Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Team Power

In both Agile and Lean circles, there is constant emphasis on the team rather than individual efforts in resolving issues, making decisions and suggestions for improvement. "Two heads are better than one" rings true! Over at LeadingAnswers blog, the latest post called "Team Solving: The Under Utilized Power" demonstrates this fact. Here is a synopsis of the findings:

Power #1: By asking the team for a solution we inherit consensus for the proposal. The fact that the solution came from the team and not me, meant I did not have to sell it, it already had support. It is easier to steward a sub-optimal solution with good support to a successful outcome than build support for an optimal solution and ensure its successful execution. If challenges arise and people subconsciously ask “who’s bright idea was this?” the answer comes “Oh yeah, it was ours” and they are more likely to continue.

Power #2: Accessing a broader knowledge of the facts. Team members are closer to the details and bring additional insights other than your own. I did not know that the business folks bowled, this was collective knowledge (Chris knew three users bowled and Julia knew two others did also) together we found a new piece of useful information. Asking the group taps the collective knowledge of the team.

Power #3: Solutions are practical. Anyone who has worked hard to craft a solution only to be told “That will not work here because...” will know how frustrating and disheartening these words are. Team sourced solutions have been vetted for practicality and, because created internally, solutions found for implementation issues.

Power #4: When consulted people work hard to generate good ideas. The simple act of asking for suggestions engages team members beyond the role of “Coder” or “Tester”. People appreciate having their inputs valued and generally work hard to create innovative and effective solutions. Treating workers as interchangeable resources is a poor model inherited from the command-and-control methods of the industrial revolution. Leading companies such as Toyota and 3M recognize that their best ideas come from inside their companies and we need to make use of this intellect. It is partly due to these methods that these companies innovate better, have higher quality products, and better labor relations.

Power #5: Asking for help shows confidence not weakness. Asking for ideas and solutions to problems is not a sign of incompetence or an inability to manage. Just because we ask for input it does not follow we are dumb. Instead it demonstrates valuing the opinion of others, and being thoughtful. In essence it demonstrates how all problems should be tackled, which is the next power.

Power #6: Seeking ideas models desired behavior. Project managers have a leadership role of “modeling the desired behavior” i.e. behave as we wish others to behave. If we stay silent, make decisions with incomplete awareness of the facts, and do not ask for help when we need it, what message is this sending to the team? Well, it is an obvious message that we expect team members to behave the same way and work in isolation. Lots of time and money is wasted on team building activities that are then eroded my management-in-a-vacuum.

Here are also some cautions where the team can actually lose power:

Caution #1: Real problems - We should use this on real problems only, not on which brand of printer toner to buy. Remember we are modeling desired behavior and if people take it too far and consult their team mates when deciding what color dialog box to create; no work will get done. It is a tool for when you are stuck and the problem is important.

Caution #2: Poor team cohesion – If the team is fragmented and has opposing groups then resentment for “fixing their problems” will undermine the process. We need to get the team aligned for team solving to be most effective.

Caution #3: Team and Project Changes – Over a long period if a significant portion of the team changes, we need to re-canvas the team to ensure they are still on-board with the approach. Exercising the bright ideas of others is nearly as bad as not being consulted; we need to ensure people still agree this is a good policy. Likewise if the project changes significantly, we need to checkpoint in light of these new facts and get the team to review the approach.

Caution #4: Follow-through – once you ask for solutions make sure you follow through on them with execution. It is pretty demoralizing to be asked to work on a solution and then see it wither. It is fine to go back with implementation problems that need to be solved, but don’t waste peoples time by asking for input and then ignoring it.

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