Sunday, September 28, 2008

Co-ordinating your Team

Spent some time travelling this week and had the joy of observing a number of teams in action. These teams all belong to a large organization with great leaders who had their teams working against tight schedules. Each team leader had a good grip on where all their members were, the projects they were working on and when the next milestones were due.

I was lucky enough to spend time with each leader as they talked about their teams. They both had a vision for what was considered a good outcome for their own group and each had a great understanding of their team member's strengths and weaknesses.

I then moved on with each team leader and probed them about how the teams worked together. Here we detected some differences, each team leader had a different set of priorities. This showed up when it came to the sharing of resources across the two groups. The two groups often shared specialists between the various projects. When we discussed this in more depth I got the impression they both shared resources when it suited them.

Later with the two leaders I popped the question, do you sit down and plan the priorities of the projects across both your teams. Do you throw the priority setting up the food chain when clashes are obvious?

As a leader who needs to work across groups do you make part of your planning a section on co-ordination between the other teams you interface too. By doing this you'll keep a lot more people informed about your team and how your resources can and are shared to meet the companies goals.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Leadership and knowing your team

How well do you know your team? When was the last time you spent some quality time with each member? Do you know and understand their motivations, their anxieties, their goals.

As the team leader it's time to put a plan together or revisit your previous plan.
Work through your schedule and find some times you can set aside to spend with each member of your team. Some people like to do this in a formal setting others may do it over lunch, the how and when is not important. What is important is to focus solely on the person and get to know them more fully.

Do you know:

  • Why they work for your team,
  • What they want to achieve this year,
  • Where do they think they will be in two years time,
  • Do they aspire to take your position when you get your promotion,
  • What are their ideas to improve the workplace, and
  • Do they expect a raise this year.

As a leader it is our responsibility to counsel and mentor our team members, when we know each member better we can understand why we all act the way we do. We can make our position known. While we may not have things to say they want to hear if you deliver the message in an honest and supported way, at least it's all out in the open and neither party is set-up for a surprise.

Together you and each team member can set out your individual and combined goals and plot your course to achieve them. Now with a good understanding of what makes each of us tick, you can see what will motivate and what will deter all your members.

If you've taken the time to do this, how did it go? I know it's always worked for me.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Leaders need Creativity

As leaders of our teams, we need to devote time to planning out the future and looking at issues we need to solve. To achieve this we need to utilize our creativity. Being creative involves:

a. Immersing yourself in a problem;
b. Looking broadly for connections—in the past, what other organizations do, brainstorming with others;
c. Letting your ideas incubate;
d. The breakthrough which usually occurs when you are distracted or in a relaxed state;
e. Picking one or more to pilot.

We are all capable of being more creative than we demonstrate. Many of us are or have been taught to be restrained, narrow, focused, hesitant, cautious, conservative, afraid to make errors, and unwilling to make a fool of ourselves. This background often stifles the creativity inside us. There are research-based and experience-tested techniques that will produce a more creative process from a person. Creativity is a valued skill because our organizations need innovation in our products and services to succeed.

Defining the problem. Studies show that defining the problem and taking action occur almost simultaneously for most people, so the more effort you apply on the front end, the easier it is to come up with a breakthrough solution. Stop and first define what the problem is and isn't. Since providing answers and solutions is so easy for everyone, it would be nice if they were offering solutions to the right problem. Keep asking why, see how many causes you can come up with and how many organizing buckets you can put them in. This increases the chance of a more creative solution because you can see more connections. Look for patterns in your data, don't just collect information. Put it in categories that make sense to you. Ask lots of questions. Allot at least 50% of the time to defining the problem. Once you've defined the problem, studies have shown that on average, the most creative solution is somewhere between the second and third one generated. So if you tend to grab the first one, slow down. Discipline yourself to pause for enough time to define the problem better and always think of three solutions before you pick one.

Remove the restraints. What's preventing you from being more creative? Being creative operates at well below having everything perfect. Worried about what people may think? Afraid you won't be able to defend your idea? Being creative means throwing uncertain ideas up for review and critique. Being creative is looking everywhere for a solution. Are you too busy to reflect and ruminate? Being creative takes time. Get out of your comfort zone. Many busy people rely on solutions from their own history, they rely on what has happened to them in the past.

Value added approaches. To be more personally creative, immerse yourself in the problem. Dedicated time—study the problem deeply, talk with others, look for parallels in other organizations and in remote areas totally outside your field. Think out loud. Many people don't know what they know until they say it out loud. Find a good sounding board and talk to him/her to increase your understanding of a problem or a technical area. Talk to an expert in an unrelated field. Talk to the most irreverent person you know. Your goal is not to get his/her input, but rather his/her help in figuring out what you know—what your principles and rules of thumb are. Creative people are more likely to think in opposite cases when confronted with a problem. Turn the problem upside down:

Unearthing creative ideas. Creative thought processes do not follow the formal rules of logic, where one uses cause and effect to prove or solve something. Some rules of creative thought are:

  • Not using concepts but changing them;
  • Imagining this were something else
  • Move from one concept or way of looking at things to another, such as from economic to political
  • Generate ideas without judging them initially
  • Use information to restructure and come up with new patterns
  • Jump from one idea to another without justifying the jump
  • Look for the least likely and odd
  • Looking for parallels far from the problem, such as, how is an organization like a river?
  • Ask what's missing or what's not here

    Apply some standard problem-solving skills. There are many different ways to think through and solve a problem more creatively.

