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I’ve been lucky enough to work in some high performing teams, and to have led a few as well. Looking back, my impression is that these were relatively rare events, and they’ve become more rare over the years. Maybe because it’s the privilege of the young, and needs that energy – but that’s not how it feels. I certainly wish it happened more, and that I had a reliable recipe for it. More of that later.

The Red Arrows (pictured above) practice for 6 months every year to do those death-defying stunts automatically, knowing that they can depend on their team mates to be in the right place, at the right time, without supervision. Three members of the team are replaced every year, but even after 3 years, when all nine of the starting team have gone, they’re still the Red Arrows, and they’re still a high performing team. The Royal Air Force seem to have a dependable recipe for success.

In this presentation Dan Pink identifies Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose as the three preconditions for better personal performance – I reckon the same is true for team performance. You can get more work out of people – and they will give it willingly – by attending to those 3 needs. No need to give them more money, as long as you pay them enough so that money isn’t an issue.

I don’t have a recipe, but here are a some common qualities that I can name in the best teams I’ve been involved with

  • Spending non-work time together (not necessarily BFFs)
  • A common, agreed and simple purpose
  • Leaving their ego at the door
  • Eager to learn from each other
  • Self-directed
  • Willing to give their discretionary time and energy

When did you last work in a team that was a well-oiled machine?

What makes a high-performing team? Is it chemistry? Can it be learnt?


Better Decisions

You can’t learn from the experience if it kills you

The first time I suggested we carry out a pre-mortem to improve decision-making in the future, the sales director nearly had a fit. We had finally won a very prestigious contract after 18 months. Now here I was, trying to get people to imagine it had gone horribly wrong. Right after he’d done his rousing Henry V speech. Why was I trying to screw things up?

A year in the future, the project has failed miserably, catastrophically.

First of all, what the hell is a pre-mortem? It’s a term coined by Gary Klein in his book  “The Power of Intuition: How to use your gut feelings to make better decisions at work”. Klein has studied decision-making for thirty years, with the military, first responders, emergency medics – people involved in potentially life or death situations. A pre-mortem is held right at the start of a project. At the project kick-off meeting, the project team has to look into a crystal ball. A year in the future, the project has failed miserably, catastrophically. Their job, in three minutes,  is to each come up with ten reasons why it failed.

You can see why the sales director was pissed-off. He wanted them to sing reasons to be cheerful, not group-hallucinate about the whole thing going titsup.

If you’re not looking, unforeseen events are always going to be unforeseeable

We’ve all seen and felt the infectious over-optimism at the start of a project. No one wants anything to go wrong, so there’s a tacit refusal to face awkward truths. No one wants to be the one to point out the flaws in the plan, so instead the Project Manager copies and pastes the risk register from the last project and everyone’s happy. Until things start going wrong and everyone starts talking about perfect storms and black swans. If you’re not looking, unforeseen events are always going to be unforeseeable.

If you give people permission to think the unthinkable and say the unsayable, corporately you have a robust framework for making better decisions. You don’t need to pretend that the future will be the same as the past, plus 10% contingency. A pre-mortem encourages innovative thinking and problem solving.

There’s no need to wait for the patient to die before learning from the experience.


Time Management - the Future

When I was 17, my friend wanted to be a pharmacist. His future wasn’t a dream, or even an ambition, it was more like a fact that hadn’t happened yet. Like an airline pilot planning a flight to Hawaii. He knew where it was, how to get there and how long it would take. I’m not sure why, pharmacy didn’t run in the family or anything, but that was definitely what he saw himself doing. He had a very clear picture of his future destination, which was real and immediate, not out there in the distance.

Mark’s now a very successful research chemist (in pharmacy), he’s exactly where he thought he would be, nearly forty years ago. I guess he’s had different aspirations along the way as well, but he’s achieved his lifetime career goal.

I admire Mark for his focus and vision (notice the visual words we use in English to talk about the Future). He’s very Future orientated.

