Choosing between opposites


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In many diagnostic tools for leaders and teams there is a scale which indicates how far the leader or the team is on a ladder between two opposite behaviors or style preferences. This could be for example critical evaluation on the one end of the scale and compassionate encouragement on the other side of the scale. (see example below).

These kinds of results are often used to coach and develop leaders and teams towards a desired behavior or culture.  In many cases the distinction between the “right” behavior and the “wrong” behavior is more linked to the situation at hand, associated risks and/or the person you have in front of you than a simplistic view of correct behavior. For example it may be less desirable behavior to be overly critical in an evaluation of someone who is new to the role and the company or team.  In another instance where the risks are high and the people on the team very experienced it may be more appropriate to perform a critical evaluation in the event of a major failure to achieve desired outcomes than to offer supportive encouragement.

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This leads to the concept of managing or working with both of the ends of a linear scale. Choosing both sides in terms of developing leaders and teams can help them to have a bigger capacity to choose the right response depending on the situation.  The key is to develop awareness in them. Encourage leaders and teams to embrace more than one behavior or style to respond to specific situations or a tasks.

If we go back to the example above. You may be coaching someone or guiding a class of developing leaders through an exercise and this approach may be useful. Ask them to first of all identify the extreme ends of a scale of possibilities. Then identify for both extremes – the possible positive outcomes from that approach and also the possible negative outcomes.

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In a class situation you can also assign it as an exercise between two or more people to brainstorm together.

Once the exercise is complete you can lead a discussion with examples from the class or the leader you are coaching. When may it be appropriate to use one or the other behavior for the best outcome?  You can also choose to ask groups that had completed the exercise to prepare a demonstration (role-playing) to show the appropriate way to respond to a situation based on an example they discussed in the group. Or you may choose to provide some case-studies where the leader or class have to identify which may be the best approaches. These practical exercises will further help your participants understand the choices that they have as leaders when facing different situations and how to at least evaluate the best path forward before they go into action.

As a followup action you can ask participants or your coachee to capture examples they come across in the next few weeks/months where they had to make a choice between two opposite approaches and used the exercise above to identify the potential positive and negative outcomes. When using this approach one will will not necessarily avoid mistake or guarantee the most effective approach. The process of pausing and considering options will make the leader or team more effective over time and will improve decision-making.

Some examples you could consider for the exercise above:
  • Working independently vs working in groups/teams
  • People focused vs Task focused
  • Having a structured (fixed) approach vs a creative/open approach
  • Formal vs Informal approach to others
  • Monitoring others closely vs holding them accountable for outcomes created

This approach does not invalidate the tests which offer leaders and teams valuable insights into their own typical approaches and style preferences. This is merely another way to approach the outcomes from those tests to help develop more adaptable leaders and teams, which is highly needed in the current environment where change has become a constant and successfully working across borders, cultures and generations have become essential.

Tips for new Facilitators


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Working with a group of people to accomplish structured outcomes can be daunting. This is especially true when there are strong opposing views or a lack of communication (and listening!) in the group. I used to facilitate many sessions for a large global company and worked with a few colleagues who did similar work in other regions. The resource I am sharing contain tips received from my colleagues when I got started as a facilitator years ago. In turn, I have made it available to other new facilitators that I have encountered over the years. Now you can also benefit from this. (see inserts below)

Some assumptions made for these to be relevant:

  • As facilitator your workshop/session is part of a process. The session includes exercises designed to produce outcomes that would benefit the team. There is at least one (could be more) manager who have a vested interest in a successful outcome and who will also attend your session. These same managers are aware of the team and session process and have provided input to you in terms of their vision and needs from the process. Note: there may be more than one manager if you are facilitating a group process involving members of a client organization too and which may also be attended by the manager from the client organization.
  • Your role is to facilitate the agreed process and to re-agree next steps should the process somehow not be able to continue as planned or new information/changes trigger you to recognize that a change in timing/agenda should be considered.

TIPS for Facilitators:

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How to stimulate participation by session participants?

  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Do a poll – where by raising hands people have to vote for one idea vs one or more other ideas
  • Count to 10 or more before you speak, let them bridge the silence with participation
  • When there is a question to you or a comment, defer it to the group – how does the group feel about this topic/question/statement?
  • Ask direct questions to specific participants whom you know (be sure) have experience in an area or on specific subject matters.
  • Summarize the points raised and ask the group to respond – agree or disagree? Correct or ..?
  • Divide them into pairs for a short discussion on a topic that pertains to what you just covered. (Gets them active after a period of perhaps monologue or exclusive dialogue.)
  • When the group seems lethargic consider an unscheduled short break
  • Do an impromptu energizing exercise (always have two or three of these in your back-pocket to employ when you see the need.
  • Expect some sluggishness in the period right after lunch for about an hour or so. Ensure your session design contains activities for this period – small groups etc.
  • Call it – sometimes a group is unresponsive, because everyone is thinking about an elephant in the room – some topic which should be discussed or settled which may not be on the agenda., but it is occupying the minds of everyone. If you know what it is, ask “Is ….. something we should discuss at this time?” if you do not know ask “Is there another issue that we should be covering at this time which may not be a scheduled topic?” [You would need to check in with the manager to ensure he wants to do it right away or later -schedule a specific date and time when he will deal with it. So call a short break if they tell you that something needs to be settled. To determine the”how” with the manager involved.)

