Category Archives: Teaming

Effective, high-performing teams

How to Develop a Family Hurricane Checklist Using Military-Grade Planning

Concepts Applied in This Post: Red Teaming; complex adaptive systems; Sensemaking; High-Reliability Organizing; Mindful Organizing; Principles of Anticipation; Situational Awareness; Anticipatory Awareness; Mission Analysis; Shared Mental Models; Mission Command; Commander’s Intent; ; Cynefin; vector-based goals; challenge and respond checklists; and establishing a sense of urgency.

This post outlines how families can apply some elements of military-grade planning to develop a hurricane checklist. Moreover, this post also applies to business leaders interested in real agility, innovation, and resiliency.

The Rivera girls reviewing the plan

Background

With last week’s devastation in Houston on our minds and the looming threat of Hurricane Irma in the Atlantic, I thought it would be prudent to take my family through some basic hurricane preparedness planning. To do this, I decided to take my wife, six-year-old and soon-to-be eight-year-old daughters through the same military-grade agility, innovation, and resiliency lessons that I coach to FORTUNE 100 companies and startups. After all, a family is a team and a hurricane is a complex adaptive system, right?

This activity ended up providing valuable lessons for the entire family and as a result, we delivered a challenge and response checklist, reviewed and re-supplied our emergency kits, and more importantly, we became more aware of capabilities and limitations of the socio-technical system we call our home.

Feel free to apply the approach to your household or business.

Focus on Outcomes

To start the activity, begin with a basic statement, a vector-based goal that inspires action. The outcome statement I used:

Survive for five days in our house during and following a major hurricane

Notice that my Commander’s Intent does NOT contain a clear, measureable, achievable objective or SMART goal. Why?  Because we are dealing with complexity; we cannot predict the future in the Complex domain. When dealing with increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA), emergent goals are fine, as you will see.

Effective Planning

Knowing that plans are nothing and that planning is everything, I used a military-grade planning approach to help the girls understand the system we live in, the wonders and dangers of a hurricane, and their roles in the event of a hurricane. To do this, I asked the girls to write down those things that may happen during a hurricane.

Anticipate Threats

Complex adaptive systems and high-performing teams anticipate the future. One of the common planning problems I see with executive and development teams is they fail to identify threats and assumptions (do not anticipate the future) prior to developing their plan. To help the girls understand this critical step, I asked the them to write down “what” can happen in the event of a hurricane.

Having watched the news on Hurricane Harvey, they were able to identify a few threats associated with hurricanes (e.g.  flooding, no power, damage to windows). However, just as adult team members do when they have meetings, my girls went down many rabbit holes to include discussions about Barbie and Legos. The best approach to overcome this natural phenomenon (cognitive bias) is to use the basic Red Teaming technique of Think-Write-Share.

With some steering help from mommy and daddy, our girls where able to get back on course and capture several more “whats” before moving on to the next step.

Red =Threats; Blue = Countermeasures; Green = Resources Needed.

Identify Countermeasures and Needed resources.

With the threats identified, we began to write down possible countermeasures and needed and available resources that overcome those threats.  As we were doing this, we noticed the emergence of a what appeared to be a checklist (see our blue notes in the above picture). Although not explicitly stated in the Commander’s Intent, we decided that we should add “build a checklist” –an emergent objective– to our product backlog (more on this later).

Apply Lessons Learned

“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Knowing that there are many lessons learned from people who have lived through hurricanes, I went online to find and apply those lessons learned to our countermeasure and resource backlog. I used the Red Cross as a source and discovered we missed a couple of minor items in our growing backlog.

*I recommend using external sources only after you develop countermeasures to your identified threats. Why? Because planning is about understanding the system; it is how we learn to adapt to change.

After we applied lessons learned, we used a green marker to identify those needed resources (see picture). These resources became part of our product backlog.

Build a Prioritized Product Backlog

A product backlog should be prioritized based on value. Since I was dealing with children who have a low attention span but were highly engaged in the current activity, I decided to prioritized our backlog in this order:

  • Build a Hurricane Checklist
  • Review with the team (family) what is in our current emergency kit
  • Purchase needed resources
  • Show the kids how to use the kit
  • Build a contingency plan –our contingency plan details are not covered in this post.

“Scrum” It

Since I coach Scrum as a team framework, and our family is a team, I showed my children the basics of Scrum. If you are not familiar with Scrum, you can find the 16-page scrum guide here.

We used a simple Scrum board to track our work and executed three short Sprints. As a result, the girls were able to pull their work, we were able to focus on getting things done, and we identified pairing and swarming opportunities. They also learned a little about what I do for a living.

Key Artifact and Deliverable Review: Challenge and Respond Checklists

With a background in fighter aviation, and having coached surgical teams on how to work as high-performing teams, I know from experience that checklists work in ritualized environments where processes are repeatable. To create a ritualized environment, we can do simple things such as starting an event at a specified time with a designated leader. Another option is to change clothes or wear a vest—by the way, kids love dressing up.

One advantage of a challenge and respond checklist is it can be used to create accountability and provide a leadership opportunity for a developing leader–perfect for kids and needed by most adults. For example, the challenge and respond checklist we developed (above) can be initiated by one of my daughters.  If we needed to run the checklist, one of my daughters would simply read the items on the left  and mommy or daddy would respond with the completed items on the right. Giving a young leader an opportunity to lead a simple team event and recognizing their leadership accomplishments energizes their internal locus of control and utimiately builds a bias toward action.

Feel free to use our checklist as a guide but remember, planning is about understanding your system.

The Most Important Step: Debrief

Yes, a debrief with a six and seven-year-old is possible. Remember to create a learning environment for them, ask them about the goal(s) they set out to achieve, and ask them what they learned. Walk them through the planning steps they just went through to reinforce the planning process. Also, ask them what they liked and what they didn’t like about working on the plan with mommy and daddy. Bring snacks.

Brian “Ponch” Rivera is a recovering naval aviator, co-founder of AGLX Consulting, LLC, and co-creator of High-Performance Teaming™ – an evidence-based, human systems solution to rapidly build and develop high-performing teams and organizations.

