Author: Robert McNeil

Take a Knee

I have always enjoyed watching Colin Kaepernick play. He plays with abandon, exhorting his team mates, taking risks, and showing the courage to stand his ground and take the hits that sometimes come from making a play. I’m just a fan, an emotional one I will admit, and it gives me pause to see him treated with disdain by so many.

Now it’s a different game for Mr. Kaepernick. He has taken a knee. He declared that kneeling in silence while everyone else stands for our national anthem is his way of saying ENOUGH! Our police unjustly kill people of color, and I have to do something to call attention to it. Every time he does it, or others join him, it affects us. By taking a knee, he has used the power of silence combined with the visible sign of resistance. “I will no longer participate in this,” he says so powerfully. It reminds us that the reason for taking the knee is ongoing. The problem remains, and deep inside us, I believe we know that his cause is just.

So many of my friends ( I am an elder white male) chide me for taking Mr. Kapernick’s side. They get upset when they see him take the knee. “He won’t stand for our Anthem” is the most common thing they say, And in their logic, he deserves punishment for doing so. When I posted my support on facebook, I got no “likes” and no “comments.”

Anytime someone raises the “undiscussable” they can expect to get push back from their group. They break the norm, (the undiscussed way of acting in a given situation. If you want to experience this for yourself in a safe way, face the back of the elevator next time you are in one, and you will experience what it’s like when people shun you (in a light way.)

The question I have learned to ask when I get challenged about my support for Mr. Kaepernick is, “When would you take a knee? What circumstances would have to exist for you to decide to take a knee in a stadium? What about at work? Have you ever taken a knee for something you believe in? Can you give me an example? These are great conversation starters. I mean it. Try them out. And the stories will lead to new insights about your friends.

Acting ethically is fundamental to business. The executives at Enron did not take a knee, and they were known as the brightest around. The executives at Volkswagon didn’t take a knee, and neither did the executives at Wells Fargo. Arthur Andersen is no longer around. The Challenger exploded because no one dared to take a knee.

And it’s one I have had to answer for myself. I have taken a knee, and because of doing so I launched my consulting career thirty years ago. When I reported my boss for sexually harassing my reports, I got the visit from HR. It hurt. I remember going home to my wife and saying, “I am going to be a consultant now. You will have to keep us afloat until I get enough business.” We survived, and we never looked back. Now I get paid well for telling people the truth.

Going along and not speaking up causes so much pain in the long run. We all need to learn how to stop a group process at times. It’s one of the real ways to innovate. Mr. Kaepernick proves this point. I respect your opinion about his action but at least admit that he does not deserve punishment for calling out attention to a real problem. And I will not be watching this season until Mr. Kaepernick gets a job offer. I want to see him play again and deep down I believe you do too.

 

Stem Cells for Group Process

Sometimes a well-placed metaphor is just what a group needs. A while back I consulted to a department in trouble. This area was mission critical to the success of the company. Three divisions comprised this function and although successful completion of the work required interdependence among them, the very structure of the department fostered irrelevant competition. Furthermore, everyone knew about the issues, but these had become “undiscussable.” What to do?

At an off-site, we divided the group randomly into three smaller groups. We gave the groups the following assignment:

In a fairy tale, tell the story of our department. You may use all the characters usually found in the great stories we remember from our youth, dragons, kings, princesses, queens, elves, goblins, etc. The tale must begin with, “Once upon a time . . . ” It also must end with, “And they lived happily ever after.” You must write this tale and read it to the entire group. The tale will describe our current state, only in fairy tale language.

We gave them thirty minutes to complete their work. Their presentations were fantastic. They were creative, hilarious, and filled with healing, self-deprecating humor that loosened their perceptions and allowed them to see themselves differently. Their issues were smaller than they thought. And now they had just become discussable!

Towers that stood alone surrounded by deep forests with large thorn bushes became laughable in the telling. However, there were still real feelings connected to a history of real hurt and pain. The group needed a way to transcend these historical sources of rancor.

A solution came from one of the groups in the form the most creative metaphor I have ever seen. A team member suggested that we could implant “stem cells” in places where old patterns needed to be replaced by newer ones. She said that stem cells were undifferentiated cells that could adapt and change into what was required to bring about new health, flexibility, and vitality. In her words, these stem cells needed to contain both feedback and forgiveness. The combination of both would allow for a new sense of collaboration.

Three new groups formed, and they worked separately on where to place the stem cells. They worked for an hour. When the groups presented back, they surprised themselves with their consistency. Team members signed up to make the changes and to create the new ways of working. The team also thanked the leader for being vulnerable enough bring the issues to the forefront so that they could work on them.

And the moral of this story is that group issues don’t go away on their own. They must be worked. Nothing beats a good story and a great metaphor for innovating new group processes.

