Designing resilient teams

I’ve been working on a series of 4 x 20-minute on-line, in-house, masterclasses (see my related blog) on team resilience.

Their focus is on the design aspects of team resilience not the development aspects.  The design aspects are the ‘hard’ or formal organisational elements that are easy to describe and capture in words.  They are the structures, systems and business processes that help deliver the organisation’s products/services.  ‘Hard’ elements include policies, structures, decision and authority rights, governance.  This handout, Four elements of Nadler and Tushman model.HO1 helps explain.

These masterclasses are not about the development aspects of team resilience.  The development aspects are the ‘soft’ or informal organisational elements that are difficult to describe and capture in words.  They include behaviours, interpersonal relationships, culture, and lived values.  (I maintain that design and development are very distinct and different disciplines although they inter-relate at points).  See Exhibit 1 in this article that illustrates.

Here’s a summary of each of the four masterclasses. They each follow the same 3-part format:  What’s the idea?  How does it work?  Try it out.

1              Designing resilient teams

What’s the idea? The idea is that teams can weather disturbances (positive and negative) like team members moving out or joining, sudden unexpected deadlines, technology glitches, and so on, if they are designed to do so.  The things that make for resilience can be seen in ecological systems.   Steven Forth explains this in his piece What Makes for a Resilient Team. The C S Holling article he mentions Resilience and Stability in Ecological Systems gives a much more detailed  (23 dense pages) explanation.  But summarises saying:

‘A management approach based on resilience … would emphasize the need to keep options open, the need to view events in a regional rather than a local context, and the need to emphasize heterogeneity.  Flowing from this would be not the presumption of sufficient knowledge, but the recognition of our ignorance; not the assumption that future events are expected, but that they will be unexpected. The resilience framework can accommodate this shift of perspective, for it does not require a precise capacity to predict the future, but only a qualitative capacity to devise systems that can absorb and accommodate future events in whatever unexpected form they may take’.

How does it work? Six principles for team design come from this perspective:

  • Have overlapping skill sets on the team
  • Have lots of overlapping connections
  • Be open to new people and ideas – (discuss the design aspects of this)
  • Design good connections outside the team (both inside the organization and outside)
  • Have access to a ‘bench’ that can step in and refresh the team’s skills
  • Develop team autonomy through decision, delegation and authority rights

Try it out Assess your own team’s composition against the six principles.  Agree how you can develop team resilience using the six principles.  (Note Steven Forth has a useful graphic to illustrate).

2              Restructuring teams (changing the organisation chart)

What’s the idea? The idea is that managers trying to solve a problem tend, first,  to look at an organisation chart and shift people around it, rather than looking at the work, the skills needed to do the work, and finally the people who could do the work.  A Q5 Partner 3-minute video thinkpiece explains clearly why a chart-based approach to solving a problem is not going to work.  An organisation chart only tells us certain things.  It does not tell us, for example, how the work flows, where the handover points are, or what the linkages are between teams as the work flows – all part of designing effectively. See the handout What does an organisation chart tell us and not tell us

How does it work?  Restructuring teams begins with thinking about what it is you are trying to solve and deciding whether or not it is a design issue or something else.  Once you think it is a design issue the next step is agreeing the work your team is there to do (the purpose), developing some design criteria, mapping the activities that comprise the work of your team as it flows through the team, clustering the activities in a way that meets your design, criteria, developing design options, determining the linkages within your team and across to other teams, testing your options before planning to implement the new design.

Try it out In a team meeting watch the video Got a wicked problem? First tell me how to make toast (9 minutes).  Discuss how the ideas in this are applicable to the issue you are trying to address.  Assuming it is a design issue use your insights to follow the steps in the para above.

3              Designing collaborative teams

What’s the idea?  The idea is that collaboration does not happen just by chance.  Collaboration structures can be designed by using models of collaboration combined with the different stages of design methodology.

How does it work?  Collaboration can be expressed in four modes (Note collaborative projects often use more than one of the modes during one project in order to achieve the desired goal).

Open & Hierarchical Anyone can contribute but the person, company or organisation in charge of the project decides which ideas or solutions to develop.

Open & Flat There is not an authority who decides which innovations will be taken further because anyone can contribute in the process and use delivered results.

Closed & Hierarchical The participants have been chosen by the authority who also decides which ideas will be chosen and developed.

Closed & Flat The group of participants chosen by an authority share ideas and make the decisions and contributions together.

Using a four-phase design methodology – discover the problem, define the problem and solution ideas, develop and refine the solution ideas, deliver the solutions – ask questions by phase.  For example, in the discover phase ask: what is the challenge?  Who are the stakeholders? Do you know who you want to collaborate with (closed) or do you need to allow anyone to contribute (open).  Can only selected people join the decision making in this phase (hierarchical) or can anyone participate in making decisions (flat)?

Try it out: Identify a problem or opportunity your team is working one. Use the methods outlined to arrive at a collaborative structure that you can test.

4              Designing for remote team members

What’s the idea? If you are in a ‘team’ then there is an underlying assumption that some or all of the work you do requires working with others in your team to produce something – a paper, a policy, a design, a customer outcome, or similar.  People who work in teams that comprise some face to face members and some remote members, or teams that comprise only geographically dispersed members often have difficulty in forming a cohesive, high performing team that effectively delivers the desired outcome.  Paying attention to designing a supportive context for remote team members helps address issues of isolation, lack of community, and heading off-track.  Implementing design solutions for working with remote coworkers results in better work and healthier communication with everyone.

How does it work?  Designing a good working environment for remote team members involves:

  1. Agreeing how to capture and store information that everyone needs access to.
  2. Adjusting face to face methods and techniques for team community building to make them appropriate for remote workers.  Moodthy Al-Ghorairi suggests ‘hold a Slack channel meeting where all key players in a project get to speak directly to each other. For multilingual teams, gmail and Workplace may be better options because of the auto-translate feature. Use systems that make it easy for team members to communicate frequently with each other to avoid misunderstandings and missed cues.’
  3. Expecting and planning for asynchronous discussions and having the tools for doing this effectively (this includes teaching people to use the tools, expecting them to use them, and developing on-going learning tips for using them to full advantage)
  4. Keeping team goals and tasks firmly in everyone’s view – some teams find Trello effective for this but there are multiple other options.

Try it out:  Identify what Moodthy Al-Ghorairi, calls ‘a single source of truth for documenting procedures, workflows, how-to’s and on-boarding. Use a group password manager to manage logins. Set up a Slack bot for repeatable questions (status reports, who’s up for pizza on Friday) or turning conversations into shared knowledge easily.’ Agree how you will use it to develop team performance.

What design masterclasses would you offer in a series on team resilience?  Let me know.

Image: Resilience, Lily Gordon

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