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How to set a team on fire?

One our readers, Phil, posted a comment on an old post, Have no small meetings, last week and asked for thoughts on something he wants to do. Here's the meat of the comment:

One of the things that I've been focusing on is evolving the "meeting" from a one-way dialogue / monologue into a two-way conversation that empowers participants before, during and after the meeting or conference by leveraging tools (social networks, mobile devices etc...)  The idea here is that if you empower your participants by giving them some ownership of the meeting content, format, and outcomes, they will be more engaged and therefore bring more value to the conversation."

The broader question behind the comment is,  'how do you motivate a team of people?  How do people become engaged?  It's a good one isn't it?.. Too interesting to answer as a comment, so l'm posting here instead.

Shared visions

Few professionals would argue with the need for a shared vision.  It's pretty much accepted as good management practice nowadays - the way we try to get people more engaged.  But I'd argue that shared visions are not all they're cracked up to be.  If you think about it, the more diverse a team of people are, the less chance there is of arriving at a common vision.  Diversity and a unified perspective are, to great extent, mutually exclusive.  In anything but a small group, finding common purpose is nigh impossible unless you're going to select a team of me-too automatons.

Why not have a group of people working together in an environment (whether it be a meeting, a workgroup, a conference, a community of practice or a whole enterprise) that embraces different visions and perspectives?  It's a much richer, more fertile field for learning and creativity, and it makes for a much stronger, more versatile and stable team too.  When a team holds on for dear life to one unified perspective who can see anything else?  Who’s left watching the blind side, where most 'risks' (and rewards) reside?

But it sounds a bit risky doesn't it?  Without a shared vision what will bind the group together?  Where does the motivation come from and what moves it all forward?  Wouldn't the team just fall apart with everyone doing there own thing.. going there own way?

Maslow revisited

Abraham Maslow probably did more than any other in helping us to understand human motivation.  As you probably know, one of his insights was that we don't really concern ourselves with higher order needs until our lower order needs are satisfied.  What he didn't mention and to me is more interesting, is that the 'higher up' the pyramid of needs we go, the more the motivators are universal.  The things that move on the surface are very different (become a billionaire, professional recognition, find a perfect soulmate etc). but deep down what moves us is not that different.

Self-actualization, in Maslow’s terms, is the  “intrinsic growth of what is already in the organism, or more accurately, of what the organism is.”  In other words, we all want the opportunity to express our true potential.. to be able to relax and be our Self.. to express our Soul - all the same thing (to me at least).

If this is true then we can put it to good use.  Instead of pursuing the impossible task of getting everyone to commit to a common goal that may or may not happen in the future why not help them find satisfaction right now?  I've found that if people are able to find their own meaning, and know they are valued for who they are and what they bring to the table, then that's all the glue that's needed for a team to gel.  Finding personal meaning trumps shared vision every time.

Just as motivation is a switch that only we can turn on, meaning can never be brought in from outside, only discovered personally.  But what we  can  do is help our people discover their own meaningful role within the project or group.  It's paradoxically, but when you let go of the need for a common goal and help people to find their own thing, there's usually a new found sense of community.

So now there is something good and useful we can do.  We can become team arsonists - experts at helping others find their own spark.

Team arson

I've never been comfortable with the word 'empowerment'.  It speak to me of something manipulative and I've never found that motivation works that way.  I tend to agree with what Henry Miller said,  "The only way in which anyone can lead us is to restore to us the belief in our own guidance."

So what can we do to help build great teams?  A few ideas:

  • Know where you are coming from.
    It's probably wise, before stepping up to the leadership plate, to examine our own motivations because 'where we are coming from' speaks far louder than anything we might say or do.  I was reading the  Cool Cat Teacher Blog  some time ago and remember being both surprised and delighted by her open declaration that, "I love my students".  Letting go our own neediness frees us up to be really helpful to our team.  And letting go of our own sense of limitation with regard to what is possible is probably the greatest motivation for others to reach beyond their own comfort zones too.  Taking a little time to gain insight into our own core motivations can work wonders.

    From Hennry Miller again, "Example moves the world more than doctrine. The great exemplars are the poets of action."  ...via Tom Asacker
    . 
  • Make conversation a first class citizen.
    Conversation is the way we have got things done since Adam and Eve decided to walk out of the Garden of Eden.  The process flow is always the same:
    Ideas ----> Conversation ---- > Agreement ----> Action.
    And this is true on a personal level too - the 'conversation'  being the one that goes on inside our heads to resolve any conflicting ideas/beliefs.  The second step in the sequence, conversation, is the organising principle - where we explore and resolve competing ideas until we reach agreement, which then determines what gets done and how.