Stand Out By Fitting In

Elverson, PA Sunflowers

You can find any number of articles written on how to stand out from the crowd, to differentiate yourself. The click bait is everywhere. Fitting in is another way to stand out. Collaboration is hard. It requires facing the group paradox head on and solving the I / We dilemma for your self. On real teams, members can lead from anywhere. They can suggest, support, give and take. Membership can be measured by how connected you feel you are to the team and the team’s goals. Heating up team membership is a powerful way to increase team productivity. And it’s done through the work of the individual members. Helping others on the team can be a real source of joy and celebration. On sport’s teams, we call it an “assist.”

Fitting in does not necessarily mean compromising your beliefs or values or giving away the store. On great teams, members learn to anticipate the needs of others and fill those needs quickly, often without talking. It’s wonderful to see this in action and even more enjoyable if you happen to be the recipient. In this context, fitting in is about increasing one’s awareness to include other members as well as the team. Humor, lightness, flexibility, and healthy self-deprecation can all be part of this way of working.

In our Life Orientations work (LIFO) we identify these team members as having an Adapting / Dealing style. What’s more, these preferences can be learned and practiced. When these behaviors become part of the group norm, you can expect surges in productivity, joy, celebration, and cohesion. These are truly memorable teams. Sure click on the promises of how to stand out, as long as you incorporate those ideas into how you can fit in by helping your team to succeed.

What Does The Silence Mean?

What Does The Silence Mean?

 

A silence in a group once gave me twenty years of work. I was asked to see the working dynamics of the top executive team of a major insurance company. My pitch to the CEO was to let me observe his meeting for an hour. If, when the time ran out, I couldn’t say something that was of real value to the CEO or the team, we would part ways.

Twenty-five minutes into the meeting the CEO said to the group, “On this next item, we are all in agreement that we should spend the $12 million on “the integrated desktop, right?” The team followed up with a deafening silence. I saw my chance to add value. “What does the silence mean?,” I asked. Silence again. I turned to the CEO and said. “I think we should poll the group.” “What the hell does that mean he asked?”

I said that I would ask each member of the group individually to say Yes to the question I teed up. “Do you agree that we should spend the $12 million on the integrated desktop?” I then added that if they said anything whatsoever other than YES, I would record their vote as a NO.

I began, “So Rich, Do you agree that we should spend the $12 million on the integrated desktop?” Rich started by saying, “Well…,” I said, “That’s a No, Rich.” “What about you Carol Ann?” Another No. And so it went. In the end, I had 12 NO’s, a unanimous vote for NO. The CEO asked, “Now what?” I responded quickly. “I think you should pay me 1 million dollars because I just saved you 12. With all the issues we just uncovered you would not install that desktop, not now or perhaps ever.” Instantly I had gained credibility by just stating what people feared to ask, What does the silence mean?

Their team went on to become one of the highest performing teams with whom I ever worked They turned the business around and together they became a great team. I ended up working for all of their teams. One of my teachers, George Leonard once remarked. “Energy follows attention.” Sometimes silence is an invitation to look for the power that’s behind the silence and just waiting to be expressed.

Team Tune-Up

Team Tune-Up

Group issues don’t go away on their own. Teams need to work through their problems by talking about them, not in pairs, but in the context of the whole group.

What teams need is a model and a map to get them started. We make use of the Drexler Sibbet Team Performance Model to illustrate the stages a team goes through on the way to high performance. The model helps by focusing areas for team members to discuss what they see and what they want.

 

As you might imagine, a professional facilitator, with a lot of experience will help the leader and the members to put the difficult issues on the table and work through them. We make use of what we call the Tune up Kanban process to guide teams through these topics. The model serves top point out in where the issue resides and, the Kanban board allows members to surface their description of the problem and its effect on team productivity.

Teams identify the problems as “options to solve.” They pull one of these options to the “Solving” column, and they work on it. We call this Action Research, and it involves a few steps.
1. Describe the issue/problem and state how it affects the team’s productivity.
2. Jointly agree on how to approach the concern (collect more data, interview each other, etc.
3. State the findings and own the issue/problem.
4 Generate solutions.
5. Choose a solution and jointly agree on actions, point person, and time frame.

Tune-ups are energizing. They can be done in a day or linked with other strategic priorities as part of a larger meeting. Like constructive feedback or robust debriefs, Tune-ups are an acquired taste. Doing them often and well can lead your team to high performance quickly.

Here is an example of a team Kanban Board using Trello. You can also use a flip chart and sticky notes. Have Fun with this.

The Waggle Dance – Stating Your Feelings on Teams

Learning to express your feelings in a group is critical for helping your team to see reality. Honeybees know this and they do what’s called a waggle dance when they return to the hive for a meet up. Through their informative dance, they tell the exact location of a new source of food, flowers and new information critical for the other bees to know.

We can learn from our bees to be more present and focused at our own meetings. While we are not going to our next meeting to tell others where we can find a source for making honey, we can focus our energy on saying what needs to be said and heard by all present. You can always be a source for new and relevant information. Let’s use an example where you want to make an important intervention to the group process, say making a course correction, or stopping something that’s ineffective.

Your “waggle dance” is different from the bees, but there seems to be a sequence to making a difficult intervention into an ineffective group process. It goes something like this.