Our time  perspectives drive how we all manage our time in the macro sense – managing our life time. They’re the dynamo that drives time management behaviour in the micro sense as well – how we manage our days and hours. Can we keep our eyes on the final destination, or are we more prone to deal with what’s appears right in front of us? This affects how and what we instinctively prioritise, regardless of what we think we should be doing, or what’s theoretically number one on our to-do list.

Mark’s goal  may have been way out in the future, but it had two essential qualities. Firstly, it was connected to the present by his sense of purpose. He was highly motivated in the here and now to work towards it. Secondly, the goal was more than just a vision, it was a fully realised thing that he could touch, smell, taste and hear, as well as see. When those two qualities are present, the destination is a real place, worth going to, worth spending time getting there.

So, if you can make your goal real for yourself and other people, and if you can connect it to your inner motivations, you will be propelled towards it, and it will get more real as you draw closer.

Let us know if that’s interesting to you.









No one interrupts a sprinter at work

No work interruptions 

Are work interruptions what work is today? I was coaching someone recently who was having a problem with “disjointedness”. Every time she started a piece of work – usually one that she needed a good run at, her work was interrupted by the usual suspects: Email. Phone calls. Colleagues. It’s how we work today. Work is a series of interruptions to what we’re supposed to be doing.

The solution was absurdly simple. I’ll come to that in a moment.

I did some digging into what effect these diversions have, and was gobsmacked by what I read in this paper – Fragmented Work, which also features in a more user friendly New York Times article here. Both were written in 2005, and I’m guessing things have only got worse in the last 8 years, but here’s what they saw in 1,000 hours of observing Homo Cubiculus.

Average time until interrupted – 11 minutes

Time to restart the task – 25 minutes

Time to get back to where you where – 8 minutes

This is staggering. 11 minutes of productive work. Then 33 minutes on hold. Then THREE minutes (because it took you 8 minutes to get back to where you were) of productive work before you get interrupted again. Rinse and repeat from 9 to 5.  Sisyphus was in a similar line of work. It’s no wonder we feel disjointed.

It gets worse. It’s only a theory, but it feels true to me, that there are two types of schedule: Managing and Making. Managers work in one hour blocks of time, it’s seldom that they need to spend a whole day at one task. Makers, on the other hand, need to get immersed on their work to get in flow. Makers write computer code, they draft contracts, they put bid documents together – they do stuff that takes more than an hour at a stretch to complete. An interruption to a Maker can ruin their whole day.

This is serious shit. It doesn’t even include the self-imposed diversions, or the myth of multi-tasking, to which the same “restart” rules apply. It doesn’t take account of a person’s Time Perspective either. Present Hedonists are renowned for their ability to be diverted from a goal by pretty much any temptation put in front of them, even before cats and You Tube double-teamed them.

How does the coaching story end?

We agreed she try a “sprint” of 45 minutes, free of any distraction, using a desk toy (a stress ball, appropriately enough) to signal to her colleagues that she shouldn’t be interrupted. Email notifications off. Phones diverted to voice mail. Work for 45 minutes, then stop and reflect for a few minutes at the end, to note where the external diversions came from, and what to adjust next time. Anyone can be unavailable for 45 minutes without the business collapsing.

What she found was that colleagues in the immediate vicinity got the signal and cooperated. It was harder to put off more senior people, because their status seems to give them priority. Everyone was sceptical that it would work at all. These are all interesting observations. They tell us how a culture will tend to hold habits in place, however much an individual worker wants to change, and that Time Management is a systemic problem, rather than one person’s.

But look at the benefits:

  1. She stops the disjointedness and has more control  over her work. So she’s happier.
  2. Productivity for that 45 minute sprint went up by 75%.
  3. Doing this twice a day, five days a week, effectively gives her company an extra working day. Everyone’s happy.

Please tell me why isn’t everybody doing this? It’s embarrassingly simple. Why can’t everyone just concentrate for 45 minutes on one task, without interruptions?