Alignment of Powerful Teams Using a Line
They say that working with an A team on a B product will bring far more success than the other way around, with a B team working on an A product. I’d say ‘they’ are right. In my experience nothing tops the team that flourishes together, that somehow defies the odds and can surprise one at their consistently high levels of accomplishment. There is a kind of unstoppability in the very best teams.
What is it that makes such a fabulous team? We can make a great list of the elements of true teamwork, yet one element stands out as the secret sauce which amplifies and grows all the rest. They know each other. From knowing each other can come, also, like (at least respect) and trust each other. Yup, try doing great things without these. The kind of knowing about each other that works the best is knowing beyond the personal list of accomplishments, the credentials, awards and so forth. Those are indicators, and yet, I still don’t ‘know’ you until we get beyond that usual stuff. But how? Do we just sing kum by yah together around a campfire? And do we really have to bare our souls and personal history in order to be ‘known’?
Let us start with a typical business scenario. How about the Boardroom meeting? Most have experienced the scene. The seating plan might be derived from some kind of sacred code that one ignores at their peril. Topics are tabled in a predictable way and discussed in a predictable way, with some contributing and some not. Of those that are contributing, some are seeking to demonstrate their expertise, some are avoiding responsibility but are vocal anyway, others are on their cell phone. Agreed, many are present and doing their best to contribute to the decisions needed. Not all.
Imagine it is time to vote on something. The Chair offers a statement of the proposed action, the action that is a summary, in the opinion of the Chair, of the will of the team. A show of hands is requested, usually ‘those who are for it’ is the only vote requested. Hands go up, some with enthusiasm, some as an interruption from their cell phone, some are definitely tepid in their response. Yet, the vote tally is recorded, the motion is passed, the decision made. Hurray, off we go, as a team, the Chair cheerily announces.
What team members really have to contribute is too often buried under so many things that most of us make up. We don’t actually know why it is that Harry is so keen on this item nor why Sally finds her cell phone more interesting. George is obviously prepared with facts and figures and charts and seems to tow the party line but we don’t know what he really wants to say about the decision. Mary is just staring hard at George. The Chair is looking at the clock and trying to move things along.
What is missing here? These people don’t know each other well enough, to trust enough, to gently and relentlessly call each other forth. The path to knowing each other, within the business context, or at least within the context of the question on the floor in this meeting, is not an obvious one. What the team really needs is to understand where each of them stand on the topic being discussed, and, why they are standing where they are. What might it do to fully understand why Mary is staring and why Sally puts her cell phone at such priority, etc. What might it do to the effectiveness of the decision making process if all of the team members could eagerly engage and invite each other to speak their truth. Stephen Covey, son of the 7 Habits Covey, declares, in his book The Speed of Trust, that ‘trust’ is the magic sauce. Let us agree with him for a moment. What if trust is truly the magic sauce of the highest performing and happiest teams? How do we get a better grade of trust into the discussion?
When the group is asked for a show of hands to demonstrate ‘who is for this’, we get the scene described above. How useful is that? Something needs to change, for these people at the table are mostly good folks, wanting to succeed and wanting the organization to succeed. They just don’t know each other well enough.
Instead of the show of hands, put a long line on the floor, masking tape works great. By ‘long’ I mean something like 20 feet. Long. Label the line with zero at one end and ten at the other. It is a good idea to place a mark for where the five is too. Then, rephrase the question. Don’t ask who is for it. Instead, instruct with the statement, stand on the line to indicate ‘how much’ you are for it? Sally looks up from her cell phone, Mary moves her attention to absorb the instruction, people are trying to recall George’s figures, now needed to help them decide. The Chair might go into deer in the headlights mode as the team shuffles about to find their place on the line. If done with the aid of a Facilitator, the Chair can also take a position on the line.
Now we have a visual, kinesthetic, experiential understanding of where people ‘stand’ on the issue. There is usually a kind of reverent silence as the group tries to reconcile this experience with the show of hands. Quite strong. Wait a bit. Let this sink in. Let people change their minds and move to a new position. Notice how they now pay quite a bit of attention to the others in the group. Wait until it seems settled. Notice how this feels.
How people place themselves can still be a bit out of synch with what they truly feel and believe, but we are certainly way closer.
So what now?
