Diagnosing Strengths & Barriers to Learning on Teams

I’m studying the course Creating a Team Culture of Continuous Learning on Coursera. These are my revision notes for week 2.

Diagnosing Problems in Groups and Teams

  • We tend to think we bring together a group of people, and they will be high performing
  • It doesn’t always work! How can we identify the problems?
  • Example: steering committee on an organisational development initiative
    • Interesting patterns:
      • Every time the team met in person, lots of laughter and jokes. The were agreeable on almost anything that was discussed during the meeting
      • However, after the meeting, lots of emails sent raising numerous issues, which were not discussed during the in-person meetings
      • The next time they met, none of the issues were raised
  • The culture of politeness
    • We’re interfacing with each other, face to face, we’re going to be polite
    • “Real” issues are secondary to being polite
    • Being polite gets in the way of learning in organisations
  • The pattern of repeating
    • Even when contentious issues are raised, other people in the meeting disengage and lose focus. They’re not wanting to signal agreement or disagreement.
    • The speaker worries that they don’t get acknowledgement, so they repeat the same thing, a bit louder and more exuberant.
      • “I’ll do it again, and they’ll get it this time”
    • Not breaking the the frame, not stepping back or taking some sort of time-out.
  • Conflict is often avoided
    • People don’t feel the need to confront each other
    • They’re not comfortable dealing with conflicts
    • Undiscussable issues are not discussed during meetings
      • Conflicts are discussed outside of formal meetings, over a lunch or a beer
  • How to interrupt the negative cycle
    1. Pause, and raise the question of “What’s going on here?”
      • Make the pause part Ground rules.
      • Allow the team to re-frame and refocus
      • It needs to be a deliberate activity
      • The leader needs to help establish that this an effective and acceptable practice in the team
      • Examples:
        • work teams in factories can stop the whole production line
        • retrospectives
    2. Try to identify what the issue is
      • Where is the team is getting stuck?
    3. Collect a little data.
      • Ask everyone on the team:
        • What’s working well?
        • What isn’t working well?
      • Do an anonymous survey if people are uncomfortable talking in the open about what the issues are.
      • Don’t just make assumptions. Really try to figure out what people are seeing

Scenario: Healthcare, Part 1

  • Background
    • Hospital in a major metropolitan area that is busy 24 hours a day
    • Doctors and nurses are rushing about
    • There is tremendous paperwork behind every job that gets done
    • There is a grave problem:
      • Patients come in to the ER, and are waiting to be admitted to a bed in the hospital
      • Between their time in at the ER, and getting to the bed, there is a lag of time.
      • Sometimes, patients have waited up to 7 hours in a hallway in a gurney waiting for the bed to be available.
      • Who’s at fault?
      • Who can find a solution to this problem?
    • Cross functional team to solve the problem
      • Senior physician is leader
      • Representatives from nursing, facilities, safety, and housekeeping
      • Only 10% of the 2 hour meeting has everybody there trying to solve this
  • Chief medical officer:
    • We have too many patients waiting in the hall.
    • We’re getting calls all the time, looking for beds
    • What’s the problem?
  • Head of nursing:
    • By the time housekeeping has finished with the room, we have to put it in, confirm it, by the time we get the information to you (chief medical officer), it’s too late. Hours have passed.
  • Head of health and safety:
    • It is an infrastructure problem. We need better phone lines, better IT
  • Director of facilities and infrastructure
    • That is absolutely untrue. New phone lines, new IT system. That’s review board and a huge budget
  • <<crosstalk>>
  • Head of nursing:
    • We don’t even know if it’s going to work
  • <<crosstalk>>
  • Chief medical officer:
    • If it helps communication, I agree that it might be a good idea. We need to talk about it
  • Director of facilities and infrastructure:
    • it’s just a way over the top solution.
  • <<crosstalk>>
  • Head of nursing:
    • It’s just another thing that I have to teach an entire staff of people
  • Director of facilities and infrastructure:
    • I think the infrastructure problem is a personal infrastructure, there could be a way to open that.
  • Chief medical officer:
    • Yes, but listen, we have the finances to do whatever we need
  • Head of nursing:
    • If we have the finances, we should be hiring more nurses
  • <<crosstalk>>
  • Head of health and safety:
    • Is that the problem?
  • Head of nursing:
    • Yes, that’s the problem!
  • Head of housekeeping:
    • There are people in the rooms who are cleaning. They can do the job, they can report directly.
  • Head of nursing:
    • Yeah, but we need to have checks in place
  • <<crosstalk>>
  • Head of nursing:
    • Unfortunately, your staff can not be counted on (talking to housekeeping)
  • Director of facilities and infrastructure:
    • There is a huge competency problem. Huge! They don’t show up, they take 25 minute smoke breaks.
  • Head of housekeeping:
    • You’re not even on our floor.
  • Head of nursing:
    • But I am, and I feel like I consistently have problems and rooms are not cleaned consistently and adequately
  • <<crosstalk>>
  • Chief medical officer:
    • The problem is if the beds are not prepared, then we are in deep shit.
  • Director of facilities and infrastructure:
    • There’s a way we could work within this infrastructure personally
  • Head of nursing:
    • I just feel incredibly frustrated. I have almost no staff, and I have another team that feels unwilling to work with us, and if I could find a way…
  • Chief medical officer:
    • How hard is it to pick up the phone? That’s what I want to know.
    • (walks off)
  • Head of housekeeping:
    • (to head of nursing) My staff can work with your staff, they just don’t need to, they can go directly.
  • Head of nursing:
    • I’m unwilling to have these conversation when not everyone is present
  • Director of facilities and infrastructure:
    • Shall we table this for next week?
  • Chief medical officer:
    • (walks back)
    • So, how are we doing?
  • Director of facilities and infrastructure:
    • We are nowhere.

