"If an organization has employees grouped together who are not mentoring, teaching, directing, facilitating, or coaching – in other words, constantly activating the potential around them – as they move through the workday, the company is already at a considerable disadvantage."
I have been a member of a lot of different teams over the course of my career. In some cases there was good chemistry between the members and we did good work together. In others, the dynamics were less than inspiring and our deliverables were often ‘one step forward, two steps backwards’. Team roles, which are not often clearly defined, typically focus on team members’ unique expertise and expected contributions to the project, not on activating the individual potential of team colleagues through mentoring, teaching, facilitating or coaching. Craig Ross and Angela Paccione have set out to change that dynamic with their book One Team: 10 Minute Discussions that Activate Inspired Teamwork.
The first three chapters outline the case for why inspired teamwork matters, what a ‘one team’ approach looks like, and techniques that will activate inspired teamwork and elevate performance. Chapters four through eight outline 52 ten minute conversations called “activation points” that are organized under five different themes: awareness, alignment, actions, accountability and inspiration. Each conversation focuses on a specific behavioural competency deemed essential to improving teamwork; things like honesty, inclusion, risk taking, collaboration, diversity and trust. Teams seeking extraordinary performance are encouraged to discuss one activation point each week of the year, beginning with the ones that mirror the greatest developmental needs of the team.
Words Determine Your Direction
"A team will do what it spends most of its time talking about. In order for a team to be successful tomorrow its conversations need to be different than they were yesterday."
You’ve likely heard the phrase “form follows function”. It’s a principle associated with modernist architecture and industrial design that proposed the shape of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose. In a similar vein, much has been written about the influence words have on our thoughts and subsequently our behaviours. Simply put, our brains seek the path of least resistance and so will focus on whatever stimuli is placed in front of it. Visualize little green Martians riding pink elephants. I rest my case!
So, what does this mean for team productivity? Too often, meeting agendas are full of information items and status updates – routine business that consumes inordinate amounts of time and leaves little time for the candid conversations about what really needs to be done to deliver meaningful results. Instead of talking about how they might think and act differently to exceed expectations in the future, teams focus on information-sharing and answering short-term, transactional, task completion questions that keep the focus firmly on replicating past performance.
Fortunately, it is possible to shift that dynamic even if you aren’t the official team leader. All it takes is asking the right question and encouraging your team members to share their wisdom.
Use Long Lever Questions Not Toothpicks
"Long Lever Questions help people ‘go past the edge of what they know about themselves and discover new aspects.’"
Most people know the difference between an open and a closed-ended question. One creates space for thoughtful responses; the other shuts down discussion with simple yes or no answers. Long lever questions are open-ended questions that:
- Are forward-focused
- Encourage inclusiveness and co-discovery
- Elevate thinking to connect with purpose and desired long-term outcomes
- Focus on team alignment
- Facilitate full disclosure and information flow
- Strengthen trust between team members
Too often, leaders mistake short-lever or ‘toothpick’ questions for long lever questions. While toothpick questions are open-ended they tend to focus on short-term solutions for the here-and-now. Examples include: What’s the problem? What do you think? What results are we getting? Toothpick questions can be useful in some circumstances, however high potential teams recognize the importance of regularly asking and answering long-lever questions in order to activate their untapped potential.
Consider how the conversation shifts when you ask questions like:
- Where in our process development do we need to improve? What difference will those improvements make?
- What’s the most important thing we need to achieve on this project so we know we are fulfilling our quality objectives?
- How can we improve sharing data more efficiently so that we can make faster and better decisions?
Try asking a forward-focused question linked to your long-term objectives at your next team meeting – even if you aren’t the team leader or meeting chair – and see how it helps people move beyond the status quo.
Lead from Where You Are!
"Whatever our position on the team we should never relinquish our role – our duty – to activate the greatness in others."
I believe one of our failings as a society is our tendency to surrender our decision-making authority to those who hold positional power in our organizations (e.g. our bosses), our communities (e.g. our elected officials and/or municipal staff) and our homes (e.g. our parents or our spouse). We fail to take action to correct problems because we tell ourselves it’s not our place or our job to do so. And, this misguided rationalization is often reinforced (sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally) by those who hold that positional power.
Ross and Paccione note that we intuitively recognize when the teams we are on are not functioning at their best or fulfilling their potential. And yet, if we don’t have a sanctioned leadership title following our name, we often remain silent or take a ‘wait-and-see’ approach when team functioning flounders. This needs to change!
If you want to be part of a high-performing team that achieves extraordinary things, you need to help create the conditions for that to happen. As Mahatma Ghandi said, “Be the change that you wish to see.” And, as we just discussed, one way to do that is to ask forward-focused long lever questions. Anyone on a team can ask a question that will help team members view current challenges through the lens of achieving the longer-term outcomes the group was tasked to achieve. You can also look for and act on opportunities to support your colleagues through mentoring, coaching, teaching or simply lending a helping hand when one is needed. Small consistent actions can go a long way to stimulating positive changes in team dynamics. Lead from where you are!
Archimedes of Syracuse (a Greek mathematician and physicist in the third century B.C.) said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Helping a team make the shift from average performance to high performance can seem a lot like ‘moving the world’. Ross and Paccione ask their readers and I in turn will ask you:
“Do you have a desire – better yet, do you have the ability – to move your world? What will you move today that’s important to you?”