Crisis and High Performance Teams
In a thirty-year business career including stints with P&G, M&M/Mars, NutraSweet and the creation of several companies I’ve noticed something. High performance teams always face a crisis. Actually, all teams face crisis. The difference between high and low performing teams is WHAT THEY DO IN THE CRISIS.
High performing teams unite to brainstorm alternatives. This is not to say contention is set aside. Everyone doesn’t start singing Kumbaya around the fire. Good people bring who they are to their job. Team members usually know other s strength and weaknesses more intimately than any reviewing manager (typically). When crisis hits, and it always does, high performance teams open up to a different future immediately.
Martin’s Ride to Cure Cancer hit a crisis in Tennessee. Our preliminary plan, the best we could do with Google Earth and cycling forums, guided us through North Carolina. Tennessee was tougher. Roads were more dangerous. It is hard to deduce traffic patterns from Google Earth. After a rainy day near Savannah Tennessee it looked like Martin’s Ride would come to a halt.
Everyone on the Martin’s Ride team was frustrated. We spent all day every day riding and driving. I’m riding a Specialized Roubaix bicycle and Jeremy, our Event Manager, is driving our Cruise America RV in support. Brian Russo, our college intern, is riding with me several days a week and blogging about our adventure.
The hardest thing in crisis is think. Our dinosaur brains want to fight or flight. We want to throw down or toss the covers over our heads – neither is very effective. A team’s collective brain is always smarter than any individual, an easy fact to forget. Crisis needs fluid, flexible and collective thinking. It often gets the reverse. Crisis can easily push people into corners.
“Every high performance team I’ve ever been on, and I’ve been on several,” I said to our team, “faced a crisis and the difference between high performing teams and teams you will never admit you were on is how they react to inevitable crisis.” This sounds more pompous to write than it did during our Martin’s Ride team meeting. During this crisis someone tossed a brick hitting me in the head. Suddenly I could look across past high performance teams and see how crisis and reaction are keys to success.
Crisis can create a forge where team identity is heated and shaped. There are several keys to use crisis to forge a team’s identity including:
- Collective Brain
“I’ve never seen anyone listen their way out of a sale,” Russ Mills my old P&G boss taught, “but I’ve seen many talk their way out of sales.” Listen at least twice as much as you talk was Russ’s rule. Apply this rule to participation during any team crisis and you help resolution and performance. It is hard NOT to talk. We are hard charging, get things done people. We build, structure, hammer and nail. I’m suggesting, albeit in a round about way, we adopt an eastern way of thinking at least when a team is in crisis. Here is what I mean by an “eastern” way of thinking during a team crisis:
- Recognize crisis is inevitable its arrival is neither surprising nor unexpected.
- We are all connected in more ways than we fully understand or appreciate.
- There is never only one way to solve a problem. There are an infinite number of ways to solve a crisis, or an infinite number plus one (lol).
Flexibility is usually a crisis casualty. Teams kill flexibility quickly. Teams surprised by inevitable crisis reach for the “kill” switch. Teams in crisis often mistakenly think flexibility got them into the current crisis. Team flexibility is always good. There is no such thing as too much flexibility. Nothing (or anyone) ever moves a team into crisis. Crisis happens. Death, taxes, laundry and crisid happen. These are immutable universal laws.
Teams are never as flexible as they think. Crisis may instigate hawkishness. “We have to…” or “We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work….” When a team’s dialogue uses well-worn business clichés it is losing flexibility. Stiffness is setting in. Real solutions are racing away. Balance is a team’s best defense against inflexibility.
A team’s muscle is rarely evenly distributed. Some people are better at some things than others. This is why we specialize, barter and negotiate with others to compliment our strengths. Everyone is not equal, but a team’s balance must be fairly distributed. If you are a quant you may do the numbers while others work on presentations or word smithing. Great teams don’t look for static quid pro quo returns. Team members are willing to invest more than they withdraw. Accounting in team relationships is impossible. Great teams don’t try to keep score. Great teams trust in a greater good. They live to serve something greater than themselves.
This spiritual core of giving and service means great teams remain flexible during crisis.
Your network is smarter than you. Everyone thinks they are smart. The smartest people I’ve met think of themselves as curious. J. Langdon at M&M/Mars, Mary Kay O’Connor at NutraSweet and Wal-Mart creator Sam Walton (never met him but have read about him) share constant curiosity. Match constant curiosity with an honest love for people, apply Russ’s rule (listen 2x as much as you talk) and you are ready to play.
Ego is why we want to be “smarter” than the other guy. I’m not dumb, but there are worlds of things I don’t have a clue about. German philosophy, organic chemistry, string theory and Barry Manilow are only a few things I don’t understand. My college education taught me to research and read books. My business education taught me to call people.
Collective brain is getting easier. Facebook et al. is changing our lives. We quickly run ideas and crisis by our collective online brains. There is no excuse for any high performing team. It is too easy to tap into our smarter collective brain.
Leadership is different. High performance teams are emergent systems led more by a collective brain than a charismatic individual. Charisma is over rated. If you doubt this statement read Good To Great by Jim Collins or The Knowing Doing Gap by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton. In a recent conversation with Dr. Kim Lyerly, the Head of Duke’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, “conductor” was the word Dr. Lyerly used to describe his job. Conductor is a good way to describe leadership of high performance teams. Conductors of high performance teams understand their job is to create a collective brain, a brain that is smarter than the sum of its parts. Conductors remove obstructions serving the team instead of the other way around, as is often the case with Charismatic leaders.
Martin’s Ride = High Performance Team
Imperfectly using ideas and thoughts contained in this post helped the Martin’s Ride team create a new ride. Instead of sticking with a straight across America route we valued experience over grinding out miles. We would ride mountains because beauty lives in mountains. We tapped into existing knowledge bases including excellently researched bicycle journey maps from Adventure Cyclists. We didn’t stand pat. Our collective brain helped us understand Martin’s Ride as an organic thing, something that was living and could change. We would Climb Avoided Mountains and come together as a result. Martin’s Ride’s team’s reaction to its crisis means I now have four “high performance” teams to discuss instead of three. I’ve been privileged once again. Hope these thoughts will help your high performance team survive its inevitable crisis.