Developing Groups and Teams for Positive Organisational Impact

I’m studying the course Creating a Team Culture of Continuous Learning on Coursera. These are my revision notes for week 3: Developing Groups and Teams for Positive Organisational Impact.

What disables organisational learning?

  • We need productive spaces and accountability, but we need discovery spaces too:
    • Doing space and discovery space
    • Exploit vs explore
    • Operations vs emergence
    • Staff meetings vs think tank meetings
  • Major contributors to disabling organisational learning: time, resources and authority
    • Improvement teams are often set up as a bypass that’s not connected to other things.
      • They don’t really have time, resources or authority to effect change.
      • Sometimes set up as a way to keep people busy, to keep them from getting in the way or of the “real work”
      • How are the teams’ findings connected to the decisions that the organisation needs to make?
    • Time: the team has its work to do, but does it have the time to do it?
    • Resources: does the team have the resources to do it’s work?
    • Authority: does the team have the authority to make changes?
  • Undiscussables can contribute to failure:
    • Things that are not talked about, but are important:
      • Assumptions that are made
      • Tacit norms within the organisation
      • It’s undiscussable to talk about undiscussables
      • Some things are considered sacred in organisations
    • This makes it like an iceberg.
      • It’s under the surface and hard to see
  • Looking for flaws in ideas instead of exploring their potential inhibits creativity and innovation
    • Negating “but”: that sounds like a great idea, but
    • “We’ve tried this before”
    • Stereotypes
      • We cannot discuss ideas because they are rejected
      • A leader asks for ideas, but everyone stays silent
  • Information hoarding
    • People think that some information is their competetive advantage, and are reluctant to reveal it.
    • “If I give it away, I’m not needed any more”
    • “Thing” mentality. This idea is a thing, and I have it and you don’t. If I give it to you then you have it and I don’t (zero sum game)
  • Leadership
    • Top level of management says middle management has no line of sight
    • Bottom says “we have no direction” (they have no idea what the leadership is doing)
  • Focus on short term results
    • Task force comes up with long term vision, mission, etc
    • Gets back to work, and continues with fire-fighting, neglecting the vision
  • No clear direction
    • The team is not able to set a clear direction because of confusion in the organistaion
    • Sometimes organisations set up task forces or committees to give the appearance that important matters are being discussed, but they may not really be interested in the outcome
      • They are given unclear directions
    • Disconnected goals
  • Not aligning rewards with desired behaviours
    • Individual rewards (bonuses, etc) cause havoc with promoting teamwork
    • Most valuable player versus team
    • Different cultures have different norms regarding individual versus collective rewards

What enables organisational learning?

  • Strength based change
  • Clear timelines and deliverables
  • Explicit and intentional
    • time, resources, authority
  • Diversity in views
    • The group or team needs membership that represents the range of views in the organisation
  • Design thinking is a form of solution-focused thinking – starting with defining an ideal or better future situation instead of solving a specific problem

Suggested Readings

  • “Defensive routines are thoughts and actions used to protect individuals’, groups’, and organizations’ usual way of dealing with reality … Organizational defensive routines are anti-learning, overprotective, and self-sealing.” Argyris, C. (1990). Overcoming organizational defensive routines: Facilitating organizational learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall., p. 25
  • Olson, E. E., & Eoyang, G. H. (2001). Facilitating organizational change: Lessons from complexity science. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.
  • Top, Middle and Bottom. Read more on Barry Oshry’s article.
  • Hackman, R. J. (2002). Leading teams: Setting the stage for great performances. Harvard Business School.
  • Martin, R. (2009). The design of business: Why design thinking is the next competitive advantage. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
  • Brown, T. (2009). Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. HarperCollins.

Scenario: Executive Team at the Bank

  • Background
    • Meeting between CEO and senior leadership
    • Things are going well for the company. They could assume that things will continue
    • They want to identify upcoming threats
  • CEO:
    • Alright everyone, phones away
    • Our wallet share is up 12% quarter after quarter, we had a great review at our last shareholders’ meeting, and we’re holding steady for the last 3 quarters.
    • So tell me, what are we missing? What do we need to be thinking about now that things are going well?
  • CFO:
    • It’s time to roll up our sleeves and help ourselves to assess our threats, to think about the future. No one was ready for the Global Financial Crisis in ’08. We don’t want to see something like that happen again. Now is the time, when we’re feeling good. We all know that things can change over night politically, economically, socially.
  • Head of Strategy:
    • We have an extraordinary team with data, actuarial science, 35 PhDs that are weighing data against global benchmarks, international regulation, etc. I would urge all of you, please, trust this team, they’re a wonderful team. We did not see ’08 coming, but we’re in a much better position with this sort of data to predict this almost completely.
  • Head of HR:
    • I feel so strongly that we have such great human capital. We have boots on the ground. Our team is fantastic. The problem in ’08 was that the information at the bottom wasn’t making it into the boardroom. Now we’ve done a lot of work to change that, but we really need to be putting them in a position where they can be heard.
  • CEO:
    • This is good. This kind of friction helps us reveal our blind spots. We should be doing this on every department on every floor.
  • Head of Retail Products:
    • There is concern in the product department as well, about the viability of the product. We want to review over and over the build of the product because demaind from the consumers is changing all the time. Everything is crowdsource now, where they always want something new. I don’t think we were covered before so well. I don’t think big data maybe had found any red flags on this yet, but I think we need to check with all the departments.
  • CEO:
    • Yes, and we have to ensure that our products still align with our values. We can’t budge on that. Banks are supposed to prevent these kinds of financial disasters, no cause them.
  • Head of HR:
    • I feel right now at this juncture, our greatest resource is our team. I will be a strong advocate for making sure their voices are heard.
  • Head of Strategy:
    • I would also like, once again, to press this idea of big data. It is much more complex that what we know. It could very much shed a light on any blind spots.
  • CEO:
    • This is not a zero sum game. We can rely completely on your expertise [nods at HR] and your expertise [nods at strategy], right? We need to be looking throughout the company for any ideas and information we can get, as well as outside the company.
  • CFO:
    • Now we should be talking about this product’s situation, because I had this email from him
  • <<crosstalk>>
  • Head of Retail Products:
    • Yes, Daniel. He had a concern that the interest was too high on the new packet that we were talking about.