Debrief: Scenario, Part 1

  • It was a shouting match, no one listening
  • There was a lot of blaming
    • Chief of health and safety blamed an entire housekeeping department for not being competent
  • Chief medical officer seemed very uninterested.
    • Not even physically available for the entire meeting
    • Left to take a call
  • No solution focus
  • When we’re in a “fight” situation, our guards go up and we protect ourselves from blame.
  • Defensive routines (Agyris)
    • Triggered when we feel attached
    • “My group did our part”
    • “It’s not our fault”
    • There’s very little communication.
  • Teams need to find a way to reframe “fights” to “an exchange of ideas”, or something constructive
    • Stepping back and listening, as opposed to just asserting your own view points
  • Can we voice what the assumptions are?
    • That prevents them from going underground, getting buried

Scenario: Healthcare, Part 2

  • Background
    • Let’s assess the previous meeting, so that we can make some structural changes to the way that they communicate
  • Chief medical officer:
    • I think the last meeting was difficult. I think we need to find a way to make our meetings more effective so that we can solve the problem at hand
    • There’s no hierarch. Everyone is free to express themselves.
    • What did we do wrong in the last meeting?
  • Head of housekeeping:
    • It was not good. Everyone talked over everyone else.
  • Director of facilities and infrastructure:
    • Well, this is progress. We are laughing at each other.
    • I feel like if we’re really going to be focused on what we’re focusing on, we can’t keep taking calls in the middle of meetings.
  • Head of housekeeping:
    • In regard to staying focused, I think we really need to listen to everybody. I did not feel heard at the last meeting. I felt there was definitely a pecking order going on.
  • Chief medical officer:
    • Well, why don’t we  just go around and one person at a time take a minute, say what they need to say with no interruptions.
  • Head of nursing:
    • We for me the last meeting was really frustrating because I felt ganged up on, and there was no one stepping in. We nurses are overworked as it is, and we hardly have a chance to catch a breath more or less. I think two or three times, steps down the line.
  • Head of health and safety:
    • Guys, it’s easy to point fingers, and point out where other people drop the ball, but I think we could all do a lot better with less blame.
  • Chief medical officer:
    • Something I really would like is if people could come from their own departments with ideas from their own departments that might solve the problem at hand, and think about it ahead of time.
  • Head of housekeeping:
    • I feel like I did do that. I did come to a meeting with a solution I’d thought of that didn’t get heard. A lot of assumptions were being made about the skills of my staff. Nine times out of ten, the room is clean when the nurse comes to check it. My housekeeper could enter that into the system, get that message to the ER right way, save you time and work. I hired the staff. I know that they can do it.
  • Chief medical officer:
    • I don’t think that the housekeeping are going to solve this problem. I mean, this is a really high takes problem, this is a big deal.
  • Director of facilities and infrastructure:
    • Well, just to point out in the open format, you just made the assumption that Sarah was talking about, that housekeepers somehow can’t do it.
  • Chief medical officer:
    • Okay, all right, duly noted.
  • Head of nursing:
    • I does seem sometimes that we aren’t listening and we’re pushing too hard with our own ideas.
  • Chief medical officer:
    • How about is somebody vould volunteer to write down what is being said in the meetings, because I know everybody’s got on their mind, and then distribute it.
  • Head of housekeeping:
    • I’m happy to do that.
  • Chief medical officer:
    • Great. Maybe write down your proposal.