These examples are not exhaustive, but they did help me out during those early years of facilitating sessions with groups and teams. I do trust they will do the same for you!

Renewal Exercise for an Existing Team – the journey


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Existing teams often go through phases of renewal, which requires that new team members and existing members come together to create a new or changed vision and way forward. This could happen when the project changes from design to implementation or from one conceptual to design. It could also happen if the leader is replaced. There are many reasons when an existing team can benefit from a renewal exercise to remind them of what they need to do, how they will do it and how they will measure success and collaborate.

Elements that can hold the new team back include existing members holding on to the past too strongly and new members not understanding why some things are done in a certain way within the team. Lacking the background and context of the past and a shared vision for the future the team could easily remain divided between the “new comers” and the “old timers” who know everything.

This exercise has two parts and helps to make the past easier to understand especially in terms of how it may have shaped the current belief system of existing team members – i.e. what they believe works and what does not work. The second part of the exercise helps new teams map out the new way forward together, which helps all team members be a part of what they plan to achieve and do going forward.

Tips/Comments:

  • This exercise does not replace any classic team chartering activities i.e. crafting a new or changed purpose statement, or reviewing/creating new roles and responsibilities going forward or agreeing on key team performance indicators. This exercise forms more of a bridge towards renewing the team and its activities and path forward. This exercise can best be followed by some more classic team chartering activities and exercises.
  • Monitor the communication process closely during the first part of the exercise: the sharing that happens has to remain constructive vs existing team members slipping into defensive behavior and/or new team members being overly critical of the lessons learned from the past.
  • This exercise has also sometimes been used as an ice-breaker to start off a one- or two-day team-building activity. It would be good to schedule this just before a natural break to allow team members to spend unstructured social time together as an aftermath of this exercise.

Starting right – new manager and team


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A new leader or manager has to quickly connect with the team and understand the objectives and issues around the team and their tasks if he or she wants to be effective in the shortest time possible. At times the team may know the person promoted to be the new leader or manager. The new leader or manager may also be hired from outside the company or someone who joined the team from a remote part of the organization where there had previously been very little to no interaction with team members. In all cases, the team members may have concerns and wonder how the new leader or manager will help the team and them as individuals succeed going forward.

The slides I am sharing can be used to facilitate a group session with the new leader/manager and the existing team. The focus of the session is to help them accelerate the connection and learning that needs to take place for the team to maintain momentum and reach their goals under new leadership. The session helps the team get to know the new leader/manager and voice their concerns. The new manager/leader also gets to know quickly what the team issues are and how the team feels about progress and possible team obstacles to success, which enables him/her to more accurately set the team’s priorities and focus areas for the next few months.

The resource includes some instructions for setting up the activities and also some timing estimates. The slides contain a basic ice breaker/check-in exercise at the start of the session. You could always change this activity for something that better fits with the group/team that you are working with, if needed.

For a simplified process of setting expectations with new leaders and/or new teams, you can download a file to help with that below.

Depending on how many issues the team has, the size of the team and how much they already know about the new leader/manager the entire session can take anything from 2 to 4 hours. If you are the facilitator you need to watch the time. Sometimes the first group discussion can take much longer than expected – when they share their answers. This means you need to plan up front : If they go over the planned timing for that portion of the agenda, will you let the discussion continue and defer the rest of the activities to a later date? Or what will you change to ensure you stay within the contracted time with the group while reaching the goals and objectives for the group session?

If time allows I strongly suggest that you include a team meal at the end of the session. This would allow for some informal social interaction between the new leader/manager and the team members, which further solidifies interpersonal relationships within the team and helps the new leader/manager have a good start with the team.

Exercise: Practice difficult employee conversations (for Leaders)


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I am a strong believer in experiential learning – learning by or based on an experience and observation. Key learning points seem to be integrated faster and stronger when the learners are put in a situation where the skills they need to learn or apply are put to the test.

The exercise I am sharing (see download file below) is a group or team exercise focused on the style of a leader and how a leader approaches employee issues given their own background and preferences. The backdrop for the experience could be situational leadership  or Emotional Intelligence for leaders. It is up to the trainer or facilitator to choose the right materials to suit the needs of the team or group.

