profit to be made. This might be what is happening today in the digital revolution, but this process takes time.

The Status Quo is far from abdicating

Agile or Liberated companies (as I prefer to call them) have great working cultures. They are, therefore, systematically more likely to achieve great results than companies running a command and control model. But is that enough to win against the status quo en masse? Here are some reasons why the command and control paradigm might still win:

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  • More and more Start-ups are sold directly to corporate investors. Mostly, they become a part of the established way of doing business thereafter
  • Every generation, even the youngest, is still primed for command and control. The Education system is still built on conformity to hierarchical norms
  • The economy gets more and more geared towards monopolies or oligopolies. It is the very nature of the platform and digital economy that the winner takes all benefits (e.g. Amazon, Google, Facebook). By their very nature, the dominant strategy for monopolies and oligopolies is to exploit their customer, as this is a much safer way to compete than risky innovation
  • Income inequality and the rise of the new right in global politics (e.g. Trump, Brexit) and of autocratic leaders (Erdogan, Orban, Al-Sissi, Putin) will not leave economic structures of the companies unaffected. With the suppression of free speech in the political realm, facts becoming optional alternative facts and filter bubbles companies will not be able to hold a space for truthful and open speech, two core pillars of liberated companies in jeopardy
  • The prevailing mindset today is that of shareholder value, which is centered on making profits no matter what while still being legally compliant. With Liberation, managers got to pick up a trick: In order to achieve profits, it is better to approach the profit target indirectly,  obliquely: Do not go directly for the Sale or the cost cutting but manage by values. Sales and efficiency will follow.

In total: Not a pretty picture- the Imperial forces are strong, young padawan.

What can be Done?

The most often heard criticism of Liberated Companies is that it takes an enlightened benevolent dictator for it to succeed. A leader who holds the space for the values of the Agile Manifesto, for the 10 Habits of Liberated Companies and who allows people to implement Agile management practices.

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That kind of leader is hard to find. Plus, an organization running on liberal principles is inherently unstable, once its top leader changes (or changed her mind). This instability is even greater in Liberated Companies than in Command & Control Companies. Things like trust, open speech and individual autonomy and freedom to act are very fragile things, time-consuming to grow and very easily destroyed. In contrast to this, command and control organizations are much more stable: Everyone knows the rules, the direction might change with a new leader but the way work is done is almost never changing to a significant extent. People might need to learn a new trick to please their superior, yes. But not much more.

As long as there are private property rights, people remain entitled to run their companies (or delegate running their companies) the way they or the stock market wants. This won’t change over a foreseeable period.

Hold the space, young Padawan

Let me explain why I still think that liberation is worthwhile:

  • Every period of Liberation is likely to produce superior economic results
  • Everyone involved in a Liberated Organization picks up skills and mindsets, that will make it easier to work on a higher level for her at any point in time in the future
  • With every agile practice the DNA, the organizational memory of the Organization, evolves. A part of this DNA might become inactive for a time, but it can be reactivated

Meanwhile, we Corporate Rebels, Management 3.0 enthusiasts or Holacracy champions, need to work on achieving a tipping point. There definitely is momentum for Liberation within even the conventional business community, and the Liberation movement is getting at least nearer to a Tipping point:

  • There are more and more important multipliers embracing the values of Liberated Organizations, like for example Management Thinker Gary Hamel or Microsofts CEO Satya Nadella.
  • The staying power of the leading figures (e.g. Brian J. Robertson, Jurgen Appelo or Frederick Laloux) is strong and their number of energized followers is expanding
  • Liberated Organizations have all the hallmarks that deliver a deep sense of motivation to individuals: Innovation, Self-Fulfillment, Human Betterment and even Profits and Efficiency – what a package!

This package might feel too good to be true. But many inventions made people feel that way. Liberated Organizations are a social invention. Social inventions take more time than technical inventions to take root. But it might propel humans to new heights by enabling humanity to use our collective intelligence more systematically than ever before.

So young Padawan: Hold the space.  Embrace an Agile Mindset. Fill organizations with the 10 Habits of Liberated Organizations. Management Practice by Management Practice.

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This what I think. What do you think?

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