January 04, 2006

Cross Cultural Teams

Teaming is one of the two disciplines for achieving performance in small groups. In addition to keeping groups small, the team discipline revolves around needed skills, shared sense of purpose, goals and how to get along and work together, and mutual accountability -- all of which make the findings from Grovewell must reading for folks in cross cultural teams.

We are all human -- we bring with us beliefs and behaviors that reflect 'how we do things around here'. Increasingly, more and more of us absorb and practice such values in organizations. Still, the forces of national and ethnic culture remain the starting point because of family, because we 'grow up' in contexts heavily influenced by those cultural dimensions. The shift from place to organization going on around the globe holds both promise and peril -- but surely one potential advantage comes from blending the best of various cultures into 'how we do things around here' in our organizations. Teams are powerful crucibles for making this happen because they are small thick we's with an orientation toward performance -- toward some objective purpose that brings us together meaningfully.

As the Grovewell research shows, achieving performance requires small cross-cultural groups using the team discipline to grapple with how to get the best from values that are seemingly at odds, such as:

1. Individualism versus group orientation
2. Hierarchical versus democratic distribution of power
3. Content-focused versus context-focused communication style
4. Formality versus informality
5. Punctuality versus flexible sense of time
6. Task and goal orientation versus relationship orientation
7. Deductive versus inductive reasoning
8. Holistic versus linear thinking
9. Confrontation versus diplomacy/face-saving
10. Short-term versus long-term viewpoint
11. Competition versus cooperation
12. Loyalty to particular people versus obedience to universal rules
13. Self-determination versus acceptance of fate/circumstance
14. Religious versus secular worldview
15. Permissiveness versus strict rules/regulations
16. Pragmatic flexibility versus adherence to detailed plans
17. Achieved versus ascribed status
18. Change as positive versus tradition as revered
19. Youth orientation versus age veneration
20. Male dominance versus gender equality
21. Rigid class structure versus social mobility
22. Action/doing versus contentment with being

Much turns on the attitudes with which these questions are approached, especially how best to respect differences while finding a shared path to performance that matters. Folks who jump straight to 'good versus bad' step into unpromising territory. In contrast, those who take the time and make the effort to understand nonjudgementally will build the initial respect and trust required for more difficult choices about the best path to performance.

The Grovewell piece speaks specifically to cross-cultural teams. Over thirty years of experience with small groups, however, suggests to me that several of the items listed apply just as much to folks coming from different organizational cultures (e.g. in a post-merger integration team) and different functional/expertise cultures (e.g. marketing versus engineering).

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:04 PM | Permalink

December 12, 2005

Performance, Problem Solving and Gender Stereotypes

Does the performance of your organization depend on excellent problem solving?

Does the performance of your organization depend on men and women solving problems?

What do you mean by 'problem solving'? What kind of problems does your organization need to solve?

What percentage of those problems are not really problems at all? That is, they are situations for which answers are readily available and simply in need of quick, crisp and efficient ways of 'taking charge'?

What percentage of those problems are actually problems -- that is, challenges for which no one in your organization has any current easy answer?

When you think about these real problems, how many of them are purely technical in nature? That is, how many are like jigsaw puzzles requiring that you figure out a set of technical, mechanical, or otherwise physical pieces and assemble them?

How many of your problems are purely social or are 'sociotechnical'? That is, how many are both about figuring out some objective set of pieces to a puzzle but then also figuring out how to get people within your organization (and possibly beyond -- alliances/customers/and so forth) to 'make it happen'? How much of getting folks to 'make it happen' demands figuring out how to take care of the interests, skills, readiness, reluctance and other human attributes that often spell the difference between a problem solved on paper and one solved in reality?

Think about these questions as you read the latest report from Catalyst about how organizations across the country continue to shoot themselves in the foot by using 'either/or' stereotypes about men and women who, truth and every day reality be told, are BOTH needed to move toward any organization's best future performance.

Or, perhaps you disagree. Perhaps you believe in your soul that your organization can best move forward to solve its most complicated and critical problems by relying disproportionately on male leaders or female leaders?

If so, go ahead and hang a sign on the door that says, "Here at XYZ Corporation, we know that our best future depends on male problem solvers." Or, if you answered with the other gender, "Here at ABC Corporation, we know that our best future depends on female problem solvers."