  • Ask more questions. In one study of problem solving, about 10% of comments were questions and about half were answers. We jump to solutions based on what has worked in the past.
  • Complex problems are hard to visualize. They tend to be either oversimplified or too complex to solve unless they are put in a visual format. Cut it up into its component pieces. Examine the pieces to see if a different order would help, or how you could combine three pieces into one.
  • Another technique is a pictorial chart called a storyboard where a problem is illustrated by its components being depicted as pictures.
  • A variation of this is to illustrate the +'s and –'s of a problem, then flow chart those according to what's working and not working.
  • Create a fishbone diagram
  • Sleep on it. Take periodic breaks, whether stuck or not. This allows the brain to continue to work on the issue. Most breakthroughs come when we're "not thinking about it." Put it away; give it to someone else; sleep on it. Once you've come up with every idea you can think of, throw them all out and wait for more to occur to you. Force yourself to forget about the issue.
  • A straightforward technique to enable creativity is brainstorming. Anything goes for an agreed upon time. Throw out ideas, record them all, no evaluation allowed. Many people have had bad experiences with brainstorming.

    Selecting a cross-functional group. During World War II it was discovered that teams of people with the widest diversity of backgrounds produced the most creative solutions to problems. The teams included people who knew absolutely nothing about the area (i.e., an English major working on a costing problem). When attacking a tough problem which has eluded attempts to solve it, get the broadest group you can. Involve different functions, levels, and disciplines. Pull in customers and colleagues from other organizations. Remember that you're looking for fresh approaches; you're not convening a work task force expected to implement or judge the practicality of the notions. Believe it or not, it doesn't matter if they know anything about the problem or the technology required to deal with it. That's your job.

    Experiment and learn. Whether the ideas come from you or a brainstorming session, encourage yourself to do quick experiments and trials. Studies show that most innovations occur in the wrong place, are created by the wrong people (dye makers developed detergent, Post-it® Notes was a failed glue experiment, Teflon® was created by mistake) and 30-50% of technical innovations fail in tests within the company. Even among those that make it to the marketplace, 70-90% fail. The bottom line on change is a 95% failure rate, and the most successful innovators try lots of quick inexpensive experiments to increase the chances of success.

    The Bottom Line on creativity.
    Creativity relies on freedom early, but structure later. Once you come up with your best notion of what to do, subject it to all the logical tests and criticism that any other alternative is treated to. Testing out creative ideas is no different than any other problem-solving/evaluation process. The difference is in how the ideas originate.

    The more we can stop and employ creativity into our teams and their challenges the more we will see our teams moving forward with innovation ideas for products and our services. Have you tried this with any success? What approach was most successful for you?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The art of Team Building

As Leaders we need to be able to bring our team together and strengthen the teamwork to improve the whole team output. As the leader it is important for us to drive the team building to ensure the dynamics of the team keep moving towards the common goal. Employees look to their leaders for basic company goals. By clearly laying out goals, everyone begins in the same place and understands where the business is going.

Allow Power to the group. Give decision-making power to the people working in the team. Ensure they have the authority necessary to get their job done, observe the process to make sure they're using this power for the good of the group outcome. Great team members can make decisions without fearing consequences, and good employees will value that trust and seek to make the best decisions.

Responsibility. Teams operate best when everyone clearly understands their responsibilities. Ensure each employee has a clear definition of his or her own responsibilities, both individually and as it relates to group projects. This eliminates confusion over who is accountable for what, and allows employees to relate without struggling over responsibilities.

Feedback. Don’t make your team second-guess your opinion of its work. Be clear not only in your initial expectations and assignments. Take time to give your opinion of the work. Clear and open feedback, where employees are clear on where they stand, will help them feel more secure and willing to work together.

Deadlines. Reasonable deadlines are often subjective, and timelines vary based on need. But you can build team spirit by dividing assignments equally, providing compensation to employees who are working additional hours, and reworking less important deadlines to allow for a little more time.

Regularly meetings. Whether it’s a lunch meeting or an organized meeting with specific agenda items, it's critical to keep the lines of communication open. The best way to understand your team and to let them know they're not alone is to meet regularly with them. This allows you to gauge not only their needs and productivity, but will also help you assess any further team-building concerns that need to be addressed.

Rewards. Provide rewards to the whole team. Whether it's an award, a luncheon, or some other treat, providing the team and a group with an encouraging reward for hard work will build team spirit and bring your employees back in with renewed enthusiasm for their jobs.

Take some time to look at each of these aspects and see how you can incorporate these into your workplace. By implementing these ideas your leadership will move your team in the right direction.