The exercise requires some volunteers to engage in role-play based on specific scripts – included in the resource. There are “role sheets” to help those standing in as employees understand how that employee behaves and describes his or her style.

The key to this exercise is to showcase the possible dilemmas that leaders can face when confronted with employee behavior that seemingly goes against their own values or goals at work. The discussion after the role-play exercises is where the most value can be realized. Reflecting on what the group saw and experienced during the role-play and then relating that to their day-to-day work-life is where most insights tend to surface. This helps each leader determine how he or she could adopt a new mindset in dealing with difficult discussions with employees going forward.

This exercise works well for groups ranging from 8 to 16 people. Larger groups of 20 people or more can work too, but you may need to add in an additional step – a small group exercise. In that case, divide the group into smaller groups of 4 or 5 people and have them discuss the exercise debrief questions in the small groups before requesting each of the small groups to report back to the larger group for further discussion. You may want to consider an additional facilitator to assist if you are dealing with groups larger than 20 people.

Without emotional intelligence or a compassionate approach to interpersonal relationships even leaders with the best technical minds and education will never be great leaders with motivated followers. Exercises like the resource I share here can help trainers and facilitators bring home the importance of having the right approach and encourage a personal change process in developing leaders.

Team building activity – Defining roles and responsibilities


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A new project is best started by getting the entire project leadership team on the same page. This relates to commercial terms, project scope, key milestones and other important contractual terms and conditions. It is also vital for the project leaders to understand how they will execute this project – who is going to do what exactly to make sure we execute this project scope to the best of our abilities?

The resource I am sharing here describes a process you can follow as part of an early team-building activity to clarify and agree team roles and responsibilities down to individual levels.

In this activity the project leaders are gathered together and a facilitator takes them through this process. (See downloadable process description below).

Additional thoughts:

  • You can use this activity after first running a sub-group responsibility definition activity which defines project interfaces or relative responsibilities for decisions and processes by functional or other sub-groups on the team. (see Defining team interfaces) Using this sequence means you drive home how the overall project outcomes are managed by sub-groups on the team and then right down to individual roles in those same processes.
  • This exercise can also be used when there is a change in phase or focus on the project or the composition of the team changes greatly. At those times it is important to keep the team’s momentum going by ensuring that roles and responsibilities remain clear throughout the changes.
  • Clarifying individual role and responsibilities also supports the performance management process. When individuals receive feedback regarding their performance it is important that they already understand what performance and role expectations are.
  • Having individual roles documented can also support bringing new team members up to speed fast. It helps explaining expected team functioning and who they should talk to while making their contributions to successful team outcomes.

Project teams simply function better when everyone understands how he or she is expected to contribute to the team’s goals. This activity does help greatly in clarifying expected individual contributions. I do suggest you distribute the final agreed pages with the team for reference purposes.

Team Activity – Defining Project Interfaces


Most projects are made up of several sub-groups of people. On a construction project you can imagine there is a group of people tasked with looking after the physical safety of people working on the site. You can also imagine another group that looks after checking that materials and installed units meet quality requirements. These sub-groups of people have interfaces with each other whereby they exchange and share information, documents and outcomes. They also provide and request support from other groups to start, complete and execute a process. Most of the time project inefficiencies occur across the interfaces with internal and external sub-groups or functions.

The best way to ensure efficiency and effectiveness across project interfaces is to increase transparency around assumptions that people have . Test whether they are accurate and understood by others on the project.

Note that project interfaces can also refer to processes that involve multiple functions in the home office environment or the company structure. These “external” groups to the project may be setting high-level processes and goals, which create the environment that the project team needs to operate in. Examples may include HR, Finance, the group that tracks compliance with corporate policies and procedures etc.

This team building activity that I am sharing helps various interfacing groups understand differences that may exist between how they think they should be interfacing with other groups and what the actual expectations from other groups are.

This activity can be used in many different ways:

  • Clearing up interface issues among geographically dispersed groups working on the same processes or projects;
  • Clarifying how different functions should interface with one another on a project;
  • Clarifying any differences in perspective among cultural groups or different shifts of people in the same function working on the same tasks interfacing with one another; and
  • Getting clarity on how multiple projects should interface with each other and/or the corporate groups they work with.

The reason that interfaces with other groups tend to be where delays and frustrations occur is because it is common for people to analyze and optimize processes only for the portion that they are responsible for. This perspective means they often overlook how their efforts impact others or how the efforts of others impact them and they fail to take the bigger picture into account. This activity will support efforts to improve the outcomes of inter-group processes as you work towards greater successes on your projects and initiatives.