If, on the other hand, you believe your best future depends on men and women and women and men both leading and collaborating and collaborating and leading in finding and implementing the best solutions to your most critical problems, then perhaps you'd better start acting like you believe it.

Posted by Doug Smith at 02:39 PM | Permalink

December 07, 2005

Staffing Teams: Be Sure To Pick "Learners"

Thirty years and hundreds of team experiences have produced two seemingly paradoxical guideposts to staffing teams:

No team succeeds in the absence of people with the skills, behaviors and working relationships required for performance.
No team succeeds without folks on the team learning something new.

If read carefully, these two insights indicate it is simply not possible to predict in advance every dimension of skill, behavior and working relationship required for team performance. Can and should team leaders be careful and thoughtful about staffing teams? Of course. But, the second point would indicate that too many team leaders suffer from an illusion that somehow, someway there's a 'Dream Team" out there and if they only spend enough time, they'll be able to pick that team.

Indeed, if you think back to the last Olympics, you might recall that the US "Dream Team" did not win -- in major part because the players selected lacked a significant but necessary requirement: an orientation toward learning how to adjust their individual games to the requirements of international rules and styles.

In other words, even this 'Dream Team' needed to learn to succeed.

So, yes, by all means, be thoughtful in staffing teams. Pay attention to what you imagine will be the skills, behaviors and working relationships demanded by performance.

But, when it comes time to pick your team, please remember this: Pick 'learners'. Pick folks who have an orientation to taking risks, trying new things out, and not freaking out at the thought that things might not go as planned.

When it comes to successful teaming, picking learners is a 'best practice' in picking winners.

Posted by Doug Smith at 06:59 PM | Permalink

November 30, 2005

Two Traps That Hurt Teams

Two traps that hurt real team performance have to do with work assignments. Those who have mastered the team discipline know that mutual accountability for shared work and shared performance is a hallmark of real teams. Put differently, if a small group can achieve the overall performance objectives through a series of individual work assignments, then the group does not need the team discipline for success. The single leader discipline will work better.

However, if a small group faces a performance challenge that cannot be achieved through the sum of individual best contributions -- in other words, if success depends on one or more critical pieces of work being done by two or more people who collaborate in real time and hold themselves mutually accountable -- then the team discipline is required. The single leader discipline's dependence on individual contribution will fall short.

Consider, for example, a small group challenged to redesign a bank branch to improve customer experience and lower operating costs. One can imagine folks with customer service, operations, marketing, and communications skills in such a group. Well, my guess is that if every individual with functional expertise were assigned individual work products -- and that was the sum total of the work of the group -- the group would fall short.

Why? Because I'm guessing that both improving the customer's experience and reducing operating costs requires some collective work products mutually delivered by, say, the operations and customer service folks, or perhaps each of them plus a marketing person.

Now for the twin traps.

Trap No. 1: 'Virtual" collective work products that turn into indivudal work products. For groups whose members are not physically co-located and must use the team discipline virtually, there is a great temptation to assume a collective work product has been assigned when, in fact, because of time and distance, folks end up 'dividing up' the tasks into individual work products. One of the special challenges of teaming virtually is to use explicit, self-conscious steps to be sure your group is not falling into this trap.

Trap No. 2: Work products assigned to 'everyone on the team'. While not impossible, it is rare for any team to have very many particular work products requiring the real time collaboration of all the folks on the team. It is much more likely to need the work divided into a series of both individual and collective work products -- and that the those collective work products are best owned and done by more than one person, but less than 'everyone'. This last trap is especially prevalent among teams at the top where past habit and culture often lead to either a naive or cynical approach of 'we'll all do this together'.

Posted by Doug Smith at 07:53 PM | Permalink | TrackBacks (1)

November 29, 2005

Small Number and The Discipline of Team

You've all heard it. You gather in some auditorium to hear the Chief Executive, or you open your morning email for the latest memo from the top and hear or read, "Remember: We're all a team!" Nothing wrong with that. Leaders must encourage, shape and build a culture of shared purpose in order to have any sustainable performance and success. "We're all a team" is leadership in action that, cynicism aside, is constructive.