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High-Performing Teams and Complex Algorithms: Things You Don’t Have to Figure out Alone

Personally, I can’t solve long division. I don’t do algorithms, logarithms, or any other “-ithms.” I strongly dislike even having to do my taxes (and I am married filing jointly with standard deductions, no investments, no special circumstances, and no complications). I’ll be the first to admit, I’m just not that smart.

What I am is self-aware. After years of training, learning about, working in, and teaching high-performing teams, I knew there had to be reasons – very good reasons – that our techniques, tools, and methodologies all worked as well as they did. I knew there had to be something about the way we worked and the way we trained which was grounded in something other than wild guesswork, happenstance, and luck.

Indeed, as anyone who’s operated in a high-reliability organization knows, you do the things you do for very clear, proven reasons. Often, you do them because other people have died to teach you the lessons your organization has learned, helping to increase its resiliency and robustness.

Developing high-performing teams is no different!

I encounter – daily – blogs, LinkedIn posts, articles, podcasts, papers, seminars, conferences, Meetups (you get the idea) about various aspects of developing and enhancing teams and teamwork. Some are interesting and useful, but the overwhelming majority are based on personal beliefs, ideas, conjecture, experimentation, luck, a bad experience, or any of a number of other subjective, introverted, well-meaning but ultimately wrong ideas.

Don’t misunderstand – these ideas come from really smart people who are giving their absolute best, but intentions do not equate to outcomes.

Why aren’t we hiring these same people to handle our home renovation projects, build our national infrastructure, or handle international trade and defense policies? Because putting in a lot of effort and working hard is different from knowing what you’re doing.

You may be a very dedicated, hard worker, but I prefer to have an actual plumber working on my home’s plumbing, thank you.

Unfortunately, for too many organizations around the world, this is exactly what they do in building teams. They have highly intelligent professionals who are skilled in management, process and portfolio stewardship, agile frameworks and methodologies, and any number of additional things. Yet what they are not studied, or skilled at, is team-building.

To make things worse, these well-meaning individuals also believe, wrongly, that just figuring this “team-building thing” out on their own is the best, most effective course of action. To those people I want to reflect back to my earlier admission that I know my limits. You need to realize that unless you’ve been raised in a culture of team performance and team-building or have spent considerable time studying it, you probably don’t actually know as much about it as you think you do.

Rather, there is an entire world of scientific research, based in empirical studies, and grounded in human social, behavioral, and cognitive psychology, industrial – organizational psychology, human cognition, sociology, and human evolution which informs us about the social, human-interactive skills which power team behaviors, performance, and effectiveness.

There are an abundance of knowledgeable professionals who have spent most of their adult lives studying, working with, and developing great teams.

However despite that fact, organizations, leaders, and managers continue to struggle through trying to figure these things out on their own. They read an HBR article, a few blog posts, and walk away thinking “I got it.” In technology we have a huge array of protocols, structures, frameworks, processes, methodologies, tools, etc., which are intended to somehow supplant or circumvent the real and necessary process of teaching teams and individuals the social teaming skills necessary to enable them to team together effectively.

Developing great teams is not a secret, miracle, or act of individual or organizational brilliance. The science and practice of team-building is based in the fundamental makeup that accompanies being human. Ensuring teams can develop, survive, and thrive, requires the following:

  • Right Environment. Teams need to have the support necessary to enable execution, which includes clear vision/direction, prioritization, and goal-setting from leadership, a culture which enables and rewards teaming, and the ability to identify and deal with things which threaten the team’s ability to achieve its mission or purpose. It also requires leadership and concerted inputs from other teams, as well, like Human Resources and Product Management.
  • Right Skills. Teams need to be trained in the skills which enable high-performance teamwork, and that training needs to be experience-based as well as knowledge-based. They need to learn from those who have lived it, and they need to be empowered to continually learn, grow, and improve those skill-sets. Training individuals is a critically important – and oft-overlooked – key to success. Most people are not born great team players, however as with any skill, the skills which enable effective teamwork can be developed and improved over time.
  • Right Process. A team is a group of individuals working together – interdependently – toward a common and shared goal. As such, they need to have a product which unifies the team members in pursuit of that common, shared goal, and toward which they can work interdependently. They need to be able to employ a process capable of supporting their product’s domain (simple/routine – complex – innovative), and they need to be able to realize intrinsic motivators through Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose (a la Daniel Pink).

Most importantly, you don’t need to figure out how to develop and implement all of these things yourself, and unless you’ve spent your career studying teams, teamwork skills, and team training and development, you probably do not actually possess the knowledge necessary to successfully develop these skills in your teams.

This may seem a stark presentation of reality, and perhaps a bit harsh.

We all want to think we’re great team players and we know everything there is to know about training and developing the skills necessary for teamwork. However, unless you’ve been studying teams, teamwork, and skills, and can name specific social, non-technical, non-process-related skills which enable and enhance interpersonal communication, collaboration, and creativity, you probably aren’t that knowledgeable about what teams and individuals need to develop and enhance their teamwork. As I said in an earlier post – being able to recognize great art when you see it doesn’t make you a great artist!

Instead, you can leverage the knowledge and expertise of others whose professional existence is grounded in building and developing great teams. There are a large number of people across various industries who focus and work in exactly this domain.

Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel yourself, wouldn’t it make more sense to talk to a car manufacturer who can actually help you get where you’re going?

Rather than devising or borrowing lists of protocols and processes to help you get the behaviors you desire out of individual team members, wouldn’t it make far more sense to simply train them in the skills and behaviors they need to team together effectively, provide them feedback, and enable them to execute and succeed together? The knowledge to do so is out there, resident in professionals across various industries and academia. When you find yourself confronted with these sorts of problems, I’d recommend you do what the best leaders always do…

…find and engage the best people to get the job you need done, effectively.

 

Chris Alexander (that’s me) is a former F-14 Tomcat RIO & instructor, and co-founder of AGLX Consulting, where he co-developed High-Performance Teaming™ – a training methodology focused on teaching individuals and teams the social, interactive skills necessary to help them achieve high-performance. He currently works as an agile coach at Qumulo, Inc. in Seattle, Washington.

