There are Many ‘I’s in ‘Team’!

Recently, I heard somebody use the expression “There is no ‘i’ in ‘Team'”. This well-worn saying means. of course, that in order to be a team, we cannot focus only on our own needs, and that we must be prepared to put the needs of the many over our own personal wishes. I have rarely thought about this, and throughout my career, every time I heard it, I simply understood that the user was reminding that we cannot be selfish for a team to be successful.

I admit that I myself never use this expression, and when the following realization hit me, I don’t think I ever will. I was reading the excellent businessballs.com website recently, and came across this entry:

“I was sent this excellent and simple idea for a presentation – actually used in a job interview – which will perhaps prompt similar ideas and adaptations for your own situations.

At the start of the presentation the letters T, E, A, and M – fridge magnets – were given to members of the audience.

At the end of the presentation the speaker made the point that individually the letters meant little, but together they made a team.”

 

This story presents for me a much truer image of the role of the individual in a team, or rather the team’s dependence on the individual, for while there is no ‘i’ in ‘team’, there are four different letters all equally important and playing a vital role!
The specific skills of the individual are often downplayed in favour of their “ability to work as part of a team”, when it is their own particular skills and abilities which make them a desirable member of the team to begin with.
Of course, Dr. R. M. Belbin, the “father of team roles”, recognises that any effective team has a “teamworker”, someone who gels the team together, and uses their versatility to help complete work for the team, but he also stated that a team is “a congregation of individuals”, in other words, a group of people who are good at different things, and have different strengths, weaknesses, interests, passions, and sometimes even values.
While the differences won’t be that marked in a team of people working in the same company, or the same department of a company, they might be more visible in a joint venture between two companies, or social or economic competitors in a round table discussion. The secret to healthy cooperation in this situation is the same as for a project team working for the same department of a company. We have to realise and accept the fact that we are on a team which is focused on a common goal, and accept that each of us has their own strengths and weaknesses, all of which contribute to the identity of the team. if we can do this, then we are able to move forward much faster than a bunch of people.

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Just Do It!

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It’s been some time since I last wrote anything here, due to various reasons from different areas of life. I noticed, however, that as time went on, it became more and more difficult to open this blog, open a new post and write. When I had time to do it, I couldn’t think of anything to write, and if an idea came into my head to write something, I was usually in the shower, or driving, or in a meeting, and couldn’t write the idea down until later, by which time I usually forgot about the idea!
This morning, I decided to take the advice offered up for decades by Nike: “Just Do It!”
To be honest, I’m not really sure what I’m going to end up with here. I do know that, when in doubt, there are worse things than taking action. US President Theodore Roosevelt said “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing”, and many business leaders will no doubt testify that one of the biggest enemies of progress is inertia -itself a factor in lack of progress!
It is difficult to think of any scenario in which doing nothing is the best choice. Obviously, I don’t include situations where everything is going fine, and we are on course to achieve a 100% success rate on our targets (even then, doing nothing also excludes monitoring progress to ensure the goals are achieved, but this might become too philosophical!) But when faced with a choice to make, from the service counter at McDonalds to an invitation to join the board of a rival company, doing nothing will always end up as the third-best choice, after doing the right thing (e.g. taking the chance, and joining the board to start a new chapter in your life) and doing the wrong thing (e.g. ordering the extra-large Big Mac meal)!

So if the decision is to do something, then the next question is whether you can get the timing right. In this world of random experiences and human nature, it is rare that the time will ever be right. Years ago, a colleague of mine who’s wife had given birth two months previous was telling the rest of us (all single, or newlywed and happily childless) what it was like to have a child. What he told me was a helpful piece of advice which I remembered when we decided to buy a house, when we decided to go out on our own in business, and also when we ourselves decided to have children. “It is never a good time to have children!”
While this might seem to be a typical chauvinist comment a man might make to his male friends as a joke, it is actually very easy to find events and periods in life where a child might hinder our progress, or shift our focus away from other things. We get a new job, then we get married, then we get a promotion, then we buy a new house, then we want to enjoy married life in a new house, then we change jobs. A child does shift priorities, and can seem to get in the way of these other events.
Similarly, for those considering leaving the safety of steady employment to go into business for themselves, there never seems to be a perfect time to do it. We have new responsibilities at work, or renovations at home. It’s almost time to replace the family car, and an employment contract looks awfully good on a car lease agreement. When uncertainty threatens, we cling to the certainties; as the saying goes, “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t!”