The Intervention Sequence

  • First you need to see the issue. Not everyone does.
  • Next you need to recognize your feelings about what you see – not everyone can do this.
  • Then you need to make a decision about how to intervene. Fear often stops us.
  • Finally you need to say it – crisply, plainly and with conviction.

Each of the above takes time. And often it takes too much time. Often, people don’t say what they need to say, and the group moves on. We call this “road kill.” It’s as if you just ran over a squirrel. You were going too fast and you reacted too late. You feel a twinge for a second or two, but you move on, dismissing it from your consciousness. Perhaps you say to yourself, “Couldn’t be helped.” One of the most dangerous actions a group can take is to remain silent about their own ineffective processes. No waggle, no new information, no progress.

The challenge is to move your ability to say what you feel closer in time to when you saw something that needs to be raised and discussed. It’s a complex skill that requires practice.

Often I am asked, “Where can I begin.” my team mates don’t express themselves freely and openly. In fact, saying what I see might be a career limiting event. However, not saying what needs to be said is devastating to high performance. Silence is often read by leaders as agreement and it can be a symptom of group think.

The way to make an intervention is to be curious. Saying “I am feeling uncomfortable with where we are going.” is a good way to begin. Follow it with, “Does anyone else feel this way?” This will stop the process. Becoming vulnerable and asking for help from your team mates is a good way to get your concern raised. Often one person speaking up is enough to kick start a vigorous inquiry.  If your response is followed by an embarrassing silence, you can follow up with “What does this silence mean?”

A way to practice is to support your team mates when they have ideas that you consider good and worthwhile. Saying “Great idea Emma, while showing your enthusiasm and positive emotions is a great way to practice aligning your feelings with your statements. Practice positive waggling.

One reason that so many employees disdain meetings is that they are asked to attend meetings that are scripted and barren of real feelings. They are often rehearsed, predictable, lacking in real conversation in real time. They tend to be one way and focused on there and then as opposed to here and now. This is a difficult norm to change. Curiosity is one way to break through this. Take a risk today. Your team mates with appreciate your forthrightness. So learn to waggle and then waggle away freely. Tell them what they need to know.

Upgrade Your All-Hands Meeting

Calling all your people together is a powerful intervention. I recommend approaching it from a design perspective. Think of it as an event as opposed to a meeting. Design it well and make a real statement about the company, the leadership, and the employees.

Here are a few ideas that will help you to design a great All-Hands meeting:

Get the Whole System in the Room (or as much of it as you can)

These days it’s much easier to have large conversations. Use groupware to transcend time and place. You want a large face-to-face presence, and you can get remote sites into the conversation as well. When we facilitated sessions for East Coast CIGNA, we held them in the early morning and invited their Scotland office to participate. It was noon for Scotland and early AM for headquarters in Wilmington. We had lunch together after the morning meeting in Delaware, and Scotland had drinks and dinner after theirs. Everyone loved the experience.

Use Round Tables

We like round tables that sit no more than six. Seat people randomly so that they can meet others. As a leader you are designing norms of behavior. You want people to feel safe and included. Six is a great number for cafe style conversations. If you are using groupware and decide at some point your want to record the collective voice, you can start the conversation at the table groups, and pass the critical contributions through the groupware for all to see. You need only one collection device and someone to manage it for each table. Instantly you can tap into the group mind, get everyone involved. You can also do this manually using small tabletop flip charts. Have the table pick a spokesperson.

Create Fast Feedback Cycles

Keep the presentations short. Make sure your presenters rehearse. They need to be crisp, enthusiastic, and high energy. Have them ask for feedback. Use the table groups as above. A quick way to get a lot of useful data is to prompt the table groups to converse about the presentation capturing “highlights” – what stood out for them. Then ask for any concerns they might have. End with asking for any additional questions. Keep the whole experience to 20 minutes or less. Repeat with another speaker. Do two and take a break.

Use a Theme Team

Before the meeting create a “Theme Team” consisting of a cross section of the group. No more than six. Their job is to create summaries of the data collected from the group during the feedback portions of the meeting. They are a consensus seeking team. They present back to the whole group short summaries of the information to the large group. If you have high potentials that you want to see in action, appoint them to the theme team. The ability to organize information, reach consensus, and present information back, candidly, with a bit of polish, energy, and humor is a complex skill. There is no better way to develop this skill.

What’s Next?

These are a few ideas. If you’d like to get better at helping leaders to hold killer All-Hands meetings, ask to join our guild. This work is a craft. It’s both an art and a science.  You will need to practice, you will need to take risks, and you will need feedback. Our guild provides all of these. Most of all it’s fun! Of course you could always ask me to come and help you design your next large conversation. We will work side by side and you will learn first hand.

How the Drexler Sibbet Team Performance Model came about

We have been using the Drexler Sibbet Team Performance Model for over 25 years. It’s been an amazing help to the teams and organizations with whom we have worked. Often I am asked about the history of the model and about Allen Drexler and David Sibbet. Below is a lecture done by David Sibbet which tells the story in his words. It’s worth watching as it explains the model while discussing how it came into being.