This post originally published on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/high-performing-teams-complex-algorithms-things-you-dont-alexander

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To Build Great Teams You Need a Plan, Not a Picture

Take a look at the painting below…

Vincent Van Gogh - Cafe Terrace at Night

Notice the way the painter (van Gogh, of course) uses color to create light and shadow, which helps add contour. He draws with perspective, which creates depth. Brush strokes create the illusion of texture, such as cobblestones on the street, or wood on the frame of the doorway. Figures and shapes create the impression of movement, action, and build a scene which our minds can easily interpret.  Now you understand some of the most critical elements in painting, right? So… now you should be able to paint a replica of this masterpiece, or at least be able to create something similar which is just as impressive and iconic.

Can’t do it? Neither can I. We can probably almost universally agree that one cannot simply be shown a great painting, told what techniques, brushes, paints, and colors the artist used in painting it, and then be expected to reproduce it.

There is a fundamental difference between knowing what one needs to do, and actually developing the skills and ability to do it.

Yet we are currently living through exactly this sort of coaching fallacy every day. All around us, thought-leaders, authors, managers, coaches, just about everyone – are deluging the internet with just about everything they can image about the characteristics and behaviors of great teams. For example:

High-performing teams deliver amazing results with high quality.

High-performing teams collaborate together to solve the most difficult problems with ease.

High-performing teams have a common purpose. They work toward shared goals.

High-performing teams manage inter-team conflict and are balanced.

High-performing teams celebrate diversity.

In fact, let me share a little collection of just some of the various attributes, characteristics, and skills found in various articles and publications about “how to build high-performing teams.” Spoiler alert! Like looking at a piece of art, this information doesn’t tell you anything about the things you need to do to start developing your teams toward high-performance. It just shows you a pretty picture of what awesomeness looks like.

characteristics_behaviors_and_skills_breakdown

So what? We, as individuals, managers, leaders – as a culture – are often far too focused on what things look like – great teams, great cultures, great companies, great innovation – and in trying to explain how incredible, amazing, wonderful, efficient, or effective that greatness is, we fail to consider or share with people the more important knowledge about how they can actually start to improve, themselves.

It’s the difference between showing someone a great painting, instead of helping them develop into a better painter. Or to use a sports metaphor, watching Messi and Ronaldo score goals doesn’t help me to become a better soccer player. To improve, I have to develop my own skills.

I suspect the harsh truth is that most of the enthusiastic authors who blog about and are so excited about high-performing teams have never worked in one, never led one, and never built one. Maybe they’ve seen one or two up close? I don’t want to detract from their exuberance, and I applaud the enthusiasm. Yet I also acknowledge the fact that people need more than pretty pictures to help them improve their own situations.

Fortunately, the skills that high-performing teams and organizations use to normalize greatness are skills that every individual, every team, and every organization can develop, too. Communication, collaboration, situational awareness, problem-solving, agility, leadership – even and especially empathy – are all highly trainable skills which empower the dynamic, human interactions and cooperation upon which great teams are built.

The knowledge and information needed to build effective, powerful teams is out there. It is grounded in decades of experience and scientific research in a multitude of fields across a diverse array of work domains spanning every industry. The teams which employ those skills work in the most demanding environments on (or off) our planet, solve the toughest problems, innovate, collaborate, and perform at incomprehensible levels.

To build great teams you need more than pictures and descriptions. You need a plan to train your teams and based on knowledge, research, and experience. That plan starts with the skills which fuel every kind of team, everywhere. Skills which are transcendent and universal because they leverage one powerful fact:

we are all human.

 

Chris Alexander is a former F-14 Tomcat RIO & instructor, co-founder of AGLX Consulting, High-Performance Teaming™ coach, Agile coach, Scrum Master, and is passionate about high-performing teams, teamwork, and enabling people to achieve great things.

This post originally published on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/build-great-teams-you-need-plan-picture-chris-alexander

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7 Ways to Hack Your Daily Stand-up to Create Psychological Safety

Data from Google’s Project Aristotle, a multi-year study of why some of the company’s teams were successful while others were not, revealed that psychological safety is the secret sauce behind its highest performing teams. (Psychological safety, according to Julia Rozovsky, an analyst with Google People Operations, is the dynamic that addresses: “Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?”[1])

But the multi-million dollar, 180-team study did not provide details as to how psychological safety is created. Fortunately, this teaming “discovery” by Google is not new. Thanks to human factors research in aviation and health care, creating psychologically safe environments is relatively simple — though not necessarily intuitive.

A psychologically safe environment cannot be established by simply proclaiming: “This is a safe environment.” And, as far as I know, Google does not possess a magic wand. Psychological safety, according to Amy Edmondson, a professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, must be created by leaders through simple behaviors and actions. Those leaders include perceived, functional and, most importantly, managers in the middle of the organization.

Before introducing key behaviors and actions that promote a psychologically safe environment, leaders should understand the benefits of establishing this critical condition that enables individuals working in groups to rapidly transition to becoming members of high-performing teams.

Psychological safety[2]:

  • Encourages speaking up
  • Enables clarity of thought
  • Supports productive conflict
  • Mitigates failure
  • Promotes innovation
  • Removes obstacles to pursuing goals for achieving performance
  • Increases accountability

Your daily stand-up is the perfect place to create a high-performance, psychologically safe environment for the team. As a leader, you can accomplish this by [3]:

  1. Being accessible and approachable. (Yes, managers are encouraged to attend Scrum events)
  2. Acknowledging the limits of current knowledge
  3. Being willing to display fallibility
  4. Inviting participation and valuing input
  5. Highlighting failures as learning opportunities
  6. Using direct language
  7. Setting boundaries

These seven key behaviors and actions will help you establish a psychologically safe environment for your team – no magic wand needed.


Practical Application to Daily Stand-ups (Scrum) and Your Typical Ineffective Meetings

Most Scrum teams blindly follow The Scrum Guide’s approach to stand-ups, where each team member answers the following three questions:

  1. What did I do yesterday to help the team meet its goal?
  2. What am I doing today to help the team meet its goal?
  3. What impediments are in my or the team’s way of meeting the goal?

Yuck!