As well as learning something from Nike, I feel I need to mention a lesson I took from another global name -Apple. Steve Jobs believed in the power of the deadline. It doesn’t matter whether the product is perfect or not, just get it out on time. This explains -partially- why there are five kinds of iPhone, four kinds of iPad and an indeterminate number of iPods in the world. However, while it is true that the difference between the first iPhone and the iPhone 2 is not so great (to my untrained eye), the additional or enhanced features are enough so that, if they were to be included in the original iPhone, the deadline would have to be moved back. By the time the new deadline arrived, new features and possibilities would mean that the deadline would have to be put back again (where Apple simply announced that they would make a new iPhone soon).
Of course, the ability to increase market-driven sales is an undeniable bonus, but in effect, what Steve Jobs did that I agree with, was that he settled for now rather than perfect. If you put yourself on the other side of this equation (and if you own an Apple product, you already are), you realise that other people are often not even looking for a solution that’s perfect. They’re looking for a solution that works. So in deciding to do something, we must also decide to do something now.

…which I suppose is as good a point to make as any. Don’t be afraid of making decisions -as long as the decisions relate to you or your job, you will usually be in the best position to make those decisions. Instead of doing nothing, just do it, and do it now.

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What Can we Learn about Business from Reality TV? (Part 1)

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Over the past week or so, due to health issues, I have been getting very little sleep. At two or three in the morning, I would lie in bed, concentrating too hard on falling asleep, which would, of course, make it worse, and get me annoyed! The result of being awake and agitated at such an ungodly hour was that I found myself watching night-time TV.

At the moment, it seems that it is almost impossible to switch on the television without some kind of reality show coming on. There are two kinds of reality show; the “Big Brother” type, where viewers send text messages to vote for which members of the public or “celebrities” stay on the show, and the “documentary” type, where the cameras follow someone on a journey -often to learn more about themselves, while at the same time allowing us to watch their highs and lows from the safety of the sofa with a cup of camomile tea at hand. I happened to catch two of the latter kind -Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares, and Undercover Boss.

I’ll write about Gordon Ramsey another time, but for now, I’ll describe Undercover Boss, and the message I took from it.

Basically, the idea is that the CEO of a large company disguises him or herself, and pretends to be taking part in a TV reality show where people try to do different jobs and then get hired or not. This allows them to spend some time working at entry-level jobs in their organisation while being followed around by a film crew.

I am aware that the production companies that make “reality TV” shows carefully edit material to achieve the desired effect, but what usually happens at the end of the week is that the CEO comes back to the board and demands that more investment is made in ground-level staff, and that more attention is paid to the details and feedback sent by operational staff -feedback which, quite often, the management have received!

I’m sure one could argue that the production company sets out with the goal of showing these messages to a public which may not be experienced in the corporate world, but the summary which can be made of this is this: as managers, we should remember that the people actually doing the job often know best how to do it, and while we may have access to other, influential information necessary to make a decision, the person who knows best what customers want is the person who talks to the customers most.

A British documentary, “Back to the Floor” had a similar idea, but without the boss hiding their true identity. While this did miss out on some of the drama (or comedy), the results were the same. One participant, Jacqueline Gold, chief executive of Ann Summers, found the experience so valuable she implemented a programme throughout the organisation, insisting that all directors spend time on the shop floor at least once a year.

It is highly probable that the first reaction of operational staff to the boss coming along and whispering “pretend I’m not here”, or “you just show me what to do” would be mild paranoia at best, and crippling indecision at worst. However, when the team are comfortable with being so close to their supervisor, you could learn a lot about what you’re doing right, what you’re doing wrong, and what you aren’t doing at all.

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Practise How You Preach

Slowly, but surely, the dream of Christmas is fading and being replaced by the equally pleasant reality of 2013, and the stronger, more enduring memories of this holiday season remain, defining how Christmas and New Year 2013 will be remembered in years to come. 

One of the memories that remain is that of my son standing beside me in the church at Christmas Mass. The priest was in the tenth minute of delivering his sermon, when my son turned to me and whispered “It must be great to be a priest!” Bemused, I asked him why he thought this was so; “Because you can speak for ages, and everybody has to listen to you!”

I waited until the Mass had ended, and then asked my son if he remembered what the priest had said during his sermon. The blank expression on his face told me that we had both remembered about the same -next to nothing. 

I have written elsewhere that I am a disciple of the maxim “K.I.S.S.” -Keep It Simple, Stupid! I believe that this can be employed in any area of communication. If we look at the sermon delivered by the priest, in all probability, we will find an exercise in quantity over quality. The subject matter reminds me of the apocryphal story where President Calvin Coolidge was asked about the subject of a lengthy sermon he had heard. “Sin” was his reply. When asked to elaborate on the clergyman’s theme, Coolidge is said to have replied “He was against it.” 

Of course, the power of rhetoric to engage, motivate, persuade and inspire is so well recognised, we needn’t discuss it here, and it goes without saying that it is not enough for a priest to deliver a sermon saying “I am against sin”, but if we describe a sermon as a top-down communication, parallels can be drawn with memos and speeches delivered from superiors to subordinates in any organisation. 