But, the discipline of delivering team performance is not about huge groups and whole companies. It's limited to a small number of people confronting challenges that best yield to the team approach as opposed to the single leader discipline. You are all very familiar with the single leader disicpline -- the management approach linked to a boss who has a small number of subordinates who together must deliver performance results.

Small number. It's a very pragmatic limiting factor in applying the team discipline. Indeed, management experts have written for years about 'span of control' -- a notion that applies to the single leader discipline. Once the number of direct reports gets beyond seven to ten folks, things start to 'break down' even for the single leader discipline. Bosses start having difficulty with effective communication, defining roles for subordinates and holding them accountable, and with establishing and implementing time efficient processes. Things start to fray at the edges when numbers get beyond 'small'.

None of which means that things go to hell in a hand basket. We're not talking a Category 5 disaster here. Just pressure. Just the kind of breakdowns that, with even larger numbers (say 20 or 30 or 40), almost inevitably lead to formalized subgroupings -- to recasting the span of control for the single leader discipline.

Well, what experience teaches for the single leader discipline also applies to the team discipline. When numbers get above seven to ten, 'things start to break down'. Only the 'things breaking down' are identifying and delivering on collective work products, defining and pursuing common purposes, common goals and commonly agreed upon working approaches; and, shaping a real sense of mutual accountability -- that is, the key aspects to the team discipline.

So what?

Well, this morning when you show up at work, ask yourself about the most critical challenges facing the groups you are a part of. List out two or three. Then examine just how many people are in each group charged with delivering performance against those challenges. If you and, say, a handful of others are responsible for any given challenge, then your group is small enough to make choices about when to use the team discipline versus the single leader discipline. If your group is bigger than, say, ten -- and especially if it is much, much bigger -- then you and the leaders of that group might want to revisit 'subgrouping' -- that is, breaking down the overall challenge into parts that lend themselves to 'small number' approaches.

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:29 PM | Permalink

November 05, 2005

Thick We's

In his book The Ethics of Memory, the contemporary philosopher Avishai Margalit differentiates between what he calls 'thick we's' and 'thin we's'. Thin we's have abstract, thin bonds -- all Americans, all human beings, all "20-somethings". Margalit is more interested in exploring ethical issues among people whose relationships are 'thicker'; who have shared experiences and shared memories that raise questions of caring and hatred.

There's much we can do with this distinction. Especially, if we expand and enrich the two concepts to fit how we actually lead our lives in the 21st century. In my book On Value and Values -- and in the posts to this website like my other writing -- a 'thick we' is made up of people who inescapably share one or more meaningful aspects of their fates with one another and who inevitably must together balance individual self-interest with the purposes they share as a 'we'. Because they share fates in various real, tangible and everyday ways, thick we's must both shape and implement some common good together.

Let's unpack this a bit. Your family is a thick we. You have friends who together with you make for a thick we. Those with whom you interact daily at work are a thick we. If you regularly play soccer or go bowling with others, that's a thick we. If you attend religious services with a persistent set of folks, that's another thick we.

In each of these illustrations, there is some meaningul and important aspect of your fate - of your health, wealth, well being, etc -- that is wrapped up with the same aspects for the other folks involved in your thick we.

In contrast, people who might identify themselves with 'thin we's' have simliar interests or concerns, but do not really share any aspect of their fates with one another in tangible, gritty and everyday ways. They do not even know one another by name. There's nothing requiring them to shape a common good or take action together -- to hold one another accountable -- for implementing their common good.

Consider, then, "red" versus "blue" Americans. Yes, these thin we's matter a heckuva lot to the future of the United States (and the world). But, 'red' and 'blue" Americans are better understood as market segments comprised of individuals who in their roles as voters and customers influence political and other markets. Importantly, the people in these 'thin we's' have no responsibility whatsoever to implement or hold themselves accountable for the actions of the candidates or the impact of the policies supported. Rather, as voters, consumers, family members and friends, people in thin we's look to the thick we's elected -- political parties, congresses, executive offices, governmental organizations -- to shape and implement the share purposes of those organizations - -of those 'thick we's'.

