How many times have you been part of a meeting where you speak about “stuff” but nothing really happens? Nothing changes. No major decisions are made. The strategic challenges aren’t really explored. Instead, much of your energy as a team is on status updates and information sharing around the immediate issues. There is a time and place for that, of course. The challenge is that if your team focuses most of its time on follow-up and updates, the deeper strategic discussions get lost in the day-to-day pressure of running the business.
After a match, most elite sporting teams get debriefed by the coach to capture immediate learning. At the next practice, they watch the recorded video to identify what worked well, what didn’t, what are some moves they need to practice to further their skills and their performance as a team. They examine their patterns of play for the messages about themselves. Then, they go into the field and practice based on these insights.
In corporate settings though, taking time off to step back and learn about themselves is often seen as a luxury for many top teams. Something to be squeezed into the whirlwind of meetings and operational demands, if time permits. Or as an “event” for a once a year offsite. Like a sporting team that reviews the video of their performance once in the season.
The thing is, when there’s little room for learning conversations, teams get stuck at a superficial level of problem solving. There are two types of challenges that teams face: technical and adaptive.
Technical challenges may be difficult and complex but they can be addressed with existing ways of perceiving and understanding. Most leadership teams are good at addressing their technical challenges.
Adaptive challenges differ from technical ones because both the problem and the solution cannot easily be recognized and understood with current mental models. Adaptive challenges require leaders to learn new ways of seeing, thinking and relating. Solving them requires the team to be prepared to slow down and examine their assumptions and beliefs – their patterns of play. Ask a top team what keeps them awake at night, and most of the time they will describe the adaptive challenges facing their business.
How a leadership team allocates their time and how they define their purpose says a lot about their ability to deal with adaptive challenges. When I ask executive teams to quickly assess how much time they spend on information sharing and troubleshooting technical problems vs. strategic discussions, they often smile knowingly and then admit that the former wins by a staggering difference. I then pose a simple question: what is your purpose as a team – the fundamental reason you exist, as a team? This question can seem obvious to ask, but complex in its answer and implications.
Working through this question with the top team of a global technology firm, they realized they were not clear. Pulled in different directions by global stakeholders and squeezed by a tough market, they were losing their ability to focus the business on what mattered most.
Clarity emerged when they decided to invest the time to step out of the day-to-day to review their purpose and learn about their ways of operating. They realized their current team meetings were mostly about sharing information on performance challenges, with no meaningful learning conversations. They thrived on their ability to react effectively to the immediate business challenges and “solve the issues”. Like an overused muscle, this was keeping the team stuck. This habit had created their primary, yet unstated operating purpose – to react to and trouble-shoot urgent business problems.
With this realization, they had a meaningful discussion around purpose. What brings them together? Why does this team exist? How do they uniquely contribute to the company’s overall mission? Redefining their purpose as a team, they were then able to reorganize how they spent their time and shift their leadership impact. They reduced the number of core meetings, delegating to sub groups any meeting where issues could be solved without the input from the whole team. Each functional team was asked to do the same, creating a virtuous cycle of refocusing, greater autonomy and improved accountability across the business. The time and attention of the leadership team shifted from sharing of information and reacting to it, to working on the adaptive challenges the organisation was facing.
While these changes were powerful, the key ingredient was the team’s willingness to work on themselves. Shifting from the mental model of the knower (I know everything, so let me inform you of what we’ve done so far) to the learner (I might be missing crucial information and perspectives, so let me ask you how you see things) and consciously creating the space for learning conversations.
The team continues to battle through a tough market, with global stakeholders whose demands are increasing. But, in the words of one manager “this is the most meaningful and energizing change we’ve undertaken as a team”. Top team’s have a unique and challenging role to fulfill – one that is best supported with clarity of purpose, focused attention and the capacity to learn.
If you feel most of your team’s time is focused on updating each other about “stuff”, take a pause. First, understand the difference between technical and adaptive challenges, and find the right context for each. Don’t be reluctant to take time away from the day-to-day business to create the spaciousness that adaptive challenges require. Second, have clarity of purpose as a team and reconfigure all your team interactions to maximize this purpose. Become ruthless about not spending time on topics that are not aligned to the team’s purpose. And third, take the time to develop skills to have conversations from the mindset of the learner: listen, ask questions, and challenge your own assumptions.
About the author
Mark is Axialent’s Australia Managing Partner. He is an experienced senior executive and consultant working with C-level teams across multiple industry sectors with focus on leadership effectiveness, team performance, executive coaching and cultural change. Read more >