This three-part daily Scrum Q&A is a recipe for a status update — which is not the intent of the daily Scrum, but is its typical outcome. To avoid this, and to create psychological safety during the daily Scrum, the event instead needs to be viewed as a re-planning session.

Below is an example stand-up and script that follows an effective planning process and provides several opportunities to display the behaviors and actions needed to create psychological safety.

Big Picture

“Good morning, team. It is 9:15. Today is May 6, the third day of Sprint. Our Sprint objective is to deliver the grommet and flipperdoodle functions for our elite users so they can bypass the ninth stage of zoom and provide us with rapid feedback. We have 12 stories with 68 points that support our objective. Our team goals are to use ATDD on 70 percent of our stories, practice closed-loop communication using SBAR, and to have at least four different team members other than the ScrumMaster lead the daily stand-up.”

With the big picture approach, we just created an opportunity for the person leading the stand-up to be viewed as approachable. We also established boundaries by starting on time (ending on time is equally important). Moreover, we repeated shared and common objectives and goals — the Sprint objectives are customer-centric and the goals are focused on teaming.

Failure Check

“Does anyone have a quick, individual failure from yesterday or today that you would like to share with the team?”

This is a great time for a manager, product owner, or functional leader to admit a failure, or show fallibility, in front of the team. Keep it short, 30 seconds or less. For a manager who is attending the stand-up, this is the only opportunity you have to talk until post stand-up.

Impediment Share-out

“What impediments, dependencies, or threats are going to keep us from achieving our Sprint objective and team goals today?”

This step invites participation and allows the team to build off of each other’s impediments. The idea is to share impediments, perceived or actual, and park them until all impediments are heard. There should be no discussion about individual impediments until the impediment popcorn stops popping and the team moves to the next step. The ScrumMaster will act as a scribe. Warning: This approach will uncover more impediments than The Scrum Guide’s stand-up process.

Plan of the Day

“What are you doing today to overcome the impediments and move us closer to achieving the Sprint objective and team goals?”

This question invites additional participation, where team members are free to use the information radiator and talk about what they plan to do today and with whom. They will also use this time to quickly discuss what they can do to overcome or remove team impediments. Each member is invited to talk and may include information from what they did yesterday. This is the re-planning part of the stand-up. Realize that this is just the start to the day’s conversations.

Adaptability Plan (or the What If? Plan)

If there are any leftover impediments that the team or ScrumMaster cannot solve, then the team should develop a “what if” plan. For example, Mike’s spouse is expecting and may deliver their first child during this sprint. By definition, this is an impediment to achieving the Sprint objective. The team should build a “what if” plan around Mike’s potential departure. Make sure to invite participation.

When you view the daily stand-up as a re-planning session, you’ll get more than just a status update — you’ll create a psychologically safe space for your team to reaffirm objectives and goals, identify impediments, and most importantly, create a plan for action.

Brian “Ponch” Rivera is a recovering naval aviator, co-founder of AGLX Consulting, LLC, and the co-creator of High-Performance Teaming™, an evidence-based approach to rapidly building and developing networks of high-performing teams.

References:

[1] Duhigg, Charles. Smarter Faster Better: The Science of Being Productive in Life and Bussines. Random House. Apple iBooks Edition

[2] Edmondson, Amy C. Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. Wiley. Apple iBooks Edition.

[3] Ibid

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High-Performing Teams: Built from the Basic Skills of Human Interaction

I’ve struggled my whole life to connect the dots. I’m the smartest dumb person I know, and I at times amaze even myself with the brilliance of my own insights, which generally occur simultaneously alongside my forgetting to turn off the stove, or turn on the dishwasher (which I’ve just finished loading).

I recall quite vividly sitting in Instrument Ground School, well along my way to becoming an F-14 Tomcat Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), and learning about Crew Resource Management (CRM) for the first time. My overwhelming thought at the time was, “why do they insist on teaching us things we already know?”

Of course, they weren’t. Instead, once again, I was both intelligent enough to recognize the value of CRM for what it meant to my situation immediately, but not smart enough to appreciate, in any sense whatsoever, the importance of its formation and history, nor its incredible potential to help people everywhere to work together, in any environment or on any problem; from operating rooms to oil rigs, from ocean floors to outer space.

High-Performance Teaming™, one of Crew Resource Management’s successors, leverages those same skills which have been proven to help teams perform and succeed in High-Reliability Organizations across cultures and industries to include NASA, surgical teams, nuclear power stations, civil and military aviation, and special forces units, to name just a few.

The simple reason that these tools work across such diverse types of teams is not because they are based in the newest or most proven processes, or the latest in business operating frameworks or methodologies. Rather, these tools work because they focus on building the skills which enable dynamic, positive, and powerful human interaction.

By leveraging our shared human abilities to learn and improve, and targeting the skills specifically connected to the human capability to effectively function as part of a team, we can develop high-performing teams regardless of functional level or the domain of work.

Take, for example, rock climbing.

I know – “whaaaat?” Stick with me. I was recently asking one of the teams I work with what they would like to do to celebrate our successful (and early) completion of a software feature. Typically I would expect the standard answers: go to a team lunch, after-work drinks, trip to the pinball museum, Friday-night pool – the usual things teams choose to do. Yet, as is becoming standard, the team surprised me.

“The weather Thursday is supposed to be beautiful. How about if we do a team rock climbing day?”

Now I’m a climber and so are a couple of other people on the team, and going climbing together is something we’d half-joked about plenty of times, but this was a real suggestion. So I asked around, gave it some thought, and realized we could use the experience to not only have fun and bond further as a team, but to actually train with the skills we’d been talking about at the office in an entirely different context. My hypothesis was that a team of individuals climbing together is still a team, and the same skills which drive human interactions within teams in an office environment, an operating room, or in a cockpit, should be congruent.

So we went rock climbing, and discussed the litmus test. Here’s how I set up the day and the High-Performance Teaming skills we discussed in the context of our day on the rock.

Communication. As it was actually quite windy at the climb site and we were a few hundred feet up the side of a hill beside a busy interstate, the conditions for clear and easy communication were not good. Yet communication is critical to good team performance. Personal tendencies, culture, speech, choice of words and a standard vocabulary, not to mention overcoming environmental challenges (wind, noise, etc.) were all critical to our performance.

