Thursday, June 25, 2009

Team-building exercises

Team-building exercises, or what we can learn and what we can’t

Most of you have probably participated in a team-building exercise sometime in your life. I seem to recall having them in grade school, and we certainly had them in boot camp, though the Drill Instructor used different language and the goals, while still generically to build a team, were a bit more easily defined. Nevertheless, they all fit under the general heading of team-building exercises and they all accomplished more or less the same thing: they helped break down social and communications barriers, and allowed everyone to work a bit better together.

So, what can we learn from the exercises?

Recently, I had an opportunity to participate in an executive team-building exercise and I came away with a several key observations, though not the ones I think they wanted. I won’t reveal the name of the team builders because I think they actually have a good program, but it misses on several key points.

Executive Team-building exercises are situations in which people are taken away from their normal environment and given a completely different environment in which they find they are, by design, unable to accomplish their tasks alone. Whether it is rock-climbing or white-water rafting, etc., the point is to bring a group of people closer together by placing them in a situation where they must more-closely cooperate if they are to simply make it through the program.

While there is no question that a small degree of physical stress, normally spread over several days, in a completely different environment than work, will not only allow people to forget work for a while and focus on other things, as does golf or skiing, it will also allow them to learn more about their office mates, and will allow them to learn a little bit about their own and each others decision-making.

But, therein lies the problem. Because what it will demonstrate is how you already make short-term decisions and will assist you in improving short-term decisions. Despite all the talk about how it will help people integrate their decision-making process at work, there is no reason that it will in fact do so. There are several reasons for this.

First, decision-making is something that only can be improved through a process of both experience and deliberation. That is, decision-making improves by both making many decisions, and then deliberately reviewing each decision and its outcome, and then carefully evaluating what happened and why, both why something succeeded and why something failed. This review and ‘debrief’ process, which is never easy to do well, is more difficult the larger and more long-term the decision. (It also requires a willingness to leave your ego ‘at the door,’ something that is very difficult to impose on any group of people, and which is essential for its success. But, that is a subject of a future discussion.)

While team-building exercises will provide the opportunity to review what went wrong on the last cliff you climbed, there is no real mechanism to translate that review into a deliberate process for reviewing decisions, particularly long-range decisions, in your organization. But, that is what is really needed, not the team building.

The fact is that we are social animals and we want to coalesce into some sort of team, we want to help and be helped by the people we work with, we want them to be our friends. Pointing that out doesn’t necessarily improve any specific team.

As for the issue of trust, which most team-building exercises stress is necessary for any team to come together, trust in one situation rarely translates into trust in others, unless the trust has been earned under the most extreme of conditions, not those found in a team-building exercise. I trust my doctor to operate on me, but not to manage my finances. Team-building may build friendships, but they won’t build that level of professional trust.

Second, tactical decisions, that is, short-term, narrowly focused decisions that can be corrected tomorrow are much simpler both to make and to assess and learn from. But, we already knew that. Taking a dozen people through an obstacle course that you can’t possibly get through on your own will in some small way improve your decision-making, but mainly for getting through obstacle courses. What it teaches you about the people around you may, in fact, be counter-productive, demonstrating that the general counsel has a weakness in white-water rafting doesn’t tell me anything about his legal skills; he may be the best lawyer in your industry, but everyone now has a negative opinion of him because he can’t execute a J-stroke.

Third, while team-building exercises stress communications, and then usually deliberately make communicating difficult to further stress the point, which is productive in making people come up with a quick ‘work-around.’ But what most companies need isn’t a quick ‘work-around,’ they need a long-term solution.

Every day, around the world, there are millions of people focused on the here-and-now. They watch the market indicators move every hour. When one market closes they follow another. They hawk monthly and quarterly earning projections, they watch the monthly Treasury reports and the monthly Labor Department reports, and they ravenously consume the daily oil and gold market figures.

But, while there are a few companies that can make their fortunes grow by watching these numbers, the bulk of companies both today, and in the past, and most certainly in the future, are not going to be ones that focus on short-term decisions. Short-term decisions are important when the wolves are at the door, but long-term decisions will prevent the wolves from ever getting to the door.

Inadvertently, team-building exercises generally stress the wrong thing: they stress the short-term. It would be interesting, though no one would ever pay for it, to set up an exercise that required serious planning and rewarded making the correct long-range decision. Then, if you made the wrong long-range decision you would be pushed into a situation of having the opportunity to make many short-range, tactical decisions but still see the other team pull away from you and, throughout the several day exercise none of your decisions would make up for the strategic error.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Leadership Fundamentals

Vince Lombardi said “Some people try to find things in this game that don't exist but football is only two things - blocking and tackling.” Of course, what Lombardi said is true whether he was talking about football or any other endeavor: it’s all about fundamentals. And this is particularly true for the leader, the guy in charge. Leadership is about fundamentals.

I was reminded of this the other day when I saw and article about Bush and Rumsfeld, the war in Iraq, and the Pentagon uniformed leadership. This article is not going to comment on whether the decision to go into Iraq was right or wrong; for the purposes of this article that is irrelevant. The issue is whether the leadership failed at certain levels. The contention of the article I read was that the leadership in uniform was essentially blameless and Bush and Rumsfeld bear all the blame.