The Facilitator now, gently and relentlessly peels the onion of what has been displayed via the positioning people have chosen to occupy on that line. He/she asks questions, appropriate to the line configuration at the moment and the ‘feel’ of the room. The Facilitator slowly brings forth the truths under the ‘show of hands’. This is not to make people wrong because they are not all standing on the 10. This is about getting curious about ‘what has you standing at a 7?’ or ‘what has you standing in this group that has formed around 5?’ or ‘what is it like to be here at 10, all alone?’ or ‘what is it like for the rest of you to see one of your colleagues alone down here at 2?’ .. So it goes. The Facilitator needs to make it safe to stand anywhere the team member decides.
There can be no script at this point. The Facilitator organically navigates what they sense needs to be explored more deeply and strives to invite everyone to have their say. What was a five second show of hands, becomes a mini event that will increase the understanding of the topic between the team members. If an external Facilitator is engaged, the Chair gets to stand and to speak their truth too. Notice how engaged everyone might be when using this. People will be watching each other and asking themselves strong questions about their position on the topic. Everyone is on the line somewhere, so no person gets to hide. All are proclaiming their truth, even if not actually speaking, because all are on the line. Everyone can see everyone else.
There are many variations on what can be done by the Facilitator. One example might be to, on occasion, as appropriate, invite people to reposition if they wish. What happens is pretty near magic as they congeal around some number or maybe develop two groups at different places on that line etc. Up the ante by inviting a participant to ask a question or offer a ‘what if we changed XX, where would you then stand?’. Lots of rich variations. It is very easy to develop a list of things to do because of what was shared while on the line together. Consensus is not far away. If the team then returns to the table they are different, fresh and far more ready to engage about the topic.
Notice how bought in the team is now. Notice how much they now know about each other and the issue at hand. Notice how, without having to compromise on a single point, each person has had a chance to speak and to listen and to learn about others on their team. And to feel like their opinion matters. How powerful could this be in the next meeting?
Notice the amount of physical interaction with the question, topic, issue. People are voting with the position of their entire body on that line. I have seen a person lie down in order to stretch themselves across a range of numbers and then explain how, if A they were at one number and if B at another and then if C, yet another. Hard not to remember that. The atmosphere is highly physical. People ultimately learn by a physical association. We don’t learn to ride a bicycle with our mind, but with our whole body. That is one reason it is so easy to recall how to ride a bike. We know, recall, what it feels like physically.
Everyone will know when it is ‘done’. The energy level will drop and people will indicate that they are satiated, or maybe exhausted, for the moment.
There is a kind of unstoppability in the very best teams. I assert that most of that unstoppability arises from knowing each other better. Keeping it about the business issue that needs resolution is not only possible, but easy, using the foregoing method that I call ‘the Line’. Standing in the place that is your answer to a question is way different than raising your hand while part of a sitting group. This is one of the very best ways to learn about your team colleagues and about yourself. Personal values are declared by what we do. Personal values are declared by the stance people take on an issue. The whole group gets to know every other person, and themselves, better.
Knowing each other better makes for better everything else. When we understand each other’s values, trust increases. Covey is right. Trust is the magic sauce. Standing on that line to clearly display one’s values increases transparency and from that trust increases. Why? Because I now know better where you stand on quite a few issues. I learn what is important to you and what you will ‘take a stance’ for or against. I don’t need to wonder so much about you. We know each other better.
Using Line for every question, every meeting, would too soon become tiresome and not taken seriously. Use with discernment, but especially for items that would most benefit from a dose of collective team clarity. Introduce the language of Line in daily interactions. Where do you stand on that? Great question asked while standing by the water cooler.
The power is in the processing where the Facilitator gently teases out the underlying truths from the members of the team. The Facilitator must remain detached from the results arising, and just stay curious in peeling that onion. Get that Facilitation right and be unstoppable.
Questions? Just ask
Want help? Yes, glad to
Joseph Seiler MCC
PS: there are other very powerful techniques I can recommend in order to promote team alignment. A separate article entitled, Alignment of Powerful Teams Using Wallpaper is in preparation, to be published shortly. Want a copy? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for that title. Use of Line is very effective for increasing understanding among the team and on issues that don’t easily bend to a simple, or obvious, yes or no. Use of Wallpaper is best suited to development of less defined topics, like development of corporate vision or design of corporate culture. It is also excellent for taking the pulse of an organization. I use both Line and Wallpaper at corporate PD days and Retreats. The Line is more invasive since everyone is always declaring their opinion by where they stand. Some may become uncomfortable at such transparency. Wallpaper is not as transparent about who thinks what, so it can feel safer.
In any endeavour aimed at increasing trust it is expected that people participating are able and willing to appreciate and contribute to that goal. People with a mean spirit, who are non-cooperative and display disruptive behaviour can undermine or at least slow, any team alignment/building initiative.