Your Team is a System

Your team is a system made up of people. People with a range of worldviews, experiences, motivations, and skills. If you want things to go well with your team, you need a kind of double vision. You need to see the system as a whole as well as the smaller relationships and individuals within.

There are a few things you can do to help this system be the best it can be.

BE CLEAR ABOUT THE GOAL. RESTATE IT OFTEN

Leaders tend to internalize the goal and assume that everyone on the team has done this as well. But team members can get distracted from what the goal is. This distraction leads to messy decision-making. It’s your job as a leader to be consistent in reminding your team of the goal. If you are designing a charter school, for example, it’s easy to get caught up in all of the features this new school might have and if your team members forget the goal, the criteria for the decision-making about these features can go off course. So remind them of the goal. The goal in the school example might be to serve students in a way that their current school isn’t doing. The goal might be to help these students be good people in the world. Remind your team of that. Once a month sounds about right. It will help guide your team’s decision- making.

ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR TEAM MEMBERS. VALUE THEIR WORLDVIEWS

You’ve brought together a diverse team, not by accident, but because you value the creativity that a diverse group is capable of. But along with creativity and diversity comes tension. Embrace it. When things get hard, remind your team why that’s a good thing. Sure, it would have been easy to bring a homogenous group of people together to work toward a goal. But the results would not have the depth that your diverse team’s results will have. Remind yourself and your team that there’s a cost associated with that depth. It’s that you have to put energy into navigating tension when it arises. Help your team see it this way, too. Tension is something to lean into, not something to avoid.

GIVE FEEDBACK. THE QUALITY OF THAT FEEDBACK MATTERS

Even though your team is a system, you need to see each person in it in order for it to operate well. Your team members do not want to feel like pawns in a chess game. They want to be seen as individuals with unique points of view that contribute to the richness of the team. They need feedback from you on a regular basis, not just in a yearly review. If it’s criticism, make it a private conversation. But if it’s praise, make it public. And make it meaningful. “I like your work” isn’t meaningful feedback. An art student gets an F for the day if they give that kind of feedback during a critique. It’s empty. You need to say why you like someone’s work in order to show them that you really see them. If you struggle to get to why you like someone’s work, zoom in on their process: Did they work hard? Were they persistent or creative? Did they show grit and tenacity? If so, call attention to that. Giving people feedback not only on their work but on the process that they used to do that work, isn’t only meaningful, it’s useful. It teaches them that they can face any challenge, that good results aren’t a result of some kind of innate talent or kiss from the muse. Good results are the outcome of hard work and persistence.

IDENTIFY BOTTLENECKS. ADDRESS THEM

Sometimes the system gets jammed up. Empower your team to identify and address bottlenecks when they happen. And rather than throw rocks at the bottleneck, which is often a person, slow the system down to the speed of it. Get everyone in the system moving at the same pace. Then once you do, harness your team’s creativity to figure out how to increase the capacity of the bottleneck. This can often mean taking responsibilities off of a person’s plate. If the system runs better now, then you’ve succeeded. But if you’ve created a bottleneck somewhere else, address that as well. Fine tuning a system isn’t a one and done deal. It’s an ongoing process. And if you are a systems thinker, you might even enjoy it. Iteration is a beautiful thing.

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