When delivering a message to your team, make sure that you’re not losing it in your communication. Your team will thank you, and you’ll find yourself having to repeat yourself less.

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Out of the Mouths of Babes

One morning recently during a school holiday, I was getting ready to go to work, when my 7-year-old son asked me “Why can’t you stay at home with us?” “I’d love to”, I replied, “but I’m meeting people today to teach them some important things.” “What?” he enquired. “Well, I’m teaching them how to phone their customers, and make sure that they’re happy, and find out if they could do anything more for them.” (Considering that it was before 8am, I was quite proud of my explanation) “That’s easy!” answered my son, and added confidently “I can do that already!” “Go on!” He picked up my phone, and said “Hello? Hi, it’s me. How are you? Are you happy? Would you like me to do anything more for you?” He hung up on his imaginary call partner and said “See? It’s easy!” For the rest of the day, I tried to explain what mistakes he had made, and the point is, I still can’t see anything wrong in it! Of course, there are questions regarding how quickly and to the point the main issues are brought up, and style is also a factor in conversation. However, my son asked the questions he wanted to, and still showed that he was listening. In fact, there is a very strong argument that his directness would show that he is more honest in his communication. I am surprised at the number of times people go into meetigns with clearly defined questions which they either never ask, or ask in such a vague way that they don’t get answers. It may be that you don’t know what your client is able to pay because you haven’t asked, or you may not know if your staff like a new policy because you never said “Hey guys, do you like this new policy?” Again, I would like to repeat that everything should be in moderation, and there is a very real, and very good, reason why diplomatic language exists. However, there are some very good reasons for using simple, straightforward language too!

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Business Like a Swan

The other day I received a letter from the electricity company regarding our energy supply and possible changes. I wanted to ask a question, and so I called the telephone number on the letter of the woman who was named as ‘handling the case’. When she picked up the phone, I introduced myself and started to explain why I was calling, only for the woman to interrupt and ask me to wait “literally 30 seconds, because I’m standing at the printer”. I waited, and when she had obviously collected her printout, walked from the printer to her workstation and sat down, she asked me to provide her with a reference number.

I will say that the service was very good. My questions were answered professionally and clearly, and the woman’s tone was polite, friendly and helpful at all times (this is a rare occurence, but that is a topic for another blog entry!). What I didn’t like was her revelation that she answered the phone while on the move.

Someone once provided me with an image of a business as a swan on a lake. Above the water line, everybody sees a graceful white bird moving effortlessly, gliding through the water. What nobody sees, however, under the water, are the black, webbed feet pushing, pulling and paddling about like crazy, working the whole time to move the swan like in a romantic story.

Everybody likes their suppliers to be professional, graceful, competence, in control, omniscient. We don’t need to know they are run by humans, too. When I telephone a contact, I’d like to be told that she will call me back when she is available, not that she has gone to the toilet. If I ask for some details, I’d rather be told that you will refer the question to your manager than to be told you don’t know where the information is.

One of my clients called her agent and asked about a report she had originally asked for two weeks earlier. The agent said that she had not been in the office recently, as she had fallen and hurt her knee, and so she had been lying down for two weeks before going in to have knee surgery, and was only back in the office now. Five minutes later, she revealed that her colleague in the office was handling her cases until she got back on her feet. While I like the idea of being natural when talking with business partners, I also feel one should present a professional, competent, businesslike persona at all times.

So remember the swan, and the image that we want to present to the public. Make sure that you only let people see below the water line if you don’t mind them seeing how fast you are paddling.

On the other hand, the next time you are intimidated by someone’s smooth, polished business image, remember that their feet, too, are below the water.

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Help by not Helping

Try this with your colleagues at work: Tell them you got a phone call from your parents, saying that they need you to help them in their house this weekend, but that you have already agreed to help another friend move house. Then tell them that you have called your friend and changed the date, and they are fine with that. Before you explain this last fact, though, take a sip of coffee. By the time you swallow the coffee, you will have two or three solutions presented to you. Often, when people start to tell us their problems, we immediately start looking for solutions. This is the ‘default’ human nature, to instinctively try to help. This impulse is increased if we spend our time in work solving problems (and most of us do work with people, and so spend all our time solving problems!)
However, as with our experiment, most people have already thought about their problems in a little greater depth before they relate them to us, and so our automatic response can seem at best overenthusiastic, at worst, dismissive. When people tell us what has happened to them, we must first of all decide if they are in fact telling us about a problem. They may be relating an interesting story, or gauging our reaction, or perhaps even boasting, if they themselves have already worked out a genial solution. Until we know what is expected of us, it may be best to delay reaction.
How can we tell what the other person wants from us? Why not ask them for clues? “How does that make you feel?”, “Have you any idea what you will do?” “How do you think I can help?”. Questions like these will clarify the issue without being too aloof. You might also avoid volunteering to do something you don’t need to.

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