Debrief Scenario, Part 1

  • That was an example of a discovery meeting.
    • The CEO creates a space where he says “yes, we’re doing well, but that’s not what this is about. What are we missing?”
      • This is a pivotal moment.
    • This creates a frame for discovery.
    • He’s turning to this team to invite them for ideas.
    • All the phone are put away, allowing everyone to be in the moment.
  • Pause to reflect.
    • It’s so easy to lose yourself in the success.
    • Success can be limiting when we become complacent.
  • Diverse team
    • Not just different departments, but different cultures.
    • Still able to work with each other.
    • Because it’s a diverse team, there were diverse ideas as well
    • Thinking about how we are going to diffuse information across the organisation.
  • There was advocacy of ideas
    • Openness to other ideas, not just advocacy
    • It’s not a zero sum game.
  • Productive conflict
    • We want to get different views out on the table.
  • Understanding of each other’s contributions
    • How they were going to work together
    • CEO put both ideas in play. Didn’t make a false choice.
    • We want those differences expressed.
  • Alignment of actions with values
  • They bought in the voice of the customer, the bought in the voices across the floors.
  • In many ways, it was about multiple stakeholders who were outside, the external environment.
  • They are reflecting forward
    • What can we learn?
    • We’ve made mistakes, there have been problems. Let’s not do that.
  • The Ladder of Inference (Argyris, 1990)
    • In these types of discovery meetings, you’re not just fighting your judgements and beliefs against someone else’s judegements and beliefs.
    • Let’s get down and talk about why we think what we think.
    • What are we assuming?

The Ladder of Inference

  • Using the ladder of inference:
    1. Observe what are the beliefs and assumptions.
    2. What are the judgements made
    3. What are the conclusions drawn
    4. Are there any culturally attributed meanings
    5. Observe what people say and do.
  • How do we go about observing teams and groups?
    • Be as descriptive as possible when you observe, avoid interpretation or conclusion
    • Things to pay attention to:
      • Observe the setting – the setting influences team behaviour.
        • e.g. meeting held in a cold room, everyone cross their arms to keep warm, but meeting organisers was interpreting this as everyone being defensive
      • Conversation
        • Jot down quotes (gives a sense of the language being used)
        • Particular language is often used over and over
      • Look for non-verbal behaviour
        • Connect this with what people are doing, what’s happening
    • Self-as-an-instrument: our reactions are important, they are only one data point. Keep track of your reactions. Look for data that corroborates that.
      • If you see someone that looks very angry, don’t just use your own reaction, but look at their tone of voice, what words they’re saying.
    • As you get better at observations, you get better at picking up things that you missed before. Sometime’s you’ll get hints at the undiscussable issues.
  • You don’t have to be a leader to use the ladder of inference. By using it yourself, you invite others to do the same, and come to a different way of thinking about this.

Ladder of Inference Suggested Readings

  • Merriam, S. B. (2009). Chapter Six: Being a careful observer. In S. B. Merriam, Qualitative research. New York: John Wiley.
  • McCormick, D. W., & White, J. (2000). Using one’s self as an instrument for organizational diagnosis. Organizational Development Journal, 18(3), 49-62.

Diffusion of Ideas

  • Encapsulation of ideas.
    • How do you get it to spread?
  • Disablers of diffusion
    • Resistance to change
      • “That’s not how we do it here”
      • Not invented here
      • I don’t think it will work
    • Central group messages
      • Top down dictat – resisted at the bottom of the hierarchy
    • Xerox example:
      • Invented UPC code scanning
      • Was making money elsewhere, so the idea sat on the shelf
  • Enablers:
    • Top level managers need to create space to enable teams to tell their stories to other parts of their organisation
      • That group has credibility and street cred.
      • They have the trust and respect of their peers to explain what they’ve done, and why they’ve done it
    • Learning is an iterative, recursive process
      • Uncertainty, ambiguity. No clear way forward
      • The uncertainty and ambigity calls for reframing, new ways of doing things.
      • Design thinking and design methods
      • Organisations and teams often do not see solutions in an iterative way
  • Design thinking
    • Starting with “this is what ought to be”
    • Future does not have a roadmap
  • Dialectical thinking:
    • In every solution is contained its own dissolution
  • Shared understanding of a problem
    • Breaking the frame
    • Interpretation – “Rolling stone gathers no moss”.
      • Two opposed frames:
        • Rolling = action = good, moss = stagnation = problem
        • Rolling = chaos = bad, moss = stability = growth = good
  • Need to explore and exploit

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