Activity for project teams – Diversity


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Your project team is very diverse and you are concerned that this may impact how your project will be executed – will you be able to achieve your overall project goals or will there be a lot of internal strife, misunderstandings and disagreements? Will they work against each other and have the wrong assumptions about each other and the project goals and metrics? If so, this team-building activity may help.

The downloadable resource I am sharing is a team activity you can use to help project team members understand that different groups of people can have different views on the various aspects of running a project and also the relative importance of key project processes. This activity makes those possible disconnects transparent which helps you lead clarification discussions with the team/group. While the activity itself is quite simple, the discussion that comes after the initial assignment is where the value lies and that will take up most of your time.

Further tips and ideas:

  • You can segregate meeting participants in various ways related to the most important diversity aspects you wish to highlight within the team. As a variation you may choose to run the first part of the exercise more than once and each time segregating the group of participants in a different way. Options include: cultures, locations where they are from or live, level of life experience, function etc.
  • There are several topics listed for discussion towards the end and it would be wise to prioritize them for your own convenience, as a facilitator. If you are running out of time towards the end you can then ensure you are covering the most important topics during the time you have available after the initial portion of the exercise.
  • Be sure to stress that diversity is a plus for team creativity and finding new solutions. The objective of this activity is to help work out some of the downsides of diversity without marginalizing any one or group or impose judgement.

Non-homogeneous teams may be tougher to manage than homogeneous teams, but the pay-off in creating new and innovative team solutions coupled with individuals learning new skills and perspectives from other team members can be very rewarding. As a team leader or facilitator you just need to make sure you have the right tools, such as this activity, available to help non-homogeneous teams succeed.

Ice Breaker for international teams


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In our globalized world it is very common for employees to have regular contact with people from other cultures and they may attend meetings at various international locations. When you are executing projects on a global scale it increases the importance of ensuring that communication and collaboration go as smoothly as possible in order to meet your project objectives.

Cultures and sub-cultures

You may be surprised to learn that even seemingly basic project concepts could have different interpretations across cultures and sub-cultures. This exercise that I am sharing with you focuses on intercultural aspects of international teams and can help by clarifying assumptions and expectations at an early stage of your project.

When I think of different cultures on a project team, I also include sub-cultures such as between different regions in the same country or different functional groups in the same company. (This link can provide context if you want to look at cultures more closely.)

In the exercise, participants answer questions from their own perspective being as true as possible to how things are done at the location or group that they represent in the exercise. Most people who have lived internationally for some years have already adapted to habits and ways that conform to expectations and habits for their new location and how people do things there. If your intention is to highlight the richness of different perspectives you have present at the event where you run this ice breaker – ask participants to think back to a time when they lived in location X or worked with group Y – how would they answer the question then?

The downloadable document above contains several project-related scenarios which can be used to explore differences in approaches and mindsets within your project team. You may also choose to use the topic of diversity and inclusion as an on-going exploration within your team where you could select one of the topics at each of your meetings instead of trying to cover all of them during a team-building event.

This ice-breaker can be a good item to include in a project kick-off meeting or when you are adding a few more people to the team from a different office/location. This exercise also works well when you have team members who are from the same country, but are from different offices. (It is not uncommon for offices/locations to have slightly different approaches).

Early exploration of different mindsets and assumptions among team members can be a valuable foundation to ensure smoother relationships and better collaboration on your project.  Feel free to suggest additional important scenarios to consider for discussion after you have reviewed the attachment I shared in this post.

Icebreaker – Advertising boards


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This icebreaker works well with new teams or when you have had quite a few new members who recently joined a team.  The time, materials and space requirements are very economical so this is easy to combine with team meetings. Running this exercise can help you lead a new team into the right discussions to break down barriers to trust among (new) team members.

This ice breaker is a simple exercise which requires very limited instructions to get started and completed.

The most valuable part of this exercise is most likely the debriefing questions you (as the facilitator) choose to use: (some options)

  • Did anyone see something on an advertising board that was surprising about team members?
  • What are the strengths you think this team has?
  • Where do you think this team could get into trouble (given these team members and what you now know about them?)

This exercise is fun to do and the creativity of your teams may surprise you!

I would recommend that you use this exercise as part of a series of exercises to help new teams succeed in the long run. The Team Effectiveness Snapshot can be a great follow-up tool to introduce to the new team to help them on their journey of trust building and achieving a high level of performance.

Brand-new teams typically work well since most of the team members are “playing nice” at first, but as the team moves through the various stages of team formation  things can change. A lot of teams never make it out of the Storming phase so early introduction of team orientation, induction and assessment tools to help teams understand naturally occurring team dysfunctions can help them deal with these situations successfully. The advertising board icebreaker is a great way for teams in forming mode to break through the “niceness” and go a little deeper into the “who are you really” and “what do you bring to this team” discussion.