Thus, Congress is a thick we. Indeed, it's an excellent example of the following nuance: in differentiating thick from thin, I am not suggesting 'good vs. bad'. Thick we's have the strongest and most predictable shared values - but those values - that blend of belief, behavior, attitude and speech -- can be predictably bad, predictably good or predictably in-between. Congress is a thick we on whom the thin we's named 'red' versus 'blue' Americans depend. The question for Congress -- like any thick we -- is what constitutes Congress' common good, Congress' shared purposes, Congress' blend of concern for value ('reelection') with the concern for values ('governance'; 'liberty and justice for all")?

It is in thick we's -- not thin we's -- that our concern for value (money, profits, winning) is most tested against our concern for values (family, social, political, religious and so on). It is in thick we's -- not thin we's -- that our individual concerns about ourselves -- about 'me' -- are most tested against the concerns and purposes of the group, of the thick we.

In the early 21st century, most thick we's in which any of us participate tend to favor one of these concerns over the other. At work, our thick we's -- the organizations in which we are employed -- routinely use value as a trump card over values. The shared purposes -- the common good -- is denominated in terms of profits, winning, shareholder value and the like.

At home, in church or at play, our dominant concern is one or more values as opposed to value.

All of which contributes to the profound split between value and values in our culture. We lead dual lives -- pursuing value over values from 9 to 5 and the reverse during the remainder of each day.

This is not sustainable. Consider only resources and power. We live in a world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families. The vast majority of power and resources lie in organizations and, therefore, shape where those organizations will take the markets and networks of our world -- indeed, the world itself.

Today, the vast majority of those organizations pursue value over values. Others -- and the less powerful ones -- pursue values over value. Neither of these strategies are sustainable. Churches, schools, non-profits and so forth cannot sustain themselves by ignoring and being blind to value. But -- and this is by far the more serious challenge -- neither can for-profit organizations (whether Wal-Mart or GM or Roche -- or a small bookstore or cleaners or barbershop) sustain itself if value -- if profits, wealth, shareholder value or winning -- is the trump card for every single serious issue and question on the table. Eventually, that approach eviscerates and hollows out the values -- social, political, spiritual, environmental, medical, legal and others -- on which the very value pursued rests.

Thick we's have become the central, most critical crucible in which our thin we's fates -- all six billion of us on the planet -- are now being shaped. If we can restore a healthy, blended concern for both value and values in our thick we's, we can and will pass along a healthier, saner and more sustainable planet to our children and grandchildren.

Posted by Doug Smith at 02:14 PM | Permalink | TrackBacks (14)

October 25, 2005

Hierarchy and Efficiency

McKinsey & Company's patron saint Marvin Bower once commented, "The thing about hierarchy is that it works." Bower was not celebrating hierarchy; rather, he was initiating a dialogue about it. He began by echoing the deep-seated claim about hiearchy's relationship to efficiency -- particularly decision-making efficiency. In hierarchies, decisions can be made quicker and with less cost, time and trouble. Hence, the claim of efficiency.

Consider the following situation. You are the pitching coach for a major league baseball team. You've seen and worked with your star pitcher for years. You know that when the pitcher tires, he drops his arm during his delivery -- leading to a loss of control. It's the seventh inning of a tight game. The pitcher has put in a lot of effort -- he's tired and he has begun to drop his arm. You call time out and visit the mound. Do you:

A) Engage the pitcher in an open-ended problem solving session aimed at gathering information, brainstorming and debating a variety of solutions and then reaching consensus on what to do next; or,
B) Tell him he's tiring and must get his arm up?

Most of us pick "B". We pick hierarchy because it is the faster, most cost-and-time effective decision-making process in this situation. It is efficient. And, it's effective --whether the pitcher can overcome his tiredness and get through the inning or not because, even in the latter case, it means a quick return trip to the mound and a call to the bullpen.

Note some nuance here. Both pitcher and pitching coach recognize the legitimacy of their hierarchical relationship within the context of the baseball team. The situation does not allow for long winded debate (baseball rules require that umpires resume play within well understood time limits). And, also note that the pitching coach provides information ("You're tiring") in addition to command ("Get your arm up!")

Marvin Bower was also commenting on habit. Folks who work in hierarchical organizations get used to hierarchy. Like the pitcher, there's a prevailing pattern of acceptance -- when a boss makes a choice, those who report to the boss listen. This was key to Bower's comment that 'Hierarchy works."

