The foundation, the house, the finishing touches

On my way to work, I walk past a house that’s been empty for more than a year.  The lot was vacant and listless for a while, and then a few months ago they started work in earnest, including demolishing the old house, clearing the lot and laying the foundation. It’s been slow going.

I went away for a week’s vacation, and suddenly the house is up. Not “the house” as in a finished thing, but a three-story wooden structure with walls, a roof, the works.

Now it’s going to take them another six months to finish it.

Those three phases – the pre-work and building the foundation; the framing and putting up of the house; and then doing all the work to finish it – are good reminders of how great teams work and where to place effort.

The pre-work and foundation-building phases are all about the composition of the team: who is on it, the norms of how the team works together; the psychological safety within the team; how (and by who) behaviors that are in and out of line with the emergent team culture are addressed and reinforced.

The framing and putting up of the house is what we typically consider the “work” of the team: the big pieces that are visible and that feel like the team’s formal output.

And then there’s the finishing, which is about getting all the details right: not just laying tile but doing it beautifully; making small adjustments when the door that’s in the plans doesn’t quite work. This is the work of smoothing off all the rough edges to make sure things not only work the way they’re supposed to but that they feel delightful and surprising to the end users. This phase can only exceed expectations if the team members truly care about the product and the end user experience.

What this means is that the work that really matters comes at the beginning – in forming the team and how it works together – and at the end – when the sense of care and ownership bear fruit. Yet more often than not we find it easier to fuss about the bit in the middle, the visible work product that the team is producing.

Great teams – teams with the right people in the right roles, teams with strong and supportive cultures, norms and behaviors – feel like flywheels. Sure, there’s big, hard and heavy work to do, but the pieces are in place to do that work quickly, joyfully, and with leverage.

Teaming

Last week I had the chance to participate a day of panel interviews for the 11th class of Acumen Global Fellows. It’s always a great day, a chance to meet exceptional people who are devoting their lives to social change. (It is strange, though, how they seem to get younger every year….)

It’s an intense process, with pitches, a panel interview, case studies and a group activity. The group activity stood out for me this year as a chance to see six super-productive people try to become an effective team quickly. Some groups do this incredibly well, others crash and burn, most are somewhere in the middle.

It strikes me that in professional contexts we naturally focus on two areas: the skills, capabilities and leadership qualities of individuals; and these same folks’ capacity and effectiveness as managers. This is the stuff that appears in the goals we set and the content we write up in annual performance reviews.

“Teaming” is notably absent. It appears in peripheral ways, in conversations about how people interact with one another and how they manage, but what it takes to be a great team member feels like it lurks in the background when, really, it’s probably the most important thing we do.

(If you don’t believe me, take a few groups of your top people, give them a 20 minute task to perform, and watch the divergence in their results.)

In an effort to take this head on, recently I spent some time with the Acumen team in Nairobi and we took 90 minutes to discuss three pieces that I shared with them a few days before the meeting:

The Google articles focus on the notion of “psychological safety” in teams and what it takes to build it, and shares their data that one characteristic of highly effective teams is that members of these teams tend to contribute equally to most conversations. And Seth, as usual, finds a way to share these and many other powerful ideas in one-tenth the words of everyone else.

I’d encourage you to share these articles with your teams and hold similar conversations. I’d also appreciate suggestions – in the comments – on additional articles on teaming that you’ve found particularly helpful.