Running The Rapids


We have reached the fourth conversational area in our model of the conversations of a high performing team, ‘Manage’.  You may be thinking it is good to be back to a familiar topic.  After all, every team knows how to take action.  In fact many teams like taking action so much, they jump straight to it.  If we aren’t taking action, we wonder if we are being productive and creating value.  Hopefully, after reading the other blogs in this series, you see the value in the earlier conversations.

Rhythm of Team Conversation Model
Rhythm of Team Conversation Model – © 2017 Jennifer Nash & Andy Robbins

Now we have reached the ‘Manage’ conversation, what is involved?   I liken this to a team navigating a river trip when they reach the rapids.  Suddenly everything speeds up.  It is all about coordinating action across the team members to achieve the desired shared outcome.  I’m not going to get into work management practices like project management, the Agile methodology, etc.  These are important and much has been written about them.  Instead, I am going to talk about the more fundamental practices that high performing teams excel at.

Managing Overwhelm and Overload

The first thing to consider as we move to take action is our available capacity.  We live in a world of more and it is easy to fall into the trap of committing to doing more than our available capacity.  To achieve this we either steal time from other parts of our lives or accept that we won’t meet our commitments and deliver them late.  Both bring with them added stress.  The alternative is to introduce a rigorous capacity planning process across the team that includes buffer capacity to take care of the unknown.  I use a process like this in my business and while I feel disappointed I can’t commit to everything I want to do, I am very satisfied when I get a lot done and don’t feel overwhelmed in the process.

Managing Breakdowns

Once you have committed to work within your capacity, it is time to take action.  As you may have experienced, this is most often where team issues start to arise.  Perhaps the outcome isn’t clear, you might not have the skills required, the work is more complex than expected, the customer changed their mind, etc.  The only certainty I have experienced is things will turn out differently than how I planned.  I call these ‘Breakdowns’, when the future turns out differently than we had planned.

If breakdowns are inevitable, our definition of a team’s performance has to change.  Common sense says a team experiencing breakdowns is not performing well.  I have a different perspective.  The better question is how is a team managing its breakdowns?  Are the breakdowns tearing it apart and making it weaker, or is the team learning from its breakdowns and getting stronger as a result?  This is one of the defining questions of a team’s performance.

A Learning Team

Great teams learn from their breakdowns and turn them into breakthroughs.  They focus on the issue not the people.  They listen to understand, and only then to be understood themselves.  When they debate breakdowns, the recovery plan is the outcome of their collaborative creativity, and it is better than anyone of them could have created alone.  Teams like this bring a mood of ambition when facing breakdowns, they almost relish them because of what they will learn and their belief they will overcome it.

Learning to manage breakdowns requires learning a set of skills and teams get better as they practice and improve their collective skill.  The leader’s role is to create an environment where it is safe to talk about real issues.  The good news is with help, any team can learn these skills and become a high performing learning team.

How does your team manage breakdowns?  Do you look for the culprit and assign blame?  Do you look at the breakdown as an opportunity to learn and become your best team?  What sort of team do you want to be?