The View from HR

View from HR: Teams need a good process when tackling complex tasks

CorrespondentMarch 22, 2014 

Astronaut and shuttle commander Mark Kelly tells of a banner hanging in the main conference room at NASA. The sign reminds everyone of big mistakes and why they happened.

“Our two space shuttle disasters were caused by known and knowable risks. Because of team dynamics preventing the right concerns from airing at the right time, those risks were not properly addressed.”

The “No One of Us is as Dumb as All of Us” banner is a reminder that teams can suppress important ideas and concerns. Rather than encouraging the collective wisdom of everyone in the room, it can steer the group in unproductive directions no one would have gone alone.

NASA’s sign reminds me of my wife’s favorite saying: “The collective judgment of a carload of teens sinks to the lowest common denominator.”

Team difficulties

But teams are important to businesses and communities, right? Teamwork is a common performance review topic and criteria for promotion. Much of our work gets done in teams. How can teams be “bad?”

Teams are not bad – they simply are not the best way to address every task and they require maintenance to perform well.

The average team or work group is best at executing on a well-defined task. How, who, when and in what order. One person sees a detail another does not. Individual experiences and best practices combine to create a successful end. We know where we are going and the team will get us there.

Goal creation, innovation and complex problems are more difficult for teams. The end is not firmly in mind. Execution gets confused with ideation. Fear of looking foolish or unprepared comes into play. People see concepts through different lenses. Many teams lack a sense of collective mission.

When teams are asked to address complex or ill-defined projects, certain techniques can be helpful to get the very best of the group and from each person. Some examples:

Leader goes last: This avoids setting up a series of agreements with the first opinion (“Big talker goes last” and “least experienced goes first” are similar).

Time limits and mandates: Each person has an uninterrupted five minutes to state their views, and must do so.

Secret vote: A quick, anonymous one-to-10 rating by each team member on the potential for an idea or the likelihood of execution.

Big question: Force the conversation to discuss the future. How will life be different for our customers and us when we solve this? How will this need to function when we are twice our size? Are we asking ourselves the right question yet? How can we improve our methods and executions?

Clarifying questions: Before assessing an idea, limit conversation to questions so everyone understands the idea before reacting.

Write it on a card: Individuals write their solution or idea on a card before groupthink has a chance to suppress individual thought.

Teams are wonderful, frustrating, groundbreaking and time wasting. Expecting a group of people to come to a good conclusion in all settings without a good process is fantasy.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 NC employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit www.capital.org.

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