Working in teams is necessary in most modern collaborations, but teamwork does carry risks. Here are some risks worth mitigating. Available here and by RSS on September 3.
And on September 10: False Summits: Part I
Mountaineers often experience "false summits," when just as they thought they were nearing the summit, it turns out that there is much more climbing to do. So it is in project work. Available here and by RSS on September 10.
Design errors can cause unwanted outcomes, but they can also lead to welcome surprises. The causes of many design errors are fundamental attributes of the way groups function. Here is Part II of our exploration.
Design errors cause losses, lost opportunities, accidents, and injuries. Not all design errors are one-offs, because their causes can be fundamental. Here's a first installment of an exploration of some fundamental causes of design errors.
Most job descriptions contain few references to political effectiveness, beyond the fairly standard collaborate-to-achieve-results kinds of requirements. But because true achievement often requires political sophistication, understanding the political content of our jobs is important.
Structures of all kinds — organizations, domains of knowledge, cities, whatever — are both enabling and limiting. To gain more of the benefits of structure, while avoiding their limits, it helps to understand this paradox and learn to recognize its effects.
When people solve problems together, differences in preferred approaches can surface. Some prefer to emphasize the goal or objective, whole others focus on the obstacles. This difference is at once an asset and annoyance.
Examining the most innovative solutions we've developed for difficult problems, we often find that they aren't purely new. Many contain pieces of familiar ideas and techniques combined together in new ways. Accepting this as a starting point can change our approach to problem solving.
Intentional learning is learning we undertake by choice, usually with specific goals. When we're open to learning not only from those goals, but also from whatever we happen upon, what we learn can have far greater impact.
When groups try to reach decisions, and the issue in question has a name that suggests a unitary concept, such as "policy," they sometimes collectively assume that they're required to find a one-size-fits-all solution. This assumption leads to poor decisions when one-size-fits-all isn't actually required.
When people collaborate on complex projects, the most desirable work tends to go to those with highest status. When people work alone, they tend to spend more time on the parts of the effort they enjoy. In both cases, preferences rule. Preferences can lead us astray.
When group decisions go awry, we sometimes feel that the failure could have been foreseen. Often, the cause of the failure was foreseen, but because the seer was a dissenter within the group, the issue was set aside. Improving how groups deal with dissent can enhance decision quality.
When trouble arises after we commit to a course of action, we sometimes feel that the trouble was foreseeable. One technique for foreseeing the foreseeable depends on recognizing haste in the decision-making process.
When groups of decision-makers confront complex problems, and they receive opinions from recognized experts, those opinions sometimes conflict with the group's own preferences. What tactics do groups use to reject the opinions of people with relevant expertise?
Group decision-making often proceeds through a series of steps including forming a list of options, researching them, ranking them, reducing them, and finally selecting one. Often, this linear approach yields disappointing results. Why?
In group decision-making, tension sometimes develops between those who favor commitment to the opportunity at hand, and those who repeatedly ask, "If we do that, how will we do it?" Why does this happen?
When groups work together to solve problems, they eventually evaluate the ideas they generate. They sometimes reject perfectly good ideas, while accepting some really boneheaded ones. How can we judge new ideas more effectively?
When groups work together to solve problems, they employ three processes repeatedly: they generate ideas, they judge those ideas, and they experiment with those ideas. We first examine idea generation.
The nastiest part about solving complex problems isn't their complexity. It's the feeling of being overwhelmed when we realize we haven't a clue about how to get from where we are to where we need to be. Here's one way to get a clue.
When teams solve problems together, discussions of proposed solutions usually focus on combinations of what the solution will do, how much it will cost, how long it will take, and much more. Disentangling these threads can make discussions much more effective.
When a team member seems not to understand something basic and important, setting him or her straight risks embarrassment and humiliation. It's even worse when the person attempting the "straightening" is wrong, too. How can we deal with people we believe are clueless on the concept?
Group problem solving is a common purpose of meetings. Although much group problem solving is constructive, some patterns are useless or worse. Here are some of the more popular ways to engage in problem not-solving.
When reality trips up our project plans, we improvise or we replan. When we do, we create new risks and render our old risk plans obsolete. Here are some suggestions for managing risks when we improvise.
