Tag Archives: teams

Row, Row, Row Your Boat: Are You Missing Warning Signs of Rough Water Ahead?

By Laurie Breitner

Winslow Homer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rowing Home, Winslow Homer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Do you know what your employees are doing? While you may think you do — perhaps not. Whether yours is a relatively new entity, or one that’s been cruising smoothly for some time, it’s easy for issues to develop and go unexamined in the daily crush of getting the job done. This slow drift off course can interrupt the smooth flow that results when all your employees pull together.

These real world stories illustrate what can happen.

  • The owner of company that sells through external, commission-based sales staff was very surprised to learn that the 3:00 PM cutoff for same-day orders was being routinely ignored. Fulfillment staff — operating on the assumption that the owner knew and approved — struggled to satisfy orders that arrived later and later. Sales staff had quickly learned that fulfillment workers were staying late to process orders and took full advantage of an ever broadening window to call in their sales. Employee morale had begun to plummet and “sick” days to increase.
  • A tech company owner could see his staff was buried but didn’t have time to examine why. Overtime hours (and resultant costs) grew and employees seemed frazzled. The owner was wearing so many different hats  — executive, senior technician, salesman, and accountant — he didn’t have time to look into what was happening. Profits margins were eroding and he worried that his skilled workers could burn out or leave.

Many business owners recognize when things aren’t right. But because root causes can be hard to find and talking to employees without a solution can be uncomfortable, some find it tempting to simply hope the situation will improve without taking action. Left unattended what starts as a small problem can rapidly become a crisis; in my experience, it’s best to act swiftly. The longer a problem persists, the harder it is to fix.

The first step is to identify issues as early as possible. What might alert you to potential problems?

  • Declining morale is often the earliest and most obvious sign that everyone is not in sync. Symptoms include increased squabbling, turnover, absenteeism and tardiness, complaints about co-workers, cynicism and/or employees acting as if they are “checked out.” One business owner asked me, why couldn’t it be the way it used to be, everyone pulling together? Do you ever wonder that?
  • An unexpected increase in cost of goods sold (CoGS) and/or decrease in overall profitability are signs that inefficiencies may be creeping in. As a business grows and becomes more complex, spending time to design new workflows or clarify roles and responsibilities often takes a back seat to just getting through each day’s work. Whether your organization has grown, taken on new customers, changed computer systems or begun offering new services, involve affected employees in determining necessary adjustments. Otherwise, you may find gaps and/or overlaps, that is, more than one person feels responsible for a new task or no one does it; either can lead to trouble.
  • Unanticipated defections (or reductions in volume of purchases) of existing customers or an overall drop off in sales may result from dissatisfaction with your company. Front line employees are your organization’s ambassadors. If they are discontent, your customers will sense it and may shy away. Similarly, if a new computer system or vendor causes disruptions in the smooth flow of work, the quality of your products or services may suffer sending customers to the competition And, sadly, long-time customers may be uncomfortable raising their concerns with you, the owner, and just disappear.

While these are common signs, each organization is unique; no list of triggers can be exhaustive.

Here’s where your business plan comes in handy. If you have projected what will occur in terms of sales, staffing, and profitability — and documented your assumptions, of course — you can look periodically (at least monthly) for any deviations from what you thought would happen. Work with employees to get to the bottom of unexpected results — whether they are better or worse. Most employees sincerely want to do a good job and will appreciate being involved.

Are you looking for other ideas to help create and maintain a harmonious and efficient organization?

In my next few posts I’ll explore how to get and keep your organization on track, including ways to address inefficiencies and issues related to employee discontent.

© Copyright 2013 Laurie Breitner. All rights reserved.

Want to Be a More Effective Decision Maker? Beware of Blind Spots and Biases that Can Interfere

By Karen Utgoff

In business and driving, beware of what you can't see. Photo: K. Utgoff

In business and driving, beware of what you can’t see. Photo: K. Utgoff

Business decisions are made every day and mistakes are inevitable — none of us can read minds, know the future, or wait for perfect information. However, it’s sad and unnecessarily costly when a mistake is preventable.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could reduce avoidable errors at little or no cost? My experience tells me that many business owners, executives and managers could do just that if only they were more aware of personal tendencies that influence their decisions as well as vulnerabilities we all have that stem from the way we (that is, our brains) perceive and analyze situations and information. Cultivating this self-awareness is one of the lowest cost — but most challenging — ways I know to become a more effective decision-maker.

Perception and perspective are tricky things. Optical illusions exploit the way our brains work, causing us to misperceive objects and images. We often consider these to be tricks that aren’t very important to daily life, yet there is at least one major exception: the passenger side mirrors on our automobiles, which come with an engraved warning reminding us that “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” In addition, to use this mirror effectively a driver must be aware of the blind spot. Both the blind spot and misperceiving distance are problems because (when we are in the driver’s seat) our brains are quick to misinterpret the image in the mirror as physical reality.

In similar ways, business decisions are vulnerable to misperceptions or skewed perspectives. Vulnerabilities generally fall into two categories: those everyone shares as part of the human condition and those that are particular to an individual. As with the side mirror, being aware is a critical first step to minimizing their impact.

No one is perfect; individual inclinations and gaps sway all of us. The ability to be self-critical is key. Here are some questions intended to provoke useful self-examination:

  • Do you tend to be overly optimistic or pessimistic based on recent experience?
  • Do you defer to experts or discount their opinions completely?
  • Do you balance intuition and evidence or automatically favor one over the other?
  • Do you probe for information and knowledge or make do with whatever is available?
  • Do you actively seek alternative views or protect yourself from being challenged?
  • Do you tend to make decisions too early or delay until the situation is critical?
  • Do you fear scrutiny or embrace it?
  • Do you change your mind too easily in the face of new information or resist too much?