Assertiveness. Given the challenges already acknowledged to our communication, combined with the fact that we had a few new climbers who hadn’t done this sort of thing before, we recognized the need for everyone to assume an assertive role in helping the team ensure that we achieved our goals. We needed everyone to speak up when something didn’t look right or make sense, or when they did not understand anything about what they were being asked to do.

Goal (or Mission) Analysis. I asked the team at the parking lot to state what they believed was our goal for the day. “Go climbing,” “have fun,” “enjoy the outdoors,” “bond as a team” were a few of the responses. All noble and understandable goals, to be sure, but I offered another: “come back safely.” Understanding what your primary goal or goals are isn’t always intuitive, obvious, or easy, but getting it wrong can create a cascade of mistakes due to your team being misaligned on the very fundamental issues around why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Situational Awareness. Understanding that we’re going to have to make decisions about which routes to climb, who will be climbing belaying, whether we need to clean routes behind us, and a host of other potential situations (what happens if someone is injured?) requires us all to constantly re-assess and evaluate where we are in our day, what we are doing, and what we are trying to do. We need to ensure that we are fully aware of what is going on around us, and what is supposed to be going on around us.

Decision-Making. Early in the day our ability to decide on which routes to climb and which partners would climb/belay in what order was affected by stress, but as the day wore on and the stress of working together in a new team diminished, fatigue and the potential for complacency set in. Our ability to make the right decisions in important situations such as who climbs next, when to clean the route and move, who leads, where and when to relocate, when to take a break, and when to stop for the day, hinged on our ability to communicate well, maintain our situational awareness, and maintain focus on our primary goal – a safe return.

Agility. Many people talk about being Adaptable, however I prefer the term Agility. Agility, I’ve heard said, is Adaptability in a timebox. We had no sooner hiked around the corner to our climbing site to begin execution of our plan to climb the first two pitches (which were not challenging by design), then we had to adjust our plan due to the fact that both routes were already being worked by the local fire department, also out for a day of cliff rescue training in some gorgeous weather. So we quickly re-planned and moved to an alternate site.

Leadership. In a team of peers, leadership is often a revolving position. In a team with three experienced climbers and three beginners, we needed to rotate leadership responsibilities at different times based on the situation. Yet what most people get totally wrong is what the leader actually does. The leader isn’t there to make decisions and pass out orders, rather to pull the team together, ensure everyone understands what is occurring and what the plan is, solicit feedback and invite constructive dissent, to support assertiveness, and to leverage the collective wisdom of the team in analyzing goals and making collective decisions. Leadership is not about being right, it is about what is right. As each of us moved through moments of assuming leadership, our interactions were all similar: does everyone understand and agree with the plan? Does everyone understand what is being asked of them? Are you ready to move forward? Are we all ready for the next step?

Empathy. The ability to recognize and respond appropriately to the emotional state of others is a fundamentally human skill which powers every other social interaction skill. Looking at my climbing partner who is about to start on the route, I ask “ready?” The novice climber looks back tentatively and responds “ready.” However I see in his stance, face, and eyes that he is struggling with fear, doubt, and uncertainty. I encourage him to begin the route by pulling the rope tight and responding “on belay – I’ve got you.” This gives him some confidence. I don’t want to take his fear and uncertainty away – I want him to work through it on his own, which I know he can. This is empathy in action.

The skills required to enable and power high-performance teamwork are grounded in our fundamental ability to interact with other humans. This statement will continue to be true until the day arrives when we need to team with robots or aliens, at which point it is conceivable that other skills might be required. However for the entirety of human existence, people have needed to work together and have, unsurprisingly, evolved to do just that. The amazing thing in our growing technological age is that some of those natural, instinctual, basic social skills are incredibly difficult to recall and apply. Yet train, learn, and apply them we can, and in doing so we can actually help build and become the incredibly high-performing teams we’ve always envisioned.

 

Chris Alexander is a former F-14D Flight Officer, the co-founder of AGLX Consulting, High-Performance Teaming™ coach, Agile coach, and Scrum Master, and has a passion for working with high-performing teams. Learn more at https://www.aglx.consulting.

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The Missing Half of Team Performance: The Social Skills Behind High-Performance Teaming™

The overwhelming majority of businesses and organizations today are incredibly focused on adopting processes, tools, and frameworks to supercharge their teams’ productivity and quality, but in doing so they are solving for only half of the problem.

Whereas the team approach is often seen as a solution to cognitively complex tasks, it also introduces an additional layer of cognitive requirements that are associated with the demands of working together effectively with others. [1]

We are incontrovertibly human. When working in teams, we are humans working with other humans. Unlike a software program, the daily inputs and outputs of our lives are far too complex and changing to conceivably map and understand in a finite way; the potential derivations of our interpretations and reactions throughout the course of simply living our lives is, literally, infinite and unknowable.

Yet in virtually every business, organization, and team across America, we are focusing our efforts on establishing and implementing process, creating standardized operating procedures, rules, guidelines, policies, and training programs to build great (productive) teams. In doing so, we are ignoring the very thing which actually creates a high-performing team: us.

It actually isn’t rocket science: the interactions of the team members, not their individual intelligence, experience, education, or technical skill, is what determines how effective and how high-performance the team will be.

[T]he number one factor in making a group effective is skill at deep human interaction. That’s a remarkable finding in itself when we consider that groups are hardly ever evaluated on that basis. Everyone seems to think that other factors— leadership, mix of technical skills, vision, motivation— are more important. They matter, but not nearly as much as social skills… Social skills were the most important factor in group effectiveness because they encourage those patterns of “idea flow,” to use [Dr. Alex] Pentland’s term. Slicing the data in another way, those three elements of interaction [short & rapid idea generation, “dense interacting,” and turn-taking on idea-sharing and feedback] were more important than any other factor in explaining the excellent performance of the best groups; in fact, they were about as important as all the other factors— individual intelligence, technical skills, members’ personalities, and anything else you could think of— put together. [2]

To put the above a bit more succinctly, the best teams are not characterized by having the most intelligent, most skilled individuals; they are characterized by the quality and quantity of the team members’ social interactions.

