Tag Archives | Teamwork

Curiosity in Action: Employee Engagement

I was recently invited to a forum on Engaged Team Performance by one of the managing partners of Implementation Partners, Roland Cavanagh. I first met Roland two years ago, when I interviewed him for a research project.

The forum consisted of two presentations, one from a client and the other a company built from a similar vision,  about how they view employee engagement and how their efforts to apply Engaged Team Performance resulted in highly engaged, creative, even joyful, company cultures and enhanced the success of each company.

The two companies were, in some ways, very different. One was a relatively small, stand-alone company that was built from the beginning on its model of structure-supported creativity and interaction; this company’s story reinforced my belief that small companies have the potential to test theories and practices that can change the world.

The other company was a newer subsidiary of a much larger, older organization. As part of this larger, older organization, they had to overcome entrenched attitudes and habits: Speaking up and thinking creatively were not encouraged. Questioning was not encouraged.

For example, when looking for ways to streamline a particular process, they could have just automated it. Instead, they worked with the team members to investigate why things were done a certain way. Why do we do it this way? Does it have to be done this way?  How else might we accomplish this? What are the risks and benefits of making a change? Then they came up with a plan, one that was based on answers to questions, not generally accepted assumptions.

Within a larger culture of “Ours is not to question why, ours is but to do or die,” this took some getting used to. It required trust-building.

But as they became more comfortable with this questioning approach, and with the follow-through on the answers, they questioned more and became more creative in their proposals for how they might do things differently. They implemented changes to the process that resulted in time savings that benefited the customer and freed up resources. Rather than cut head-count, they applied those human resources to other projects and initiatives, giving people even more opportunities for creative problem solving. It was more fun for them, and both their customers and the organization enjoyed the benefits.

It struck me, as they were describing this, that what I was hearing was a perfect demonstration of the importance of developing and applying curiosity. By creating a safe space and encouraging team members to exercise their curiosity, they became more comfortable with it and it became part of their culture. They were then able – and eager – to apply that curiosity to additional projects and creative endeavors.

When I brought this up and commended the presenters from this client company during the Q&A period, I was reminded by their blank looks that Curiosity is taken for granted and overlooked in most situations as the integral secret sauce that makes such initiatives successful.

In fact, “secret sauce” probably isn’t the best term to use. Curiosity isn’t a process or a methodology that needs to be learned. Instead, it is a muscle that every person brings with them, and organizations with engaged members encourage, even expect, those members to exercise that muscle.

I don’t think it was an accident that the presenters described environments that encouraged curiosity as part of their successful efforts to build Engaged Team Performance, even if they never used that term. I also don’t think I am looking for something that wasn’t there. But I noticed it, because I pay attention to this subject.

I’m looking forward to reading Building Engaged Team Performance, the new book by Roland Cavanagh and Dodd Starbird of Implementation Partners. Based on the case studies presented at this forum, I expect it to be a very interesting read – even if they never use the word “curiosity.”

What do you think? What role does curiosity play in engaged organizations (large or small)? What is the impact of the absence of curiosity or, worse yet, its being stifled?

Jazz Requires Systems Thinking – and Living at the Edge of Chaos

The other day I was talking to a friend who loves jazz, and it got me thinking.

One of the many things we touched on is how, unlike classical music, which is played pretty much as written on the page, jazz is by nature improvisational. This means that players weave an ever-changing tapestry around a single theme. It is a group discussion, where participants take turns talking. Like a group discussion, it works best when all of the participants listen to each other and respect each other’s turns.

I was reminded of how I recently saw a foursome comprised of McCoy Tyner, Ravi Coltrane, Esperanza Spalding, and Francisco Mela, and how I was struck by how smoothly they managed the transitions between full-on playing by the group and solos supported by the others. The solos were long and far-ranging, sometimes played with clear intention and sometimes with wild abandon. The four clearly listened to each other playing, they played to support the others when it was not their solo, and they watched for signals about the transitions.

Jazz musicians enjoy a great deal of freedom but, like freedom in other contexts, it works best when that freedom is exercised with awareness of and respect for the other members of the group and for the group itself.

And within that context, magic can happen.

It occurred to me as we were talking that jazz requires systems thinking. It requires awareness of the system, and awareness of how changes affect that system.

It requires agreement from the participants to support the system and each other.

When participants don’t support each other and the system and they focus only on themselves, indulging in tunnel vision, the result is noise. Chaos.

And yet – jazz also requires living at the edge of chaos.

How aware are you of the systems of which you are a part? Whether the system is a work group, an organization, a committee, your family, or a sports team, how well does that system work if the members don’t think beyond themselves? At the same time, how flexible are those systems? Do they support creativity, innovation, improvisation?

March Madness, or How the Final Four Made Me Think About Systems Thinking

Disclaimer: I know very little about sports like basketball and baseball, and I am likely to show more about what I don’t know than what I do know. But here goes.

Recently I was watching my favorite news show (Charlie Rose, who is a big basketball fan), and the first topic was an analysis of the Final Four. Which teams had the best players, the best coaches, the best strategies, the best teamwork. And it occurred to me that basketball is really about Systems Thinking.

There are a lot of skills that are required in basketball, including the individual skills like shooting, dribbling, jumping, rebounding, and so on. There are a lot of interpersonal skills, whether offensive, like passing, or defensive, like guarding. But what really makes a team work is teamwork. Systems Thinking.

Thinking about things like, Where are the other players on my team at every given moment? Where are the players on the other team? Where are they likely to go next? Oh, and Where is the ball in relationship to all of those people? What are the possibilities if we can get the ball positioned over here instead of over there? What are the possibilities if the other team moves it this way rather than that way?

It isn’t just about “How do I get the ball?” or “What do I do once I’ve got the ball in order to get the shot?” It’s about “Where do I need to be whether I’ve got the ball or not?” and “What series of moves do we need to make together even it if means somebody else takes the shot?” and “How do we close the gap so the other team can’t take the shot?”

Systems Thinking.

Baseball is a little different, because there isn’t the constant opportunity for turning over from defense to offense and back again at any given moment. An entire team is on defense and one person on offense has the opportunity to hit the ball. The defensive players just have to be ready to catch the ball and get it to the right place to throw the runner out. (I know, I just ignored the crucial role of the pitcher in keeping the batter from hitting the ball in the first place.) This becomes increasingly complex, however, when the offensive team has runners on base. The pitcher has to anticipate who might try to steal, and the other defensive players have to be ready if the ball comes to them and choose the most important position to get the ball to in order to throw a runner out. It’s even harder when there is a series of actions that need to happen – in the right order – and this is why a triple play is so exciting.

Systems Thinking.

Do you find yourself standing in the outfield, terrified you’ll drop the fly-ball? Or even more terrified you’ll catch it and have to decide where to throw it next? Are you a player who only thinks about rushing the ball to the basket and taking the shot? Do you, as a manager, have a team that runs smoothly, passing the ball and being able to effectively assess where it needs to go next based on constantly changing scenarios? Or is your team so mired in process that they can’t respond quickly to changing conditions? Are they all individual contributors, some always taking the ball, some never even thinking about where the ball came from or where it goes once they pass it? Are they terrified if it comes to them?

A player who lacks individual competence and confidence will likely only think systemically in order to protect him or herself, whereas a player who has individual competence and confidence may not think about the rest of the system at all.

Systems Thinking. It requires a level of individual competence and confidence from each of the players, and it also requires thinking about the other parts of the system and the ability to think forward in time.

How good is your team at it?

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