Years ago, a board member brought me into a corporation to lead a team in creating two products that he felt would boost the stock price. Here's how it happened. In my vigorous interview of him for The Wall Street Journal, he described how the firm could fall behind without them, and I became fascinated by their capacity to scale. He read my article.
Then, much to my surprise and his, as he later told me, as he is a very deliberate thinker, he called and offered me the job of leading the new product research and design team. Ah, what an unexpected and serendipitous opportunity for me to see business from the other side, I thought, so I rashly agreed.
There were only a couple of problems with my coming into the company as an outsider. As a journalist, I'd never led a team, did not have the relevant technical experience and was ten years or so younger that the mostly ex-military and highly technical folks I was to lead. Oh, and my new boss had expected that he'd be leading the team, bringing in more resources to do so. That may be why, in his welcoming email, he directed me to the wrong office and didn't inform my direct reports that I was arriving that day.
One upside of being a business reporter is that it's actually an accelerated learning experience. Yet, just as it's one thing to "consult" with a firm, or report on it for a news story and quite another to actually be in the trenches, day to day, and attempt to accomplish something, especially when others are motivated to make you fail. Cobbling together what I learned by interviewing and observing business leaders, here is the approach I boldly, well blindly, took and what I learned during that sometimes wrenching yet ultimately satisfying project team experience:
2. Upfront, be Upfront
"You don't have to be loud to lead" ~ Erika Anderson
When I finally found my office and introduced myself I asked for an all-hands meeting. I'd brought along a longtime friend and unflappable graphic facilitator. Instead of the traditional introductions I just asked them to tell me their names, going around in a circle. Then I took an approach I learned from Richard Branson.
I said that I had three goals for the meeting, one for "us" and one for each of them, and that Tom, our graphic facilitator, would draw our unfolding conversation pictorially on the white wall so we could literally focus, not on me or one of them, but on our conversation as this crucial first experience together.
3. Craft a Clear Top Goal to Create the Collective Context for Making Better, Faster Choices
"Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships" ~ Michael Jordan
Like reverse engineering, starting by clarifying the end goal helps us stay on track as we move towards it. So we began by discussing the main benefits that the two products should offer and the markets they could serve, then prioritized both. The more specific we were in that conversation, the more quickly and easily we could communicate and agree on changes as we learned more in later stages.
4. How Can We Each Use Our Best Talents on Our Strongest Interests?
"Look for the best in people to build a fantastic team" ~ Richard Branson
Next, in light of our shared picture of the most important attributes we wanted in our two products, each person was asked to specifically describe the parts of the project where they most wanted to take the lead and why. In this step you learn a lot about your colleagues, from how much they understand themselves, how willing they are to be upfront about what they really want, and how articulately they can express themselves.
• To identify your strengths consider reading Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham. To better understand your temperament, read Mindset by Carol Dweck and Learned Optimism by Marty Seligman.
Gradually, as we moved around the circle, it also became clear where we had overlapping talents and gaps. With that knowledge on the table, I asked for people to voluntarily negotiate who would take what lead when there were overlapping interests or talents. We then discussed what talents were missing and their recommendations of whom, in the company, would be the best fit to recruit and how.
• To learn more about productive collaboration read Collaboration by Morten Hansen.
5. Agree on Rules of Engagement to Reduce Ambiguity and Hasten Trust
"Teams should be able to act with the same unity of purpose and focus as a well-motivated individual." ~ Bill Gates
Counter-intuitively, rules, when jointly agreed upon, give a group more freedom. People are more likely to trust each other and get in sync faster when they have a shared view of acceptable behavior. This proves true whether they think they know each other well, or have never before worked together. Yet these benefits of better performance often don't happen when those who must follow the rules are not allowed to participate in adjusting them, as some grieving family members believe, with the Rules of Engagement that Seal Team members must follow. Among the rules to consider include:
• What technology will be used to collaborate so they everyone is seeing the same information, discussions and progress
• What purposes call for in-person meetings, and how will they be conducted?
• Exactly how do we collectively agree on changes?
One of my favorite rules of engagement is to be what Erika Anderson dubs a "fair witness", objectively reporting what happened, how it didn't work, what we then did differently and what's happening now.
• Learn how to reinforce your rules of engagement and productively communicate by reading Talk, Inc. by Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind; Well Said! By Darlene Price; and Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler.
6. Take a Lean/Loose Approach to Productivity and Camaraderie
"The pool of shared meaning is the birthplace of synergy" ~ Kerry Patterson
There are many payoffs for getting specific sooner. Collectively discussing these three topics upfront jump started our understanding of each other, set a direct and collaborative tone to the culture we jointly created - and would have not worked nearly as well if I'd not said, upfront, that after we had this very focused, lean meeting in the morning (and it did take up the full morning) we would have a "loose" time over a luscious lunch I'd ask my new secretary to have delivered at noon.
I'm betting that Eric Ries would agree that a "lean" approach is helpful for any kind of organizational innovation. I'd cribbed that lean/loose lesson from a SVP at Siemens whom I'd interviewed in Berlin.
• Learn more about the power of simplifying processes in The Laws of Subtraction by Matthew May.
7. Stick to Our Sweet Spot of Shared Interest
"We need to play each others instruments."~ Steven Johnson
That expressly identified shared sweet spot can be your group glue, holding your team together through rancorous conversations or otherwise tough moments. With the steps we made that morning we set the stage to be more frank and open with each other sooner, especially about where we disagreed, and when we needed help or had failed. We were more likely to connect rather than choke under pressure.
I am not saying it was always easy after that first day yet the hard times were resolved more quickly and cleanly and were able to become close-knit around our strong sweet spot of shared interest and commitment. One sign that we, as a team, were in sync with each other was that we recognized, at almost the same time, when someone wasn't using her best talents nor adhering to our Rules of Engagement and were in unanimous agreement to ask her to leave.
8. Set the Stage for You and Your Company to Succeed, Going Social
"Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than in the one where they sprung up."~ Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Those "Us" developing steps lay the groundwork, even today, as companies recognize that, to survive, they must become more social enterprises. Yet "social" only scales when both our behaviors and our technology reinforce collective action.
I write this as Saleforce is hosting its huge Dreamforce conference, double the size from last year, across the Golden Gate Bridge from me in S.F.
As Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer suggest in The Progress Principle, we all yearn for more meaningful work where we get to use our best talents together, aptly supported by social enterprise software that leverages our capacity to accomplish greater things together.
Then we are more likely to learn and innovate faster, by making what Peter Sims calls Little Bets. In so doing we became more resilient together, and better able to stay flexible and to recognize and seize the random events that Frans Johansson describes in The Click Moment that leads to breakthroughs.
• To learn more about supporting your organization in going social, read Socialized by Mark Fidelman; Social Business by Design by Dion Hinchcliffe and Peter Kim; The Pursuit of Social Business Excellence by Vala Afshar and Brad Martin; and Smart Business, Social Business by Michael Brito.
Now, are you ready to turn the page to the adventure story, you are truly meant to live as a sought-after Opportunity Maker with and for others?