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.

Seth Godin’s Manifesto for Small Teams Doing Important Work

File under: Things I wish I had written & Things to print and have up on the wall.

The question this makes me ask is: is there ever a time that I’m not part of a small team? Is there ever a time when I’m not working on a tight deadline? Is there ever a time when the work isn’t important?

And, if no, then here are the rules of the road around communication, making and keeping promises, having a real Plan B, and keeping it personal, all while remembering not to question goodwill, effort or intent.

Thanks Seth.

A Manifesto for Small Teams Doing Important Work, by Seth Godin

We are always under tight deadlines, because time is our most valuable asset.

If you make a promise, set a date. No date, no promise.

If you set a date, meet it.

If you can’t make a date, tell us early and often. Plan B well prepared is a better strategy than hope.

Clean up your own mess.

Clean up other people’s messes.

Overcommunicate.

Question premises and strategy.

Don’t question goodwill, effort or intent.

“I’ll know it when I see it,” is not a professional thing to say. Describing and discussing in the abstract is what we do.

Big projects are not nearly as important as scary commitments.

If what you’re working on right now doesn’t matter to the mission, help someone else with their work.

Make mistakes, own them, fix them, share the learning.

Cheap, reliable, public software might be boring, but it’s usually better. Because it’s cheap and reliable.

Yesterday’s hierarchy is not nearly as important as today’s project structure.

Lock in the things that must be locked in, leave the implementation loose until you figure out how it can get done.

Mostly, we do things that haven’t been done before, so don’t be surprised when you’re surprised.

Care more.

If an outsider can do it faster and cheaper than we can, don’t hesitate.

Always be seeking outside resources. A better rolodex is better, even if we don’t have rolodexes any more.

Talk to everyone as if they were your boss, your customer, the founder, your employee. It’s all the same.

It works because it’s personal.

The easiest thing to do

The easiest way to make some understand how valuable they are and the difference they make is by praising them.

Not empty words, not loose compliments. Actual, specific, context-relevant praise that they will value.

Ah, “that they will value.” Indeed.

To do this we must go back a few steps, to figure out not only the work they do and where they shine, but also how they see themselves and the sort of reinforcement that is important to them.

This requires recognition, from the outset, that what’s important to each person differs in fundamental ways. It means being both attentive and curious, and being consistently outside of your own head and its internal chatter. And it means always being on the lookout for moments when people shine, and being quick to reinforce the great things that they do.

So, yes, that moment of giving the praise is a simple one. But there’s a discipline and a practice of all the steps leading up to that moment.