Individual inclinations and tendencies can and do negatively impact decision-making.  None of us can escape entirely but self-awareness can help balance and counterbalance our weaknesses while making the most of our strengths.

It is also important to factor in biases and blind spots that researchers have identified as hardwired into each of us. Though hard to counteract, there are steps that can help to manage these human factors. Robert Wolf provides an excellent starting point in his post on “How to Minimize Your Biases When Making Decisions” for the HBR Blog Network. In my consulting practice I have seen these biases reinforced or mitigated by an individual’s personality and decision-making patterns; so be mindful of their interplay.

Another human factor to consider is willful blindness. This phenomenon is not confined to business decisions but can have a devastating effect on an organization in which it occurs. Especially insidious is that blind spots render issues that require attention or decisions invisible until they become crises, sometimes presenting an existential threat to the organization or inflicting terrible harm on others. To learn more, listen to Margaret Heffernan’s TED talk on the topic or read her article on “Willful blindness: When a leader turns a blind eye” in the Ivey Business Journal online.

While the focus of this post is on individual decision makers, it applies to teams as well. Startup ventures, intrapreneurial teams, and top management at organizations (large and small) are all susceptible. As with individuals, teams have their own vulnerabilities. Teams that are comfortable with internal conflict and seek information from divergent sources may be less susceptible to willful blindness but may have difficulty absorbing the final decision when it’s time to do so. Alternatively, the danger of willful blindness or confirmation bias may increase when team members are discouraged or punished for raising important concerns or contributing information.

SWOT spotHas this post convinced you that you can become a more effective decision maker? If so, use the information here to assess your own decision-making habit and patterns. Ask people you trust to level with you about your strengths and weaknesses. When you spot an opportunity to improve yourself or your team(s), remember that change is difficult and requires persistence. Progress takes time and set backs will occur. Keep at it; there is a lot to gain.

© Copyright 2013 Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.

Team Performance: Lessons from String Quartets

By Karen Utgoff

As the only non-musician in my nuclear family, I have attended many concerts and recitals offered by students and pros. These range from big orchestra and choral performances to small solo events. Over the years, I have found watching string quartets especially fascinating. In addition to the music, each performance is a study in teamwork that offers a model — whether in the context of an established business, a non-profit organization, or a startup — that many business teams would do well to emulate.

The Chiara Quartet. Photo by Christian Steiner

The Chiara Quartet. Photo by Christian Steiner

A string quartet has a lot in common with teams as defined by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith in their classic Harvard Business Review article “The Discipline of Teams” ( July-August 2005):

“A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”

“The essence of a team is common commitment. Without it, groups perform as individuals; with it, they become a powerful unit of collective performance.”

These characteristics are certainly true of successful string quartets at all levels.  Here are some other observations about these musical teams that inform business teams by shedding a different light on some common issues:

Challenging, shared, clearly defined, performance-related goals provide focus for team efforts. Working toward a particular performance seems obvious for a quartet — the team naturally and continuously aims for a result that goes beyond what its members can achieve individually. And, their goal is clear, be ready to perform on the scheduled day. Project-oriented business teams often find defining goals and timelines less straightforward; but it is no less essential. Defined goals and clear timetables create valuable motivators as well as a shared focus, sense of urgency and standard for measuring success.

The Chiara Quartet is one that I particularly enjoy watching, so I was interested to read about their new performance goal:

“For almost all of the Quartet’s upcoming concerts, they’ll be performing by heart.  After spending countless hours working towards playing their repertoire from memory, they now feel that the sheet music is a distraction to the performance, instead of an aid.”

For those who would like to learn more, here are some examples of the Quartet in performance and practicing together.

Team members’ specific, complementary skills enable team performance. Every string quartet needs two violinists, a violist, and a cellist. If one is missing, you don’t have a string quartet. In much the same way, business teams need members who bring specific skills to the group. Unlike a quartet, the basic mix of skills needed on a project-focused business team is not always obvious. For example, a new venture team may start out with science and engineering expertise and only later realize the need for expertise in venture finance and entrepreneurial marketing.

Well-defined roles and responsibilities help eliminate gaps and overlaps. In a quartet, essential roles and responsibilities are obvious; each member has his/her own instrument and sheet music, which defines the part to be played. It’s ridiculous to think of a musician arbitrarily playing another performer’s part or that a part would be overlooked. Unfortunately both happen on business teams if they don’t take the time to clarify who is doing what. High-performing teams work together to define individual responsibilities. This clarity is the foundation for mutual respect for individual roles and accountability but shouldn’t be inflexible, as all team members share the responsibility for achieving the team’s goals and improvising solutions to unanticipated challenges.

Good communication and situational awareness are essential if the whole is to become more than the sum of its parts. As a parent of a violinist, violist and cellist, it was fascinating to see novice quartet members learning how to be good team members. The hard part began at the first team meeting. Although each member had learned his/her part in advance, they needed to learn how to share ideas and be aware of each other before they could put the parts together and perform as a group. When something unexpected happened — a missed cue — it was the ability of the individual performers to notice and support one another that allowed them to get back together and demonstrated their strength as a team.

Many professional quartets exhibit these qualities throughout their performances with eye contact, nods, and watching each other as they each play their individual parts. Leadership shifts seamlessly from one performer to another as the piece progresses.  When a quartet seems to be four individuals playing without regard for one another the performance suffers. I don’t know if this is the music itself or the overall impression it makes on the audience. Is there something here that might help your team make a more compelling presentation to management or an investor?

For more on elements that support team performance, I urge you to check out the Katzenbach and Smith article mentioned earlier and to take the opportunity to watch and be inspired by high-performing teams from other fields.

© Copyright 2013 Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.