Unfortunately, leadership isn’t that easy. Particularly inside and organization as large as the Department of Defense, but, in fact in any organization of greater than perhaps 20 people (yes, I said 20 people), echelons will develop (formal an informal) and that means many people must exercise leadership. Once an organization grows to more than several hundred it will develop at least two intermediate echelons (it must, for simple span of control reasons, but that is the subject of another article). At that point it is as much incumbent on the intermediate leadership as the senior leadership to exercise the fundamentals in order for the organization to achieve success. The Admirals and the Generals seem to have forgotten this.

Leadership consists of six key elements, but only the first two are important here: vision and communication. In the case of a President, any President, situations develop that he can either choose to address or choose not to address. In the case of the United States, either path will have clear repercussions, either path will be continually analyzed and interpreted and criticized, either path will bring difficulties. Particularly in the case of war, no matter how well thought out the original plan, no war goes the way it was planned, not even close. (For those who may remember the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, it seemed to go very smoothly. For a war, it did. However, even the briefest review of the details will show that a large number of very bright people worked very hard to achieve those results, and there was still a great deal of improvisation necessary. And that war was a rarity.)

This is true of any plan, whether it is the invasion of another country or the opening of a corner grocery store: nothing will go as planned. Does that mean the vision was flawed. No. Does it mean the planning wasn’t perfect? Yes, but no planning is perfect. Does that mean the planning was a waist of time? No, the planning helps to identify problem areas and should give you some idea of what steps will need to be taken to overcome them – it helps you to better frame what is possible and what is not and that helps to prepare you for what does happen.

Once you have arrived at your goal and created your vision, you have to communicate it. This is the overwhelming weakness of virtually every leader. Motivating people to follow you and your vision is achieved through communication – the more the better. As a general rule of thumb, you can assume that you have not communicated enough – ever. The few organizations that I have seen that seem to have communicated enough were all sports teams at the championship level, and then only the ones that really stand out. Think of John Wooden and UCLA – teams that seemed to win effortlessly (though, as Wooden will say, it was all hard work and fundamentals.) In literally every other great organization there were and are still shortfalls as a result of some element not fully understanding the vision and their role in achieving it. Again – you haven’t communicated enough.

In the case of the war in Iraq, the President supplied the vision and the initial communication. I would submit that he failed to keep communicating. This is best demonstrated by the simple fact that every time he went on TV and explained what the US was trying to do in Iraq the support for the war would rise substantially. But, then he would wait weeks, sometimes even months before he spoke of it again, and support would erode. This is not unique to this war. In fact, this is something that happened during WWII and about which FDR expressed real concern. If such is the case with something as large and as visible and as serious as a war, how much more must you communicate to your company about your vision?

But, in regard to the war in Iraq, the subordinates also failed. The failure of the ‘middle management,’ the Admirals and Generals, particularly those in the Pentagon, to not only unite behind the President and the Secretary, but to do all that is necessary to make sure the plan was as sound as it could be is not the President’s failure, it is the failure of the Admirals and Generals.

In this case, is some of the blame focused on Bush and Rumsfeld justified? Certainly, just as some blame is always justified. Coach Wooden wasn’t perfect, no one is. But, in this particular case, neither were the Generals and Admirals. It has been documented that several times Rumsfeld circulated missives asking whether they were on the right track or whether they needed to try something completely different. These missives regularly received ridicule both privately and publicly.

Now, most of us will never have the responsibility to make any decision that begins to approach that of going to war in degree of complexity or gravity. But the lessons are still there. If we are to lead, we have to lead, and that means we have to make choices, when others would choose to wait for consensus, and we have to be responsible for those choices. We have to ensure that our subordinates have the opportunity to voice concerns, and then we have to make sure that, once the decision is made, that they are all using the same game book, and that they are committed to the plan.

Virtually all of us will also find ourselves in a position of ‘middle management,’ that is, we will be communicating the decisions of our boss. At that point it is our job to ‘get onboard.’ If you don’t like the decision, talk to your boss, do what you can to change the decision. If you cannot accept the decision, then leave. But, whatever else you do, you should neither accept someone working against your directions if you are in charge, nor should you do it yourself if you are working for someone else.

When we find members of the team who aren’t committed to the game-plan, they need to be either convinced to join – communicate - or released. My own observation (I retired from the Navy a couple of years ago) was that there was more than a little obstructionism and ‘bureaucratic sniping’ taking place within the Pentagon when it came to the efforts of Bush and Rumsfeld. This is, unfortunately, to be expected in any organization. What the President and Secretary Rumsfeld did about it is a matter of record. But the lesson to be learned for anyone in any organization is best summed up with a line out of the script of ‘The Caine Mutiny,’ from the lawyer LT Greenwald, “You don't support your captain because you like him; you support him because he's got the job or you're no good!”

It may be true that General X or Admiral Y had all the right answers and nobody listened. But I doubt it. It is more likely true that the General or the Admiral had some right answers and a lot of wrong ones. Maybe if, instead of ‘sniping’ and ‘whining,’ they had worked together at fixing the problems around them, many of the problems would never have developed into bigger ones.
In every organization there are bright, talented people who don’t like the way things are going. They can and should voice their objections in a reasonable manner. Quiet, deliberate, thoughtful action may yield a better answer for everyone. If their objections are overridden, and they still feel strongly about it, they can vote with their feet. If they choose to stay, despite their objections, then ‘get onboard and pull an oar.’ If they get onboard but don’t pull the oar, the captain ought to ‘throw them over the side.’ What the captain must not let them do is sit around and complain and ‘poison’ the rest of the crew.