There is an incredibly valuable point in this: the traditional focus on an individual’s knowledge, experience, and skills in a technical or process domain is only half of the story in building high-performing teams. The other half of the story is understanding how they perform in team environments and how well they contribute to a team’s overall performance and effectiveness.

Teaming Metaphors

A useful metaphor for the technical versus non-technical and social skills is live theater. Think of technical skills, scholastic education, and work experience as simply foundational elements of your business’ or organization’s ability to perform.

They are the stage, the lighting, the seating, the curtain, the orchestra’s space. Those elements are the theater.

However, the actors’ and actresses’ abilities to perform on that stage, to create something memorable and incredible – those are the social skills, the non-technical “secret sauce” of how the team actually performs together. For that great performance to occur, you need more than just the stage and the lighting – you need the performers and the magic that happens when a great team produces what a great team can.

Or consider the difference between watching a great football player play, and a great football team play. (This applies to both types of football.) A team of individuals with a star or two will never come close to achieving what an amazing team can achieve, regardless of their star power.

As I reported in my Harvard Business Review article “The New Science of Building Great Teams,” my research group and I have collected hundreds of gigabytes of data from dozens of workplaces. What we found was that the patterns of face-to-face engagement and exploration within corporations were often the largest factors in both productivity and creative output. [3]

Learning Social Skills

So what happens when you’ve hired the most technically skilled, scholastically educated people, and their social and teaming skills are virtually non-existent? Fear not – there is great news

Growing numbers of companies have discovered what the military learned long ago, that the supposedly ineffable, intractable, untrainable skills of deep human interaction are in fact trainable… Businesses can’t even begin to get better until leaders acknowledge that these skills are the key to competitive advantage, that methods of developing them may be unfamiliar, and that measuring the results will never be as easy as gauging operating efficiencies. If companies can get past those obstacles, which in most organizations are more than enough to stop managerial innovations dead in their tracks, then they have a chance. [4]

Yes – trainable.

Although it should come as no surprise, due to the fact that we all share the common trait of being – well, human – it is good to know that we can actually focus on and learn those critical skills which enable us to team effectively with other humans.

The military and commercial aviation have been doing this for decades already.

Yes – decades.

The fact that the social and non-technical skills teams need to reach high-performance are trainable and able to be improved upon over time, just as one would improve their knowledge of emerging coding practices or new technologies, is not conjecture or hypothetical experimentation. In fact, it has been operationalized and regularly improved for years.

High-Performance Teaming™

Founded in Crew-Resource Management (CRM) fundamentals, High-Performance Teaming™ provides teams at every and any level with the social, non-technical skills they need to perform at the highest levels. It targets exactly what makes effective teams – the ability for team members to engage in regular, high-quality interactions and input-feedback cycles to build the Shared Mental Models (SMMs) and communication loops which drive team performance and output.

Specifically, High-Performance Teaming™ builds the critical social skills teams need in:

  • Communication – the mechanics behind speaking and listening, non-verbal signals and cues, the human factors (culture, language, personality) which influence our communication patterns, and how to affect them through awareness.
  • Assertiveness – the behaviors behind respectfully asserting knowledge and opinion, and how to handle those assertions in a team.
  • Situation Awareness (SA) – the team’s ability to build a shared conception of their environment, and the degree to which it matches reality; requires Shared Mental Models, operational analysis, spatial awareness, etc.
  • Goal / Mission Analysis – the ways in which the team plans, executes, and learns based on their shared model of tactical to strategic goals; driven by alignment, communication, SA, and powers Decision-Making.
  • Decision-Making – utilizing collective intelligence of the team and leveraging the team’s SA combined with Goal / Mission Analysis to build consensus on solutions to complex problems, which in turn will drive execution and directly impact performance.
  • Agility – the ability to remain flexible and adapt to change; resilience in the face of a changing environment and rapidly evolving problem-set.
  • Leadership – one of the critical enablers to team effectiveness in non-flat environments, effective leadership is vital to creating Assertiveness, leveraging team collective intelligence in building SA and Goal / Mission Analysis, and getting to the correct decisions which enable organizational execution in a time-critical manner.
  • Culture – another enabler of team cohesiveness and resiliency; purposefully constructed and monitored through Shared Mental Models, Culture is a powerful contributor to Alignment, which is critical to reducing waste/churn and helping teams remain resilient and goal-oriented.
  • Empathy – the foundational element in every social skill; the ability to recognize and respond appropriately to the thoughts and feelings of others.

If you’ve gone through multiple team processes (traditional project management, Scrum, XP, SAFe, etc.), and you’re still wondering why your teams are not producing and improving, ask yourself if you’ve been solely concentrating on the Technical Skill & Process side of the equation – the side which only effects what processes teams are using to organize and conduct their work.

If you have, perhaps it is time to start giving your teams the social and non-technical skills they need to actually improve how they work together. Scrum (for example) is a great process which sets the stage for the performance, but High-Performance Teaming™, grounded in the science behind Crew Resource Management and team effectiveness, is the tool set your teams need to actually perform.

Contact AGLX Consulting today to bring those social skills to your teams!

 

Chris Alexander is a former U.S. Naval Officer who flew the F-14 Tomcat, and is Co-Founder and Executive Team Member of AGLX Consulting, creators of the High-Performance Teaming model.

  1. Cooke, N. J., Salas, E., Cannon-Bowers, J. A., & Stout, R. (2000). “Measuring team knowledge.” Human Factors, 42, 151-173.
  2. Colvin, Geoff (2015-08-04). Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will (pp. 126-7). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  3. Pentland, Alex (2014-01-30). Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – The Lessons from a New Science (p. 93). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  4. Colvin, 2015 (p. 204).

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High-Performing Teams: Writing Code is Not Your Problem

Regardless of the software or hardware development processes used in your business domain, chances are if you are worried about your teams’ performance levels, their ability to write code or build hardware solutions is not your concern.

How do you build teams which are truly high-performing?

Teams which are able to work together toward levels of truly high-performance remain relatively elusive and seldom in most industries. Regardless of which frameworks, methodologies, and tools teams adopt and adapt, their productivity remains relatively average. This hurts the bottom line of the business, which has often agreed to accept certain restrictions on current productivity on the promise of significantly increased productivity once the new methodology or framework is in place and humming.