    But when we look a little closer at the mechanics of this organising principle we see, apart from just sharing information, that there's an interplay of three other basic 'intentions' expressed within our conversations:  issues  we raise, requests  we make and  suggestions  we propose.  If we can make conversation a first class citizen again, and capture this flow of issues, requests and proposals.. then we can self-manage the most complex of tasks and create the most wonderful things without the need for cumbersome, ham-fisted organisational tools. 

    Look what happens whenever there's a major crisis and tools fails us.  We use conversation locally to co-create the most fantastic workarounds.  Conversation alone, when we understand and trust the principles, works brilliantly.

    And trust is  the grease  that makes this work.  When we give partial ownership of information, it's akin to giving partial trust.  Better to look at our resistance to letting all relevant information be open to discussion.  And rather than a two-way conversation (an 'us' and 'them' dialogue) how about a multi-way conversation (is polilogue a word?)?  I'm no expert in hosting open space type meetings/conferences (but  these  guys  are) but I would have thought this is a perfect fit for some of the new crop of on-line social network tools.
    . 
  • Start slow to go quick.
    It's in wandering around, kicking the tires and sharing our frustrations that we come to discover a place we can call our own within a team.. something we can contribute and feel good about.. some role that we can fill (or learn to) that is personally meaningful to us, where we can perhaps stretch those wings and have a crack at flying.

    But it require milling around time.. and not just 'time', but time without pressure to get cracking, or produce quick results.  The process of finding meaning is kinda like falling in love.. it's a courtship.. and it just doesn't respond to coercion or being hurried.  Messy isn't it!

    The big plus is, if we are willing to play Cupid, you can turn around the most cynical, apathetic and anarchistic person into the groups greatest advocate simply by listening very careful to the answer to a few telling questions.  For example:  "So OK, I hear you.  Perhaps it has been a disaster in the past.  How would you do it differently?"  and then having discovered a challenge that inspires:  "What resources and support would you need to pull this off?"  Use your own words of course - I'm sure you get the drift.
    . 
  • Get comfortable with blindness.
    Helping people find their own inspiration can be tricky.  Many times we don't consciously know what we want ourselves, but it comes disguised as a rant.  After all, we never get angry about the things we don't care about.

    It's usually when we feel 'safe'  and relax that we get inspired and in touch with our deepest desires.  And what often stands in the way of this relaxation is fear of the unknown.  But here's the dilemma:  The best, most audaciously inspiring projects (or classes, or businesses..) are  walks into the unknown.

    So perhaps the most empowering step a group can make is to become comfortable with it's collective blindness.  I know I've said this so many times it's gone past boring, but it's in accepting that we don't know (and not looking to a leader for guidance either) that opens up a space for inspiration to lead the way.  This is where the really juicy stuff is.. in the stuff we don't yet even imagine.

    It helps when we realise we don't need to know the path ahead of time, just the next step.  Knowing that we don't yet know is far more important than any road map because it opens us up to all possibilities.  A map is not the territory, it's an abstraction, and when we see that all road maps are inherently flawed and no leader has the gift of foresight, then we all have to take responsibility.
    . 
  • Let go of the concept of 'failure'.
    Going out on a limb is messy.  It's all new to us, like learning to walk all over again.  We trip, we fall down, we pick ourselves up and then we do it all over again.  If we've got someone looking over our shoulder ready to snatch back control when we mess up, then we give up trying.  If someone wants to measure progress whilst we are still learning then where's the fun in that?  Keep you goddamn project.

    When we stretch further than ever before, sometimes we get a little crazy.  So it helps to create a place of acceptance and refuge.. where everything's OK.  Let everyone see 'failure' or 'mistakes' are just negative labels which less enlightened folk give to experiences.  Let everyone know that all experience can be beneficial.. if we are wise and choose to learn from it.  This we can do if we foster a deep sense of connection and belonging within the group.
    . 
  • Use consent rather than consensus as a framework for decision making.
    Many of us talk about Enterprise 2.0 as the democratisation of the workplace.  But seriously, is democracy that good a model?  As far I can see there are two big problems with it.  First, the bigger and the more diverse the group, the longer it takes to get a consensus of opinion.  Secondly, debate has a way of killing the brightest ideas.