Debrief: Scenario, Part 2

  • The team takes time out, and is able to step back and review its own operation
  • It will take time to get these “retrospectives” working well
  • In this space, people have time, they are listened to, they are “in” the space.
  • The leader plays an important role in shifting the focus of the meeting
    • They have to give a green light to allow the meeting to progress (e.g. without hierachies)
    • They have to be careful not to fill the meeting space with their own voice
  • After Action Review
    • A meeting to assess what we just experienced
    • In the meeting you’re calling a timeout.
    • We want to examine what just happened, and figure out a better way.
  • The leader models the behaviour
    • e.g. I’m turning off my cell phone
  • Need to deal with specifics.
    • “We all need to listen to each other.”
    • No! Let’s examine the times when people didn’t listen to each other. Let’s be specific and detailed, not vague and general.
  • Phased approach
    1. Leave the rank and hierarchy at the door
    2. The leader legitimises, role models the behavior, creates permission, ground rules, space
    3. Examine the process. What was going on? Being in the moment.
  • It’s not about blame. It’s about effectiveness.
    • It’s about the interactions of the group, not about what you did.
    • We need to take our own responsiblity in this and focus on effectiveness, no blame
    • I’m in control of my response to what you did. I need to control my response.
  • Conduct After Action Reviews frequently
    • Some teams set aside the last 5 minutes of ever meeting for this purpose
    • Keep continually learning about what worked well, what isn’t working, and how you can improve it.
    • “What worked well” is a good reframing. You can use it at the start of the next meeting.
  • Appreciated Inquiry (Passmore and Woodman, 1987)
  • Slow down the meeting.
    • Don’t let people jump in and claim the airtime.
    • Get everyone to write down a few ideas first.
      • What are some of your thoughts about how we could become more effective?
      • People are working in parallel
    • Make sure you respond to other peoples points and issues, don’t immediately jump in and add your own.

Our After Action Review

  • This is about how I’m impacting you, and how we’re impacting each other.
  • Am I thinking about the things that you’re thinking about.
  • Are we meeting our goals?
    • Being clear about our goals
  • Lack of immediate feedback from the learner
  • Our group norms:
    • Questioning our rames, learning from each other
    • Giving concrete examples and cases that illustrate our points
    • Checking to make sure we covered the main points

Guide to the After Action Review

  • Guide to the After Action Review
    • An AAR is centered on four questions:
      • What was expected to happen?
      • What actually occurred?
      • What went well and why?
      • What can be improved and how?
    • An AAR features:
      • An open and honest professional discussion
      • Participation by everyone on the team
      • A focus on results of an event or project
      • Identification of ways to sustain what was done well
      • Development of recommendations on ways to overcome obstacles
    • Contents:
      1. Planning the After Action Review
      2. Conducting an After Action Review
      3. Sharing the AAR Results

Skilled Incompetence (Argyris, 1986)

  • Skilled Incompetence
    • Smart executive team, but unable to make clear decisions
    • What Causes Incompetence?
      • The culprit is skill
    • Where the Skillful Thrive
    • Defense Routines Emerge
    • How to Become Unskilled
      • The answer is unlearning