Sound familiar? This is a situation in which the application of multiple solutions entirely fails to address the actual problem.

Teams do not form around processes, methodologies, and frameworks; they form around the members of the team. Or, more specifically, they form around the social, non-technical interactions of the individuals within the team. When a team fails to effectively bond together, several problems are typically the root:

  1. The level of empathy at the team level is relatively low
  2. The number, type, and quality of social interactions is low
  3. There is low to no feedback within the group

Despite what you may believe, social skills are highly trainable and can be learned. Teams can build their social, non-technical skills in order to team together more effectively and achieve those levels of high-performance.

Moreover, leadership can directly enable these teaming activities by learning about how high-performing teams function and what they can do to enable those teams to coalesce and perform. The secret to leading highly-performing teams is that it actually isn’t that hard – but it does take a level of discipline and rigor which many leaders find exceptionally challenging.

If you want to learn about High-Performance Teaming™ and what you or your organization can do to get to those levels of high-performance, reach out to us at AGLX Consulting today.

Chris Alexander is a former Navy Lieutenant Commander, F-14 Tomcat RIO, software developer, Agile Coach, and Executive Team Member at AGLX Consulting, LLC.

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500% Productivity Increase in One Day: Lessons from a Stand-down

Last month, seven software development teams (35+ members) stepped away from their sprint for one day and participated in Sprint Stand-down. The problems the teams were trying to solve during the Stand-down were technical—the teams recognized they had a collective knowledge gap and needed to slow down to speed up.

During the Stand-down retrospective, we discovered the teams increased productivity by over 500% in one day—an unexpected and welcomed event outcome. The retrospective provided us an opportunity to examine the how and why behind the hyper-productivity realized in this unfamiliar, one-day training event.

The lessons we learned were not revolutionary; instead, the lessons reinforced the values and practices found in the Agile Manifesto, Scrum, Extreme Programming, CrossLead, Flawless Execution, Crew Resource Management and Threat and Error Management.  In one day, a Sprint Stand-down provided undeniable evidence to developers, product owners, managers, directors, VPs, and the CIO that empowered execution trumps the traditional command-and-control approach to product delivery.

The transferable lessons learned from the Stand-down fall into familiar categories:

  • Shared Purpose/Objective
  • Workload Management/Limit Work in Progress (WIP)
  • Leadership/Teamwork
  • Execution Rhythm or Cadence
  • Communication

Before going deeper into the lessons learned, I want to share a little bit about the origins, concept and our approach to a Sprint Stand-down.


Sprint Stand-down

You will not find a Sprint Stand-down in the Scrum Guide. A Stand-down is not found the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) vernacular nor is it part of any Agile or current trending management methodology. A Stand-down is a training evolution commonly used by elite military units, commercial aviation, and other high-reliability organizations (HRO) to accelerate team performance.

The purpose of any Stand-down is to promote knowledge-based training along with personal discipline and responsibility as essential elements of professionalism. It is designed to empower and inspire a community of professionals to continuously seek knowledge, integrate new information in everyday practice, and share new findings with others within the company and industry.

Stand-down Planning

The event was a self-organized undertaking where a small team of eight people were accountable for event execution. Planning for the event followed a rapid planning processes inspired by Crew Resource Management (CRM) and Threat and Error Management (TEM). The objectives of this Sprint Stand-down were to inform, inspire, educate, and motivate the teams—admittedly weak objectives as they lacked clarity and measurability.

With a shared understanding of the Stand-down objective(s), the planning team used a liberating structure to capture anticipated threats and the resources needed to overcome those threats, and reviewed lessons learned from previous events that were similar to a Stand-down. A Stand-down plan was formed in less than 35 minutes where each planning team member knew who would have to do what by when to ensure flawless Stand-down execution.

Stand-down Execution

The Stand-down included in-house subject matter experts and one external trainer with 35+ team members in one room for 6.5 hours. Team members treated the Stand-down as an offsite, declining all meetings and turning on their Outlook out-of-office replies. Team members were randomly assigned to one of two Stand-down teams as determined by the type of gift card they received when they entered the Stand-down room. Two additional gift cards were given to all participants for the purpose of regifting —team members were encouraged to give away their gift cards to other team members for any reason. Team members were warned that over lunch (provided by the company) they may be called upon to share with everyone to whom they gave a gift card to and why. The CIO provided an impromptu leadership moment which included the distribution of additional gift cards to team members who were nominated by their peers.

500%

An outcome of the event was an increase in productivity by 200% to 700% depending on the metric used (e.g. story points, stories done, stories in progress and stories done, etc.). However, it is likely, based on stories “done” during the Stand-down, 26, versus average stories completed during a normal sprint day, 5, the increase in productivity was 500%. In one day.

For argument’s sake, let’s just say the productivity outcome for this one day event was 20%, a palatable number for those who have not embraced the power of Scrum or empowered execution. What if we could take the lessons learned from this event and apply them to how we work during our normal workdays to get a productivity increase of 5% in the next two weeks?


Sprint Stand-down Lessons Learned

Shared Purpose/Objective

  • A team needs a shared purpose or common objective. Objectives should be clear, measurable, achievable, and aligned to a focus area, strategic line of effort, company vision, etc.
  • A shared purpose builds unity of effort. Teams were observed self-organizing throughout the day and reported a reduction in duplication of work and an increase in cross-team knowledge-sharing.

 Workload Management/  Limit WIP

  • Limit WIP. Individuals reported being happier as they felt part of a team of teams working toward one goal.
  • Context Switching is bad. Most team members reported that they did not check their email during the six hours. Team members reported that the internal Stand-down disruptions (we played music during frequent shout-outs) slowed them down and were absolutely disruptive.
  • Protect the teams from out-of-band work. Team members reported that they had no out-of band work during the day.
  • Empower team members to push back on work that is not aligned to the objective.
  • Pairing works. Teams paired all day. Some mobbed.

