Four years ago, my wife and I heard some mysterious noises in the attic above our bedroom. Upon opening the access panel and peering in with a flashlight, I was rewarded with the sight of two creepy eyes staring back at me from the corner of the attic. A raccoon had decided to take up residence. Over the next couple of days, we tried a myriad of ploys to entice her to change residences, from blaring music, flashing lights, tennis balls soaked in fluid that raccoons are not supposed to like, and even shooting nerf darts near her (we were desperate). Nothing. She just looked at us like “that’s cute.” The raccoon was not moving and we couldn’t understand why. We did not understand the nature of the problem so our strategies were just grasping at straws.
Last year, I was called to facilitate an offsite with the leadership team of a local small business. They had reached out to me because their team felt stuck, lost, and bored and wanted help to make their team off-site productive. Of course, just doing an off-site will not solve anything unless there is both intention and an understanding of the problem we are solving. However, like us with the raccoon, understanding the nature of the problem can be difficult when you are in the day-to-day whirlwind.
Let’s simplify it so you can start solving the right problem. In the work I have done in consulting with teams, there are two core issues that arise.
- The team does not work together as a team.
- The team does not have clarity on what success means.
Issue #1: The team does not work together as a team.
Sometimes this problem is overt, showing up as personality clashes, obvious distrust, loud frustration, or unacceptable behavior. Often times, as was the case with the small business leadership team I worked with, this problem is subtle, showing up as:
- Silence in meetings.
- No sharing of ideas, admitting mistakes, asking for help (no vulnerability).
- No constructive and passionate debate around ideas and decisions.
- People would rather go along with the consensus then dissent.
- Great ideas that never get implemented.
- Little or no encouragement and celebrating other’s achievements.
- Never expressing frustration.
- Some people dominate meetings and discussions while others are silent.
The solution is exposure and dialogue. There is no way around it, you have to expose the fact that there is a problem and have uncomfortable dialogue around the actual problem and what behaviors need to change.
Two practical techniques to create exposure and dialogue are:
Take the Five Dysfunctions of a Team assessment. This assessment is one of my staples when consulting with leadership teams because it spells out the behaviors in black and white. There is no hiding, this is coming from the team itself, which allows for honest, productive dialogue, and action steps.
Clarify what is needed from each team member. Liz Weber says to clarify by asking “What type of team do we want to become?” and then “What is needed from each of us as team members?” (literally, what is needed from Mark, Enrique, Liz, Damon, etc.?)
Bonus: use trust-building activities. Sometimes the team just needs to take time to first build trust, before it can go further into deeper conversation. Don’t use any random trust activity, use one that fosters vulnerability. Here are some good ones.
Issue #2: The team does not have clarity on what success means.
The more teams I work with, the more I believe that every team suffers from this issue to some level. The problem of confusion and ambiguity manifests itself by:
- Meetings that get hijacked.
- Everyone is overworked (because everything is important).
- Priorities seem to change week to week.
- The team is always in fire-fighting mode.
- Silos (each department works on what seems important to that department).
- Low morale because it doesn’t feel like we are actually accomplish anything significant, together.
- Different team members and departments have different, sometimes competing agendas.
- Ask five different team members what is important, why we exist, or what we do, and get five different answers.
The solution is clarity. The technique is simple (but not easy): spend time to get clear on how our team will be successful and what is important.
The more your team impacts others downstream, the more time you need to take developing clarity. When I am facilitating an offsite and consulting post-off-site for a leadership team, we may spend an entire day doing the hard, soul-searching work, as a team, to align around core questions. There are several good frameworks. When I consult with leadership teams, I almost always use Patrick Lencioni’s organizational health model because it is practical, simple to understand, you can work through them in a day or less, and you can implement it with immediate results. As such, I work with leadership teams to align around these six questions:
- Why do we exist? (our purpose)
- How will we behave? (our core values)
- What do we actually do? (what business are we in)
- How will we be successful? (our three strategic anchors)
- What is most important right now? (our thematic goal)
- Who will do what?
Some of these may seem simple, but believe me, they are not. Out of all the times I have facilitated this process, rarely does everyone on the team already have the same answers to the same questions. It is hard work to flesh out these answers as a team. That’s why most teams experience confusion and ambiguity. Afterwards, test your clarity by making decisions and organizing your meetings around what you have said is important to your success.
If your team is lower in the organization and absolutely does not have that much time right now, then pair it down to these questions and perhaps tackle one question at a time:
- What is most important for our team right now? (or if everything else remains the same with our operation, what is the one change that will have the most impact in the next few months?)
- Why does our team actually exist? (our purpose in one to two sentences, whose life do we impact)
- If we look ahead three years and were highly successful, what would our team have accomplished?
- What are the three anchors that we must be really good at in order to achieve that vision?
There is no way around the fact that you have to put in the work to create this simple clarity. If you don’t, not only will the team continue to suffer, but so will the rest of the organization.
We have both issues!
If you have both issues, you are not alone. At least now you know what issues you need to tackle! Always tackle issue #1 first. The team needs to be able to work together first because if it can’t work together, it can’t create alignment around strategic clarity. In other words, you have to clear out the mess first before you can create something new.
In case you were wondering, we reached out for help from an expert and learned that our rascal raccoon was nesting in our attic because she was going to have babies. Nothing was going to deter her from keeping her babies safe. Once we understood that reality, we were able to incentivize the raccoon, humanely, that another location was going to be best for her babies. In fact, she moved on her own. But we could not make any progress until we understood the problem in the first place!