    So how do you run with brilliant ideas whilst they're dripping hot and wet from the bleeding edge of our collective consciousness and keep the whole thing together at the same time?  Is there a better model than democracy.. one that support inspiration instead of getting in the way?  Here's an idea:  use consent instead of consensus as a basis for making decisions. 

    How it can work - two parts:
    1) Let ideas come from anywhere and give people consent to use their own initiative in what to do, in which ideas to pursue.  No permission required, just an openness about what is happening.
    2) Also give everyone the power of veto of any idea they consider bad.  The criteria for an idea being judged bad (and therefore stopped) is that there must be a reasoned and valid argument why.  How do you judge what is a 'reasoned and valid argument'?  Use the democratic system of consensus if necessary.

    This way brilliant ideas fly;  we learn and adapt quickly;  emergence happens without being smothered by analysis or killed dead by 'lessor minds'.  And yet we have risk management for free, no-one can game things for their own ends or pursue an idea that is is not in the groups interests.. because just one 'reasoned and valid argument' (from anywhere) can check it.
    . 
  • Be mindful of unexpected good stuff.
    This is about staying open and receptive to  what can never be planned.  The really magic stuff that comes out of great groups is the stuff that comes out of the blue.  It's not east to describe but when it comes it sneaks up on us and hits us up the side of the head.. and  we know.  And it's never what we ever imagine.  In fact, it doesn't even come close.

    So the brightest visions are the ones that emerge from the community - that are co-created.  But hankering after a 'shared vision' in advance prevents this.  They can do this in three ways:  First, they can kill our pig - becoming a vision of a huge, impossible mountain that we have to climb to get to where we want to be.  They don't start that way of course - at first they're big, inspiring goals.  But when the going gets a little tough, as it invariably does, they move to the dark side.  Secondly, they blinker everyone - with a focus on our goal we often miss all the good stuff that serendipitously comes our way..  and we often turn away from the experiences and  lessons we could do with learning.  Finally, they place a limit on what we is achievable - what starts out as a line drawn in the sand often becomes a wall that we cannot see beyond.

    So here's a simpler way:  just be attentive to the good stuff as it emerges.  It usually comes very subtly - as a twinkle in someone's eye as they express an idea that seemed to come from nowhere.. or in a moment of pause after a chance remark that everyone connects with.  These moments are not at all unusual in a team that feels good about itself and not fixated on the future, but we often ride roughshod over them in our eagerness to move on or 'capture' them.  So when they come just give them a little space to breath, a little time to settle and take root.  That's all.
    . 
  • Be disruptive.
    Most people think of good leadership as maintaining order and keeping everything running smoothly.  What we are talking about here is the exact opposite.  Instead of being a good 'motivator' you can be a master disrupter - rearranging things to allow us to do what naturally moves us, and getting the other stuff out of the way.  When things start feeling settled we can challenge the status quo.  When someone starts coasting we can talk to them and see if they're ready to move on to something more inspiring.  When people stretch they grow.. and when they grow what lights their fire changes.  It's a constant dance to keep those fires burning.  Get comfortable with disruption and make 'follow your bliss' the guiding principle.
    . 
  • Be the keeper of the sacred scrolls.
    Just kidding!.. or maybe not.  It's part of the human condition to forget what is most important to us.  We get stuck in the inertia of those two old, tired ideas - 'work' and 'effort'... and then forget that  the real magic happens when we just enjoy our Selves.  So it can be good to have a reminder of what we have found to be most important.  We are so used to the notion of 'life as competition that we become blind to the simple and easy.. to 'following our bliss'.  It can be good to have someone to keep the faith for us when we forget.

    But here again, we need to be clear about our own motivation.  If we come from a perspective of wanting to fix someone then the message that's heard is that they are broken.  This is why seeming good intents are so often resisted and rejected.  But if we come from a perspective of seeing the potential that is already there within, then this is probably the most helpful thing we can do. 

    I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free. - Michelangelo

Just a few (anti Dilbert) ideas. If you can thing of others that would help Phil then fire away in the comments.

Credit:  Thanks to my friend and cohort Dave McNally for the inspiration to write this.

Related Article:  Have no small meetings
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  • ..this blog stems from a recognition that our true nature is far more creative, loving and unlimited than we could possibly imagine... and it transforms everything... a practical, generic solution to all our problems.

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