We also know from the evolutionary psychologists that human kind has thousands of years of behavioral experience with hierarchy imprinted into our DNA that reinforces leanings toward accepting the authority of hierarchical decision-making.

So, does all this mean 'hierarchy is efficient' is a truism?

Of course not.

Bower was actually getting at this -- only subtly and through dialogue: 'The thing about hiearchy is that people in organizations are habitually inclined to use it and that's fine if the situation fits the hiearchical approach. But not all situations do. So, we are left with the reality that hiearchy works -- sometimes.... but our instincts and experiences cause us to lean toward it most of the time."

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:47 PM | Permalink

October 08, 2005

Comfort Zones

“Comfort zone” is a wonderful – and wonderfully effective - piece of language. It communicates in plain English a wise insight about leadership and management in the face of change.

The basic message is this: We are all more comfortable in our comfort zones than out of those comfort zones. Often, however, the challenges at hand demand that we risk stepping beyond our comfort zone if we hope to lead and manage effectively.

Simple, elegant and wise.

And, like other pieces of wisdom, subject to a significant, if subtle, misreading; namely: that it is somehow ‘bad’ to be in our comfort zone.

I was reminded of this yesterday when Marv, a friend (and talented, experienced leader) mentioned, “Hey, I’d rather be in my comfort zone if and when it can get things done easier.”

Here’s what Marv meant. If he and others in his organization faced a performance challenge that could be achieved in their comfort zones, that would be okay. That would not be ‘bad’.

I agree. We live in a dynamic, chaotic world that confronts us with profound challenges. We are more likely to succeed if we tap into the wisdom about comfort zones. Doing so, though, also demands that we distinguish the aspects of challenges that can be achieved in our comfort zones from those that will require us to step beyond our comfort zones.

Most challenges of any richness and subtleness have both parts. Yet, many of us have inherited an instinctive ‘either/or’ response to clear distinctions . We too often associate ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ to opposing ideas.

We hear about the value of understanding the limits to our ‘comfort zones’ and, as leaders, we overreact. We associate being in our comfort zone as always bad – and outside our comfort zones as always good.

This reaction happens with other distinctions as well. People hear or read, for example, about the ‘team discipline’ versus the ‘single leader discipline’ and quickly link ‘team’ to all that is ‘good’, ‘single leader’ to all that is bad.

For some challenges, though, the single leader discipline (an effective boss who knows how to divide up tasks and hold folks accountable for individual contributions) is the best way to move forward. While, in other performance challenges, the team discipline is best (for example, when the sum of individual best performance simply won’t add up).

Distinctions like “in comfort zone/outside comfort zone” and “single leader discipline/team discipline” are not about either/or or good versus bad. They are about leading effectively in the face of challenge and change.

It seems that many of us are comfortable with instinctively pinning either/or, good/bad onto clear distinctions. That’s a deep aspect of our comfort zone.

My friend Marv is suggesting we might want to move beyond this instinctive good/bad and either/or part of our comfort zone in order, ironically enough, to know when other parts of our comfort zones can help, not hurt, in meeting the challenges ahead.

Yes, this means a risk. We might think the skills and approaches inside our comfort zones will work and be wrong. Indeed, the elegant wisdom of comfort zones is a warning against too easily sticking with our comfort zones.

But the 'good/bad' overreaction to comfort zones means that we are at great risk of not picking the comfort zone alternative when it would be best. By making both choices real -- by challenging ourselves to use comfort zones as guides to what works and what doesn't -- we all increase the odds of success and, I think, enrich the meaning of distinctions and choices instead of diluting them.

Posted by Doug Smith at 03:19 PM | Permalink

October 07, 2005

Enlightened Disagreement

Think about a hot topic at work – hot because the moment it comes up, heat rises from the under the collars of folks in the room. Perhaps you’re a product or market manager at GM and face tough choices about the mix of hybrids and SUVs in your product line up. Or, you work for the baseball players union and need to figure out what to do about steroids. Or, you’ve been with a big pharmaceutical company long enough to know that the future looks dim for industry pricing and marketing practices.

Now take this test:

When we disagree about hot topics,

A: Each party to the disagreement can articulate to the other party’s satisfaction, the other party’s point of view.

Neither party to the disagreement can articulate to the other party’s satisfaction, the other party’s point of view.

