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Learn from the US Government Shutdown: Set Good Team Processes and Continually Improve Them

Set-good-team-processes-bloSeveral weeks ago, we trained a group of employees on team effectiveness as they embarked on a rigorous program where in teams of three, they would be tasked with coming together each week, functioning as a team, to solve a complex business problem. It was clear from the start that these “mini-teams” would need to be able to form themselves very quickly, avoid the pitfalls of the early stages of teaming, battle their small number and limited input, and reach decision-making with enough time to prepare a presentation of their results.

Eager to solve the problem and feeling pressured by time, you can easily see where one person could dominate and push the team in an approach (which might not be the best idea) or the team could get stuck discussing even how to begin, getting nowhere on the goal achievement and wasting time. As the pressure mounts, conflicts occur and relationships not only break down, but the goal achievement can too.

So, how can we give these new teams a good start? In last week’s blog, Deborah Mackin used the example of the Government Shutdown and the breakdown in our US governing team to illuminate the need for a commitment to common goal and approach, awareness of team development and good leadership to help the team progress to high performance, and someone to hold them accountable for their actions. This week, I want to add the need for effective and agreed upon processes and a willingness to step back and evaluate and improve those processes when they aren’t working.

Here are some suggestions we made to those “mini-teams” that might be helpful to your team as well:

1.  Collaborative process for setting goals. The team will first need to have a collaborative process for defining the goal. Using a facilitation tool called Express Starting Point, the team creates a two column chart on a flip chart. In the left hand column, each person has the opportunity to express what they feel should be included in the goal statement (Starting Points).  In the right hand column, the facilitator or other team members capture the common ideas (Common Ground).  Starting with the common threads, the group crafts a goal statement that will be agreed to by team. Using SMART, the team checks to be sure that the goal is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-Oriented and Time bound.

2.  Work breakdown plan. Using this project management tool, the team transfers the common goal to the box at the top of the page. Then it identifies the large major tasks or milestones that need to be accomplished to reach the goal, creating as many boxes as needed to capture those items. Underneath each major task box, the team agrees on a scheduled start and end date for that task (organizing the timeline and identifying a sequence of steps) and populates the box with key activities to accomplish the major task. Finally, the team assigns team members (owners) for both the major tasks and activities.

3.  Problem solving process.  I am always surprised to see how many teams don’t start out with an agreed upon problem solving process or are not proficient with all the process tools that are available to help them sort information and reach decisions. In our scenario above, these teams needed to agree quickly on what problem solving process could be used to solve their weekly assignment. We presented the Six Sigma process DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control) as a good starting point and addressed how to make each step of the process collaborative. There are other methods such as FADE, PDCA, 8D etc. that can also be used. It is important for team members to truly have agreement on the process, and also gain competency in the use of that process to be effective.

4.  Decision making process. Again, in the forming stage of a team, the team needs to decide on what process they will use to make what types of decisions – what we call, “deciding how to decide.” Teams should take into consideration the amount of buy-in and ownership needed for the decision as well as how quickly the decision needs to be made. Decision processes run a spectrum from authoritative decision making (one person) to consensus voting. Once decided, team members need to pause before jumping into decision making to review with the team, how the decision is to be made and then follow the process for that decision making model. We suggested to our “mini-team” that they make important decisions (their recommendation) by consensus. In this process, they must also agree upon a “fall-back” decision making method (which could be majority vote) so that they don’t get stuck when the team is unable to reach consensus and a decision must be made to meet a deadline.

Once processes are established and used, it is important for the team to regularly step back and evaluate those processes for their applicability and effectiveness. It is also a good time to address any competency issues (are we performing the process to the best of our ability?) and correctness (are we using the best process possible?).

As I look at the Government Shutdown, it is interesting to see how the approach to keeping the government running (the process) is changing. We see Utah stepping up to keep their five national parks running with state funds, the Fisher House Foundation agreeing to cover the death benefits to fallen soldiers and Congress finally developing bills that do one thing at a time over one issue. Perhaps, just like teams, it is time for our US governing team to step back and evaluate its processes for competency and effectiveness.

Have you stepped back with your team and evaluated your team processes to see if they’re still applicable and effective. Is your team performing the process to the best of their ability? Are you using the best process possible?

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