New Managers: moving from 1 report to 5 reports effectively

You were a management understudy and had a report (or 2) to test your management abilities. Now your manager thinks you are now ready to be a manager and you now have 5 reports. Congratulations!

Once celebrations are over, you start thinking: is this going to be any different than before? Do my strategies for managing my 1 report extend to managing these 4? And you start getting some doubts. Are there some reasons to worry?

In a previous post about industry newbie as manager, I pointed to perils of getting promoted to management position too early in the career. This is a very real problem and newbie managers should guard against this by spending enough time to master these skills and getting good at dealing with ambiguities and achieving results through others. Having 1 or 2 reports to start a management career is a good way to start practicing these.

In another post about management challenges, I discussed major aspects of management that become critical when you have too many reports (my example had 9 reports). All those are very valid for managers having any number of reports, and if you are a new manager, you will do good to review them.

However, when you move from 1 report to 4-5 reports, there is a big pitfall that you will do well to avoid. This is the art of time management. Continue reading

High-performance teams – Do they need leaders?

Recently I attended a training which highlighted some of the differences between team and workgroups. The discussion started with the team definition. The definition used was the one from ‘Wisdom of Teams‘ book:

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

This immediately (and rightly so in my opinion) shows that discipline-based teams (like dev team, test team or PM team) is not really a team but a workgroup since it doesn’t have complementary skills and mostly they are individually-accountable. A real team in such discipline-based organizations (which is most of the organizations in this world) will be feature/product teams which are formed to create solution for a specific problem.

However, this got me thinking again on the topic of leadership: how important is the role of a leader in a team? In a workgroup, a leader is obviously needed because someone is needed to hold people individuals accountable to their assignments.

Most of the examples in Wisdom of Teams have designated leaders in the team (and the special role a designated leader plays in the team) but the definition itself doesn’t include the need for a leader. This may be because in a high-performance team, individuals step up to lead as needed and hence designated leader may not be needed on day-to-day basis.

However, in most real-life teams I have seen, the designated/natural leader is the one who takes the additional responsibility (call it individual accountability) to keep the spirit of team alive by continuing to strive for common purpose and mutual accountability when things go wrong or get stuck.

When we discuss the forming-storming-norming-performing model for team, storming is the phase where most teams get stuck for a long time, and again it is the designated leader who has to get the team moving on to the norming and performing phases by being creative in storming phase (without short-circuiting the process of storming of course).

In my opinion, self-managed team is a rarity and while it is an ideal goal to have, we cannot plan for such an ideal outcome and try to work without a leader. As a manager, if you get a chance to form a team, it is your responsibility to designate a leader for the team (with clear roles and responsibilities, which are different than when you are a manager for example), and you would have tremendously increased the chances of success for the team.

What do you think about this? Is a leader essential to a team, or do you think he/she will hinder the performance of the team in most of the cases?

Joining a team as a team member

In my previous post, I discussed ways in which a leader can be effective as he/she joins a new team. In my opinion, culture plays the most important role in how easy (or difficult) it is for a newcomer to be accepted in a team, and this is more pronounced when you are a new team member to a team than when you join as a leader. As a leader, it is easier (than when you are a team member), since you have the option of changing the team operating style and culture since you have the authority (though this is a difficult task: changing something in a team is an extremely hard undertaking if you look at the absolute scale of difficulty).

When you are team member, most of the time you need to adapt to the team culture rather than change it (at least in the beginning). In couple of previous posts on Teams, I examined the ways you can try changing the team even as a member, but it is an extremely hard thing to do, and rarely successful. This post focuses more on getting to be part of a team and I assume that it is a team whose overall culture you subscribe to (if you don’t, you have a bigger problem at your hand than just getting acceptance!).

Most of the ideas in the joining the team as a leader applies here too because they help you establish a relationship of trust with team members and leaders and that is vital for getting acceptance in the team. However, there are some unique issues that you should watch out for, and this post is about two of those: Continue reading

Joining a new team as a leader

There have been many situations when I have joined a team which has lost its leader. Here are some of the things that have worked for me:

  1. 1-1s with each team member: This is extremely useful first step that I have used in many teams with good amount of success. One of the goals I have in these meetings and which I let them know is my desire to understand how I can help them. When someone has lost a leader he or she was working closely with, there are bound to be concerns and apprehensions which are best addressed if you let them talk about them and then ask them how they expect you to help. I have had great many people tell me exactly how to go about being a good lead in the team, which makes my work easier! If you have not tried it, try it whenever you can; you will be surprised by the results.
  2. Use Team meetings to set the tone: I use my initial team meeting to explain what kind of person and leader I am. Specifically I focus on my leadership and operational style, mention a few names from my previous teams in the company I have worked with (should they need reference checks, which they should), and finally summarize what I have heard from them in my 1-1 meetings and how it is going to influence my working style going forward. Continue reading

Dealing with dysfunctional teams

In my last post, I talked about how you identify a dysfunctional team you are part of. In this post, I want to discuss my experiences at dealing with one such team, and my efforts at changing the team being a member of the team. I had to resort to reading many books and my MBA class notes and case studies.

