Most of us spend most of our working lives in teams. Management teams, product development teams, and cross-functional task forces are all types of teams. So how does a team, often thrown together by circumstance, come to perform at the top of their game?
[Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
We know what it’s like to watch a sports team perform at the highest level. Rugby is my preferred game and, despite my support for the Wallabies, I’m always in awe of what the All Blacks consistently achieve every time they take to the field. If they are not the best team of any sport of all time, they have to be serious contenders with a win rate of 77.41% over 580 tests between 1903 and 1919. So what gives them their advantage? No doubt, they have a deep pool of extraordinarily talented players. But that can’t be it. Many national teams have exceptional talent. Could it be that they have mastered the art of learning as a team? That they have found a way to hand down to every generation how to build a championship team forged by the will to be a team of champions?
The idea of team learning is one of the five disciplines Peter Senge writes about in his book The Fifth Discipline. But what does team learning mean? Can a team learn? A team is an abstract noun, and therefore doesn’t have a brain of its own to do any learning. No, team learning is how the team members learn how to function more and more coherently in pursuit of a common goal.
“If they all pull in different directions,
there’ll be an awful lot of wasted effort”
In that pursuit, you can do everything right to encourage individuals to be their best. They can get trained in their functional discipline, learn the general rules of leadership, and you can even create an environment where you empower them with all the authority they require to execute their accountabilities. But if they all pull in different directions, there’ll be an awful lot of wasted effort. What’s needed to make it all work together is alignment. Part of that alignment is generated by creating a shared vision, but that is not enough. We have to do our learning together to be an effective team.
According to Senge, learning together has three critical dimensions: the need to think insightfully about complex issues; the need for innovative, coordinated action; and the need to work effectively with other teams, as, for the most part, senior teams achieve their goals through the efforts of other teams. Common to all three of these critical dimensions is the need to communicate effectively. But, in some sense, saying we need to communicate effectively begs the question. It’s too skeletal a form of words to grasp the profundity of its importance. So, let’s take a deeper dive.
The word communicate has the same root as communion, which comes from the Latin verb communicare ‘to share, communicate, impart, inform’. Well, how do we go about our work of communicating, whether in writing or conversation, but especially, for our purposes of team learning, in conversation? The word conversation means ‘to turn together’. So we can think of it as turning together to face what we see as our current reality and how we intend to get from where we are to where we want to be. None of us is so talented that we have an omniscient vision and no blind spots. When we turn to each other, the informing sentiment should therefore be a degree of humility.
Whether we talk about ego or pride, both words point to an inability to see the other as anything more than an ‘it’—an inanimate object in the field of awareness, separate from the self and seen for the most part in terms of ‘its’ utility to the person making the demand for time and effort. These conversations contain none of Senge’s three criteria for team learning. It’s as if the one doing the talking is simply projecting their thoughts onto a screen—analogous to the curtains closed across a window to the exterior. There is no curiosity about the ‘its’ point of view unless it affirms the opinion of the narcissistic protagonist. Like the man in Plato’s cave, they wrestle with the shadow of the bear cast onto the wall rather than addressing the bear standing at the entrance.
When we turn from the wall and face the entrance, we have disconfirming data. The world is not as we had previously surmised, and we have to take stock. Only then can we move from the ignorance of our self-made projections of how we have shaped the world and make observations about the reality in front of us. This kind of thinking and conversing is fuelled by reason and puts a premium on empirical evidence for a given point of view.
Discussions, on the other hand, often mean we argue our case and seek to win that argument. We have all felt the impulse to be right rather than to understand. Perhaps we want the reward for being clever enough to win the fight, but in so doing lose sight of the fact that the person or people with whom we are conversing are often not wrong but simply hold a different point of view. In the febrile times in which we live, this striving for the ‘correct’ response or approach to the question of the day tends to leave us with a view that the other is not only wrong for the opinions they hold but are wicked for doing so.
“We have all felt the impulse to
be right rather than to understand”
It’s only when we break through the invisible shield of learned cynicism and expose ourselves to being vulnerable that we can engage in the kind of conversation that fosters team learning. Living only through the apparatus of our rational mind might win some arguments, but does little to encourage deeper conversations that produce genuine fresh insight into what would otherwise be intractable problems. This level of conversation goes by the name of dialogue, based on the Greek dia, ‘through’, and logos, ‘meaning’.
The starting point for dialogic conversations is a posture of empathy. We must situate ourselves in the shoes of the other to first come to know their world of facts and sentiment before attempting to navigate a way through. The only way we can tap the potential for many minds to be more intelligent than one is if we create a space in which each team member has the opportunity to give full expression to what’s on their mind. While doing so, they must suspend the natural impulse to trigger defensive routines. Older areas of the brain, such as the amygdala, must be consciously held in check if the fight, flight or freeze impulse is not to sabotage the conversation. As Viktor Frankl put it, ‘Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.’
This transition from discussion—with the same ‘I’-to-‘it’ connotations as percussion and concussion—to dialogue, is predicated on everyone in the team’s ability to actively suspend assumptions. Those assumptions could be based on the data and information being offered to the conversation, or it could be about the motives or behaviour of the person making the offering. Applying the degree of mindfulness required to suspend these assumptions is no easy task and requires ongoing practice. A foundation of that practice is to revere the principle of free speech. If I can’t say what I’m thinking, how will I know if it’s true or needs correction or modification?
Given that you will seek to develop a culture in which free speech is encouraged, every time you feel or notice a defensive routine popping up, you have to remind yourself that the essence of the team rests in its collegiality. We are in this together. It’s impossible to conceive of a universe in which we would all think the same. Having different opinions means that, from time to time, you will offend, and at other times you will be offended.
Practising reflective dialogue, as the name implies, means reflecting on how the conversation impacts you at both the level of reason as well as emotionally. Furthermore, as your desire strengthens to transcend the strictures of your current situation, you feel compelled to invest the time and effort necessary to understand the impact of the conversation on your colleagues. As the practice deepens, the conversations move into a different mode again—generative dialogue. Generative in the sense that they generate new possibilities, as they allow for the demise of flawed mental models and the generation of innovative new ones.
Ultimately, ‘team learning’ uses collective intelligence to build alignment around a common goal. Therefore, we need the capability to develop collective intelligence within our team and across other teams with whom we need to interact in pursuit of our common goals.
“Team learning uses collective intelligence
to build alignment around a common goal”
In rugby, we have the forward pack, the half-backs and the backline, sometimes called the three quarters. On match day, there are also those on the substitutes’ bench, the coaching staff, the team manager, and of course, all the fans. On those rare occasions when my beloved Wallabies bring their best game to defy the odds and beat the mighty All Blacks, I know this is no fluke. There is present a collective intelligence, honed through the physical and mental practice of suspending whatever defensive routines have been the story informing prior defeats. In so doing, they have found through a dialogue of colleagues, not only each other but also that which aligns all of the parts to a victory for the whole. It’s the essence of team learning in action.
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