Conversation Aligns Minds
Unteams, Redux | Teams and Agreement | The Zola Technique
Quote of the Moment
Conversation is our greatest tool to align minds. We don’t think in a vacuum, but with other people.
| Thalia Wheatley
Back in August, I reported on an article by Constance Noonan Hadley and Mark Mortensen which asked a great question: Do We Still Need Teams?. They point out that teams are expensive, and don’t always lead to a return on investment, especially given the barriers that the pandemic have put in our way. So, they propose something different, as I said in the August newsletter post:
They propose a fairly groundbreaking alternative: drop teams.
One choice is to disband or significantly reduce teams in favor of a higher proportion of individual contributors. Some are even calling for reducing jobs down to tasks to disaggregate the work further.
But they don’t want to give up totally on people working together in groups:
A less radical solution is to step down from “true teams” to the use of “co-acting groups.” As we’ve stated in past research, true teams have a shared mindset, a compelling joint mission, defined roles, stable membership, high interdependence, and clear norms. Co-acting groups represent a loose confederation of employees who dip in and out of collaborative interactions as a project or initiative unfolds.
I am going to help the researchers with terminology since they are using the jawbreaker ‘co-acting groups’, which is too ugly to use. I am going to call them ‘unteams’, which makes their anti-polarity with teams more obvious.
Eric McNulty picked up the idea of ‘co-acting groups’, er, unteams:
I have never encountered an organization without teams. Some see them as a cure-all. Yet, a recent Harvard Business Review article by organizational psychologist Constance Noonan Hadley and organizational behavior professor Mark Mortensen points out the historically poor performance of teams. The authors note that while teams have long struggled to fulfill their promise as an organizational form, they face especially high hurdles today, in part because organizations keep forming teams without a clear idea of their purpose, how they should be structured and governed, and what expectations members should have for their individual and collective roles and responsibilities. For their part, Hadley and Mortensen propose “co-acting groups,” an alternative team concept in which participants share a goal and work independently but gather occasionally. (Think coders, writers, and designers who contribute to a website redesign without the formality of a rigid team structure and meetings.)
Whatever your organization’s preference for team building, it should be carefully selected from a range of options, and it should be clear to everyone why the firm chose one particular structure over another and what’s expected of everyone participating. Start with desired outcomes and cultural norms, then articulate principles to empower action, and, finally, provide the skills and tools needed for success.
McNulty was motivated to contact one of the authors, who added some thoughts:
The current shifts underway are more sudden and dramatic. With distributed teams and hybrid work arrangements, even the most basic necessary skills and configurations are shifting. As Constance Noonan Hadley, who co-wrote the article about teams mentioned above, told me, “We have to ask how we optimize for a new world of work, because it is happening. I know from conversations with my executive students that there is a tension between how we think work is happening and what is actually going on. Organizations must adapt to resolve it.”
Unless your organization has embraced agile or lean methodologies, or made a radical leap to an alternative model, such as sociocracy, that forces reconsideration of the fundamentals, you are likely carrying a lot of unexamined baggage. Accept the need for change, and banish prior assumptions.
Alas, the remainder of McNulty’s recommendations read as pretty much fiddling around the edges, like minimizing time in meetings, making sure people know corporate procedures, establishing metrics like KPIs, etc. Doesn’t really reach for the stars, as Hadley seems to be.
We have to ask how we optimize for a new world of work, because it is happening. I know from conversations with my executive students that there is a tension between how we think work is happening and what is actually going on. Organizations must adapt to resolve it.
| Constance Noonan Hadley
Teams and Agreement
Sarah Moughty curates an article from Ron Friedman on High-Performing Teams Don’t Leave Relationships to Chance, which describes some of the hard, expensive work that goes into team building. Moughty boils it down:
It starts with onboarding. When introducing new team members, Friedman suggests highlighting their personal interests as well as their professional backgrounds. One of the biggest drivers of friendships is commonalities, and learning that a new team member shares the same favorite TV show or sports team can kick off an opportunity for deeper bonding.
You can also encourage connection by reinforcing shared goals. Research shows that “workers who view their colleagues as essential to their success build closer friendships, have fewer disagreements, and view their work as more meaningful,” Friedman writes. To build a team mentality, you can draw attention to how your projects require a team effort or publicly thank an employee for their contribution to a shared goal. You could also consider team-building exercises where you work to build something together, such as taking a cooking class and eating the meal afterwards.
Friedman’s final piece of advice is for anyone—whether you manage people or not. He suggests you use moments of disagreement to reinforce connection. Simple phrases like “I bet we can figure this out,” or “You’ve clearly done a lot of work on this,” or “I always appreciate your comments” can signal that your disagreement is independent of your relationship.
Of course, work friendships can be complicated. A few pieces from our archives examine what to do when they go awry or become emotionally draining, and how to navigate boundaries and power dynamics when you become your friend’s boss. This piece from the early days of the pandemic also offers some great advice on building work friendships when you’re all working remotely.
As usual, HBR is skewed toward managers — their target — but these ideas hold for everybody.
On that theme, HBR has developed a new thing, Ascend, 'A weekly newsletter to help young professionals find their place in the working world and realize their personal and career goals'. And, of course, the metaphor is centered on rising in an organization where the C-Suite is firmly at the top. Of course. But we can still learn things, even if we have to mentally rewrite a great deal of the filler.
The Zola Technique
Christine Lagorio Chafkin profiles the decision-making technique at Zola, a New York City based wedding planning and bridal registry company, a company with a large executive team. She spoke with Rachel Jarrett, the president and chief operating officer:
"We want to make sure we are looking at something from all angles, and to make sure that no one person dominates the discussion," says Rachel Jarrett, Zola's president and chief operating officer. "We have many introverts on our leadership team. I'm not one, and it's something that I have to be cognizant of.
Jarrett began executive-team polling casually, five years ago, after a leadership retreat saw particular success in collecting a diversity of opinions using an anonymous Post-it note system. Since, she's been working to give floor time to the voices that aren't necessarily the loudest--and has evolved her voting process into this three-step one. The combination of debate and polling yields surprising results.
"Nine times out of 10, we see a drastic movement in the vote, and about 80 percent coalesce around the vote," Jarrett says. "Usually, it's because a compelling argument is surfaced."
The process itself is nameless, though is casually known as "taking a vote."
I have decided it needs a better name: the Zola technique. By the way, the principle of taking a quick straw poll on some pending decision at the start of discussing it often short circuits longer involvement. But when there is wide divergence of viewpoints, you need a way to get out of the maze.