I am just sharing my experience here rather than offering the lessons from there, since it is hard for me to generalize this; different methods will work differently for different people, in different situations. Hopefully having a case study in front of you will help you pick and choose ideas.

In this team, I identified following broken pieces:

  1. Lack of Trust: The team suffered from severe lack of trust. Very few, if any, individuals felt confident that their peers were capable enough to deliver on what they own or were assigned to. Continue reading

Are you part of a dysfunctional team?

In the last post, I discussed the characteristics of a dysfunctional team, based on what the book talks about as well as based on my own experiences. In this post, I will present some of the lessons learned for me about how to identify the fact that you are part of a dysfunctional team. These points describe what can be done to identify the type of your team and how do you know it is a dysfunctional team. They are presented in no particular order so use them as you see fit.

How to find out if you are part of a dysfunctional team?

  • Getting disengaged: Try to get yourself out of the equation once in a while. My way of doing this was assuming that I do not care about the outcome and so I stopped participating in some of the discussions even though I had strong opinions. This was my style, you may use your own, but getting disengaged is important if you want to.
  • Communication patterns: A dysfunctional team typically will have one person monopolizing the discussion on a given topic, with little or no counter-arguments. If one of the person is specially strong because of position (mostly the leader) or expertise (product expert, external ‘expert’ hire), it may even be one person doing all the talking and making decisions. Continue reading

Characteristics of dysfunctional teams

[Credit: This post refers to a book by Patrick Lencioni, one of the most influencial books I have read in my life. From Wikipedia: ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a bestselling[1] business book by consultant and speaker Patrick Lencioni. It describes the many pitfalls that teams face as they seek to “row together”‘]

In my last post about characteristics of high-performance teams, I discussed the tenets of high-performance teams (as given by The Wisdom of Teams). In this post, I want to discuss the characteristics of a dysfunctional team, as defined by The five dysfunctions of a team, a fable about a dysfunctional leadership team, and compare and contrast them with tenets of a high-performance team where I can.

Here are the five dysfunctions of a team (from Wikipedia article about the book):

  1. Absence of Trust: Trust is critical in building a high-performance team and lack of trust is very visible in a dysfunctional team. Most telltale sign of lack of trust is that no one would bring up any issue/problems which will show him/her weak or vulnerable. ‘Having the guard on all the time’ is a characteristic of a team member in a dysfunctional team. I remember my experience with a leadership team; even though the project was in very bad shape, the manager in charge would always talk about great things the team was accomplishing and any uttering by other team members to the contrary was termed by the leader as ‘lack of team work’! Needless to say, there was no trust in the team.
  2. Fear of Conflict: Fear of conflict means that conversation and feedback cannot be candid and difficult questions can’t be asked, because they can give rise to conflicts. This in turn happens because lack of trust causes people to suspect the motive of the person doing the questioning/commenting and it becomes a personal matter rather than team’s. Continue reading

Characteristics of High-performance Teams

In this post, I would like to discuss about characteristics of high-performance teams as defined in The Wisdom of Teams. For more detailed review of the book that I wrote sometime back, see here: Part-I, Part-II and Part-III.

The book defines a team as follows (my formatting)

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

Notice the key words (which are very well explained in the book, what follows is my interpretation and usage of them):

1.       Small number: This is important. It is very hard for a large group of people to come together and form a team, primarily because it is hard to meet other criteria with a large group. Typical size that works well is 5-8 in my opinion. Anything big, and you should consider splitting or having a ‘working group’ (another term defined in the book).

2.       Complementary skills: For a team to function properly, it should have all the necessary skills for the common purpose it exists for. However, many times, team members are picked because of their organizational positions, being closer to the problem, and other extraneous reasons. Beware of such team, they are more likely to have team members with similar skills and/or a big skill  gap in the team, both of which are dangerous for team success.

Continue reading

Series on High-performance and Dysfunctional Teams

I have planned a series of posts on teams. I planned this because of two reasons:

  1. I have left the company I was in for 5 ½ years and where I learned so much about teams, and had opportunity to work in great teams as well as rank bad teams, but all of these providing huge lessons learnt.
  2. I have joined a new company now, in a new country, and in a new role (one reason why I have virtually stopped posting here, till now). This offers me a different perspective to evaluate my lessons with, as well as provides new opportunities to practice them and see them work or fail.

Rather than using good and bad adjectives, which are highly subjective and vague, I will use ‘high-performance’ and ‘dysfunctional’, which are subjective too, but at least there is some sense of meaning to them. I am borrowing these terms from The Wisdom of Teams, the landmark book that gave us the definition of a team, and from The five dysfunctions of a team, a fable about leadership with great insights. Both the books are must-read if you are interested in understanding teams. Continue reading