“A” is ‘enlightened disagreement. The manager at GM supporting a higher percentage of hybrids can articulate to the SUV stalwart the SUV point of view. And vice versa. Neither side necessarily changes positions. But they do understand one another – and can demonstrate it by ‘making the other’s case’ to other’s complete satisfaction.

Odds are, however, this debate at GM, like ‘hot topics’ elsewhere, suffer from “B”: unenlightened disagreement.

And that’s a shame. We all know that confronting tough choices benefits from the ‘two heads” rule – as in “two heads are better than one”. Different perspectives produce richer and better understanding.

And, we also know that disagreement is a natural by-product of contrary perspectives. But, too often we don’t reap the full benefits in our disagreements because, instead of taking the risk to actually articulate the other side’s position, we merely go round in circles – repeating our own positions over and over, each time more loudly than the time before.

Converting unenlightened disagreement into enlightened disagreement takes some effort. But it is not earth-shatteringly difficult or complex. Mostly, we only need is to listen well, ask questions and, when we think we’ve got the opposite point of view down, articulate it with sincerity.

Nothing is lost in this effort. Neither honor nor character nor authority nor leadership suffers when we risk satisfying the other side that we understand them. Indeed, quite the reverse.

Much is gained in converting unenlightened disagreement to enlightened disagreement. Surprisingly often, heated disagreements spring from facts that are missing or questions that have not been asked. Frequently, one or other of the parties has misinterpreted what’s being proposed and only sees this when he or she takes the trouble to repeat the other side’s point of view.

Enlightened disagreement does not mean agreement. However, it does mean that, after choices are made, no one can later claim, “When we decided to go down your path, I didn’t understand what you meant.”

Posted by Doug Smith at 07:59 AM | Permalink

September 30, 2005

Ten Faces of Innovation

October’s Fast Company includes an excellent summary of the ten different types of people Ideo considers essential for successful innovation. Given Ideo’s track record, we should pay attention.

Ideo buckets the ten roles into three group

Those with an unquenchable desire to learn:

- The Anthropologist: Great observers of human behavior and how people interact with products, services and situations
- The Experimenter: Continuous (as in never stops) trial and error
- The Cross-Pollinator: Steals shamelessly from other industries – ones no one else would think to look to for lessons and ideas

Those who are savvy about how organizations work and what it takes to get folks to collaborate

- The Hurdler: Can and will get over, under and around any and all company policies and budget limits
- The Collaborator: No two or more people, regardless of how different, will fail to work together with the Collaborator’s help
- The Director: Knows how to make music of all the different roles

Those who convert ideas and collaboration into reality in your organization

- The Experience Architect: Designs and makes real undeniable experiences that bring ideas to life for customers, employees, executives and others
- The Set Designer: Integrates all the action into physical spaces that go beyond facilitating creativity to actively assisting it
- The Caregiver: Knows the last mile separating customer service from true and complete customer care. For the Caregiver, it’s all about the customer’s complete experience.
- The Storyteller: Weaves product, service, experience and brand together into a compelling narrative that gives meaning to life.

Any of you who’ve participated in successful innovation will recognize the faces in this excellent list. And, if you’ve seen failures, it’s probable there have been some faces missing. In Xerox’s famous failure to commercialize personal distributed computing, for example, there were not enough Hurdlers or Directors.

Ideo knows what it’s about. Let's add to their wisdom with these reflections:

- These ten faces of innovation will increase the odds of success. But, don’t read the list mechanically. Don’t demand that these faces always belong to ten different people. Think of them as perspectives and roles more than individual jobs.

- Don’t stop with individuals. Remember teams: no successful innovation ever happens in an organization without the contribution of one or more real teams.

- Add one more role and perspective: The “Company-risk” Risk Taker. Sorry for the redundancy. All ten of the roles and perspectives take risks. None of them necessarily, though, take ‘company risk’. Innovation at the far end of the spectrum cannot move forward without someone authorizing ‘company risk’ – that is, willing to put something that risks company performance on the limb. The brand, existing customer relationships, a heckuva lot of money, careers, supplier or vendor relationships, shareholder value – these are but some of the candidates that often define the lines between ‘company caution’ and ‘company risk’.

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:45 PM | Permalink