  • BART stands for Boundaries, Authority, Roles, and Task
  • BART is a way of thinking about teams that emphasizes psychodynamic processes
  • Boundaries
    • e.g. time, physical setting, psychological, etc
    • Time boundary examples
      • people arriving late, checking mail during meeting, etc
      • In many cultures, commencing a meeting on time is considered very important, a trademark of being very professional at work.
      • In other cultures, they’re very lenient. It’s OK to stary a meeting 15 minutes later than the scheduled time.
    • Perhaps the team does not value boundaries.
  • Authority
    • e.g. who wields authority, who has formal or informal authority
    • e.g. the person who was the designated leader was not the actual leader. The acutal leader was another team member who was a subject matter expert.
    • Who is considered to be an authority in the context?
    • We have formal and informal authority
  • Roles
    • e.g. formal and informal roles
    • e.g. one team had a member who was seen and designated as the contrarian
      • every point that was made, he felt called upon to disagree, contract, argue
      • he was really their critical thinking partner, so that turned out to be positive
    • Think about what the role says about the group or team and how you can understand that
  • Task
    • e.g. at least 2 tasks
      • work task
        • What is it that we’re assigned to do?
        • What is our purpose?
      • survival task
        • How do we sustain ourselves?
        • How do we continue our activity?
    • Teams can often get confused between their survival task, as opposed to their assignment

The BART System of Group and Organizational Analysis (Green & Molenkamp, 2005)

Focus on Culture and Conflict in Teams: Part 1 – Culture

  • Team that function well are able to deal with having a team member absent, and welcome them back on their return
  • Power Distance (Hosftede & Hofstede, 2005)
    • The aspect of where and how authority empower distributed inthe organisation
  • Project teams almost always have a pecking order
  • It is imperative that the organisational culture provides or accomodates collaboration seamlessly across culture or across authorities when the situation so demands
    • When there are emergencies, to be able to rise out of the authority matrix and be able to chip in, get your points and thoughts across
  • Effective teams have productive conversations. That is not about pecking order, but who has information
  • Overt and covert norms affect the team
    • Overt norms: norms the team recognises
    • Covert norms: norms that are below the surface, not reconised.
    • Ground rules on norms
  • Ground rules
    • Ground rules should be about the purpose of the team
    • There are also ground rules about the operational aspects of the team:
      • “it’s OK to disagree”,
      • or “let’s not interrupt each other”
  • The evolution of Japanese management: Lessons for U.S. managers (marsland & Beer, 1980)
    • Japanese firms spent a lot of time planning, less on implementation
    • U.S. firms spent less time planning
    • Japanese firms spent much less time in implementation because they had spent the time planning
  • Excitement about learning
  • Culture orientations
  • Subcultures
  • Culture is a very important diagnostic lens

Focus on Culture and Conflict in Teams: Part 2 – Conflict

  • Many organisations avoid conflict
    • Get the like-minded people together
    • This is a mistake
  • We need to get the people with different views in the space and bring them into the team so the differences can be expressed
  • Reframe conflict as “creative tension”
    • Is is tensions, there are different views, but it is creative
    • Getting undiscussable issues on the table can lead to insights. It’s ultimately where great transformation comes from


  • We encourage you to:
    1. Acknowledge what is going on in the team
    2. Step back and identify issues that are causing problems (look at not just the symptoms, but the underlying issues)
    3. What is happening in the larger organisation that is impacting the team
    4. Collect some data (check assumptions)

Other References|Additional Readings

  • Hofstede G. & Hofstede, G. J. (2005). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind (2nd Ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.
  • Marsland, S. & Beer, M. (1980). The evolution of Japanese management: Lessons for U.S. managers. Harvard Business Review.
  • Smith, K. K., & Berg, D. N. (1987). Paradoxes of group life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Darling, M., Parry, C., & Moore, J. (2005, Jul-Aug). Learning in the Thick of It. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/
  • Tavistock Primer II (Hayden & Molenkamp). Link: http://akrice.org/wp-content/uploads/primerII.pdf

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