Leadership

  • Say “Thank You.” Team members should recognize and acknowledge the importance of others in task performance.
  • Leaders need to be visible but not intrusive. Checking-in to say “thank you” to individuals carries more weight than email.
  • An invisible leader is a visible problem. Team members noticed those leaders who failed to stop by to see how the day was progressing.
  • Unscripted leadership is the best kind. The CIO’s visit was received as genuine.
  • Recognition from leaders is great, but peer recognition of important contributions is even better.

 Execution Rhythm or Cadence

  • Stand-down tempo is not sustainable but the practice is sound when a knowledge gap exists.
  • Stand-downs should not exceed six hours.
  • Schedule Stand-downs as required. No more than once a month.

Communication

  • Face-to-face communication remains the gold standard.
  • Keep work visible. The teams shared one electronic backlog.
  • Co-locate teams to maximize the value of osmotic communication.
  • Cross-team pollination builds trust.

Brian “Ponch” Rivera is a recovering Naval Aviator and Commander in the U.S Navy Reserve. He is the co-founder of AGLX, LLC, a Seattle-based Agile Leadership Consulting Team, and a ScrumTotal Advisory Board Member.

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High-Performing Teams: Four Lessons From the Blue Angels

What do Seattle area technology companies and the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron (Blue Angels) have in common? Aside from the fact that Seattle’s tech community and the Blue Angels continue to “Crush It” when it comes to delighting their customers, there is a deeper, relatively unknown bond that connects Seattle’s techies to the six Boeing F/A-18s they will see performing over Lake Washington this weekend.

Software and business teams including those at Capital One Investing, Alaska Airlines, Amazon, Tableau, Expedia, Nordstrom, Microsoft, T-Mobile, Qumulo, REI, Starbucks, Boeing, Getty Images,  and Wikispeed are using Scrum, the complexity-busting, productivity super weapon inspired by fighter aviation to help them rapidly deliver products to their customers in today’s turbulent market.

So how does Scrum connect to the Blue Angels? That’s easy. According to Dr. Jeff Sutherland, the co-creator of Scrum, “Scrum is based on [his] experience flying F-4 Phantoms over North Vietnam.” Furthermore, Scrum is not about software development but is a simple framework designed to fight complexity. Dr. Sutherland recognized the cognitive challenges faced in the technical and near chaotic environment of fighter aviation are the same as those faced by knowledge workers. Just as the Blue Angels plan, brief, execute, and debrief each performance and practice, Scrum teams in Seattle follow the same empirical process in each of their sprints.

So what else can Scrum and other small teams learn from the Blue Angels? The list is long but here are four lessons to consider over this airshow weekend.

1. Unstable Systems (Teams) are the Most Agile 

The Blue Angels are not an unstable bunch, as far as I know, but the Boeing F/A-18s they fly are inherently unstable. Unstable aircraft are highly maneuverable (agile) but require a skilled pilot and onboard flight computers (a management system) to coordinate the movement of the various flight control surfaces during routine and dynamic flight. Similarly, according to the authors of Team Genius: The New Science of High-Performing Organizations, unstable or volatile teams (the central paradox of teams) are the most productive and successful when held together by a skilled leader [1].

Bottom Line: Diverse teams, when led by a skilled leader, are the most agile. 

2. Team Size

The two pizza rule made famous by Jeff Bezos is a nice heuristic to describe the ideal team size—usually around 6-8 people. The Blue Angels fly in a formation of six but have eight customer-facing core members whose combined appetite will break the Amazonian two pizza rule—naval aviators can eat a lot. The optimum team size, according to current research, is 5-7 members but effective teams have 4-9 members [2].

Bottom Line: The ideal team size is 4-9 members.

3. Pairing

Imagine losing 50% of your team each year…all at the same time. Will you be able to deliver at the same level your customers are used to?  At the end of this season, CAPT Tom Frosch, the current Blue Angel #1 and team leader will be replaced by CDR Ryan “Guido” Bernacchi.  In addition to having a new leader in 2016, the team will add a new #3 and #6 while the current #3 moves to #4 and current #6 moves to #5. So how does the team deal with this much change? They have smaller pizza parties.

Early in the season, before the team flies in a Diamond (four-ship) or Delta (six-ship) formation, the team will break into smaller teams, or pair-teams. Blue Angel #2 will coach his boss on how to lead the formation. Blue Angel #4 (the old #3) will coach his replacement while learning a new position. And Blue Angel #5 (the old #6) will train the incoming #6. By pairing, veteran team members serve as advisers and transfer knowledge to new members through open and honest criticism in and out of the debrief.

Bottom Line: Pairs are the “basic bricks from which the edifices of larger teams are built [2].”

4. The Power of Proper Debriefing

The most important event in any continuous improvement or innovation cycle is the debrief (retrospective).  At the end of each and every flight, the Blue Angels follow the same debrief process where they leave their rank and egos at the door and focus on what is right, not who is right. You will not find Post-it notes or a ScrumMaster facilitating their debrief. Instead, team members will follow the same proven debriefing process they have been using their entire careers. This complex team learning process (debrief) builds culture, team resiliency, and improves future execution.

Bottom Line: Learn how to conduct a debrief and stop playing retrospective games.

Conclusion

Fighter aviation has a profound influence on how Scrum and high-reliability organizations approach their day-to-day work. Unfortunately, some people who want to build high-performing teams using Scrum (or other agile frameworks) continue to deny or discount that the many lessons learned in fighter aviation can and should be applied to their practice. According to a recent BBC report, psychologists recognize that human behavior is the same across technical environments, and applying the lessons learned from aviation will help mitigate group cognitive biases in any organization.

Ready Break. Ready Roll.

Brian “Ponch” Rivera is a recovering Naval Aviator, a 2003-2004 F-14 Demonstration Team Member, and Commander in the U.S Navy Reserve. He is the co-founder of AGLX, LLC, a Seattle-based Agile Leadership Consulting Team, and a ScrumTotal Advisory Board Member.

References:

[1] Rich Karlgaard & Michael  S. Malone. Team Genius: The New Science of High-Performing Organizations (Harper Business, 2015).  Pg. 74

[2] Rich Karlgaard & Michael S. Malone. Team Genius: The New Science of High-Performing Organizations (Harper Business, 2015).  Pg. 97

BBC report: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02x3vwh

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