Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Secret of Teams - Mark Miller

I like all stuff about teams. I do some work with teams. I am always curious to know what makes some teams perform out of their skins with lesser resources and what makes some big teams perform poorly. Good team work is not about the best teams or the best players. Its about belief, processes and a desire to win as a team. So a book that promises to reveal the secret of teams most certainly is bound to get me excited.

I liked the size of this book. At 125 pages it makes for easy reading. Mark Miller has packed some good, solid content in an easy-to-read style and with a story that involves people and situations. Very no-nonsense kind of stuff. Enough to create high performance teams in any sphere.

Jeff, the CEO of a big corporation calls Debbie, a manager who has been  successful in building a team from 'worst to first'. He wants her to build high performance teams across the company. Debbie's team itself has issues and she has to adapt to get the team together and grow it. The story continues at both levels - how the team grows other teams, and how they grow themselves as the core team and individuals.

Debbie's team, assigned with the job of building high performance team in the organisation, decides to meet  high performance teams from other areas to figure out how they do things.

First, they meet the head of a Special Forces unit. He gives them three words - selection, training and espirit d corps. The Special Forces were very diligent in selection process, looked for attitude and aptitude, had high standards of performance that were clearly articulated and rigorously enforced. Continuous training helped keep the team sharp. Espirit de corps (or group spirit) is the secret sauce that makes all the difference between a good team and a great team. He says that a team can't really be a team if its members don't know what they are doing. He tells them that "your team will never perform at the highest possible level if the members of  the team don't exhibit genuine concern and care for each other." 

Secondly they meet the manager of a NASCAR team. He gives them three words too - fit, practice and doing life together. Fit is about the members fitting in, their ability to learn and grow, their attitude. Fit is about character, competence and consistency. Practice is how they build skills, speed and consistency. The NASCAR team practices for hours every week. They measured everything. Doing life together is about knowing what's important to the people on your team, their hopes and dreams. It's living life together - bringing kids up together, taking care of ageing parents together, sharing joys and tragedies together, travel. play, drink together.

Lastly they meet the team of a high performance restaurant chain and they give them three words more - treating each other like family. good processes and great people. The leader says - if our success is contingent on my physical presence, I'll become a prisoner of my business. Treating each other like family was about celebrating birthdays, sharing struggles, helping out at work and outside. Good processes were about meeting often, capturing action items and reviewing them, having a disciplined approach to problem solving, holding one another accountable. Skills have to be taught - not assumed. Great people are those who can take additional responsibility. Our success and quality of life are forever linked with the success of the leadership team.

Debbie's own formula for high performance teams was - get the right people, help people grow and environment of care and concern. By filtering through these words they arrive at the magic formula of talent, skills and community.

Great teams  have talented people. "Talented people are those who are a good fit, have the desire and capacity to learn and grow, who enjoy being part of a team."   Skills separate the wannabes from the real teams, represent a set of behaviors that can be learned and taught, is the development of skills that enables sustainable progress and improvement. Community is a place where people know each other deeply, serve each other willingly and genuinely care for one another. It is the element that turbo charges the team performance. "It is knowing you are not alone, that someone always has your back."

The secret is to combine all three together.

To create a feeling of community - don't force it, celebrate little and big things, express gratitude and appreciation, put needs of the team ahead of yours, do things together, do life together. 

Disengagement is a manifestation of something; its a symptom and not a root cause. Debbie deals with a troublesome team member and talk directly to him to understand why he is disengaged.

Jeff puts their entire assignment in perspective when he says they are working together to produce results, not merely high performance teams. To produce results, the first thing that has to change is the leader. Individual skills and team skills (goal setting, problem solving, decision making) are both critical to long-term success. Real power will be unleashed when our team members have individual skills and team skills. The ultimate purpose is to start a movement for change.

To change, one needs motivation, information and assistance. The issues that the teams that were being monitored were typically - irregular, and infrequent meetings, lack of role clarity (specifically the leader), unclear on the big idea behind teams, command-and-control approach, leader readiness, team readiness, inadequate learning resources, lack of understanding regarding upfront investment. Miller discusses the three types of formations - command and control., quarter back and high performance teams.

Having the right talents starts with having the right leader. The leader's role with respect to talent is defined - identify talent needs of the team current and future, always be on lookout for talent, never compromise on character, competency or chemistry. The leader's role with respect to skills is defined as - working with the team to identify skills needed for success, identify skill gaps in individual or team, teach the team the skills they need and provide resources to help close skill gaps. The leader's role with respect to community is defined as - value community s much as talent and skills, be vulnerable and transparent, ensure the team invests time in community building activities and always look for ways t help the team do life together. In fact they conclude that everything rises and falls on leadership. High performance teams are no exception.

One of the best things about good teams is that it is comforting to know you really don't have to do life alone. Change is difficult and needs support. Ongoing support from senior leadership will be extremely important. Having the right talent starts with having the right leader.

Miller throws up five questions for us to think about while building high performance teams.
1) Evaluate current reality - Facts. performance, trends, quality of life, will your current approach help go where you want to go, what do you want in your future
2) Assess team's talent - do you have the right players, what does each one bring to the table. are they committed to lifelong learning, do they want to be part of something bigger than themselves, are they team players
3) Assess team's skills - what are the critical skills needed for your team to excel, how to close any skills gaps, prioritise, get the team to help, don't miss the opportunity to teach, find resources
4) Build genuine community - start now, create opportunities for team members to better know one another, serve each other, celebrate each other's victories,
5) Lead at next level - invest in talent, skills, community, have a vision, delegate real responsibility (not just tasks), encourage, set boundaries, provide resources, set expectation that the team will manage their own work.

It is a book that can make ordinary teams become high performance teams. Wonderful stuff. Read it if you are part of a team or even as a leader.

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