When project plans contact reality, things tend to get, um, a bit confused. We can sometimes see the trouble coming in time to replan thoughtfully — if we're nearly clairvoyant. Usually, we have to improvise. How a group improvises tells us much about the group.
Project plans are useful — to a point. Every plan I've ever seen eventually has problems when it contacts reality. At that point, we replan or improvise. But improvisation is an art form. Here's Part I of a set of tips for mastering project improvisation.
Incremental problem solving is fashionable these days. Whether called evolutionary, incremental, or iterative, the approach entails unique risks. Managing those risks sometimes requires counterintuitive action.
Often, the path to forward progress is open and waiting, but we don't recognize it, or we convince ourselves it isn't there. Learning to see what we believe isn't there is difficult. Here are some reasons why.
For many teams, conflict is uncomfortable or threatening. It's so unpleasant so often that many believe that all conflict is bad — that it must be avoided, stifled, or at least managed. This is a myth. Conflict, in its constructive forms, is essential to high performance.
When a team relies on group discussion alone to evaluate proposals for the latest show-stopping near-disaster, it exposes itself to the risk that perfectly sound proposals might be inappropriately rejected. The source of some of this risk is the nature of group discussion.
A team member proposes a solution to the latest show-stopping near-disaster. After extended discussion, the team decides whether or not to pursue the idea. It's a costly approach, because too often it leads us to reject unnecessarily some perfectly sound proposals, and to accept others we shouldn't have.
When solving problems, groups frequently get stuck in circular debate. Positions harden even before the issue is clear. Here's a framework for exploration that can sharpen thinking and focus the group.
Unsolicited contributions to the work of one element of a large organization, by people from another, are often annoying to the recipients. Sometimes the contributors then feel rebuffed, insulted, or frustrated. Toxic conflict can follow. We probably can't halt the flow of contributions, but we can convert it from a liability to a valuable asset.
Your team is fortunate if you have even one teammate who regularly asks the questions that immediately halt discussions and save months of wasted effort. But even if you don't have someone like that, everyone can learn how to generate brilliant questions more often. Here's how.
The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to the differing assumptions of the parties to the conflict. Here's Part II of an essay on surfacing these differences using a tool called the Johari window.
The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to differing assumptions of the parties to the conflict. Working out these differences is a lot easier when we know what everyone's assumptions are.
Until about 75 years ago, barn raising was a common custom in the rural United States. People came together from all parts of the community to help construct one family's barn. Although the custom has largely disappeared in rural communities, we can still benefit from the barn raising approach in problem-solving organizations.
In dispersed teams, we often hold meetings to which we send delegations to work out issues of mutual interest. These working sessions are a mix of problem solving and negotiation. People who are masters of both are problem-solving ambassadors, and they're especially valuable to dispersed or global teams.
When you find yourself in a tough spot politically, what can you do? Most of us obsess about the situation for a while, and then if we still have time to act, we do what seems best. Here's Part II of a set of approaches that can organize your thinking and shorten the obsessing.
When you find yourself in a tough spot politically, what can you do? Most of us obsess about the situation for a while, and then if we still have time to act, we do what seems best. Here's Part I of a set of approaches that can organize your thinking and shorten the obsessing.
When we suddenly realize that what we've believed is wrong, or that what we've been doing won't work, our fear and discomfort can cause us to persevere in our illusions. If we can get better at accepting reality and dealing with it, we can make faster progress toward real achievement.
Sometimes problem-solving sessions are difficult because we get started solving a problem before we know what problem we're solving. Understanding the connection between stakeholders, problem solving, and problem defining can reduce conflict and produce better solutions.
Project status reports rarely acknowledge negative progress until after it becomes undeniable. But projects do sometimes move backwards, outside of our awareness. What are the warning signs that negative progress might be underway?
In emergencies, group problem solving is unusually challenging, especially if lives, careers, or companies depend on finding a solution immediately. Here are some tips for members of teams that are solving problems in emergencies.
When your current approach isn't working, you can scrap whatever you're doing and start again — if you have enough time and money. There's a less radical solution, and if it works, it's usually both cheaper and faster.
How we cope with problems is a choice. When we choose our coping style, we help determine our ability to address the problems we face. Of eight styles we can identify, only one is universally constructive, and we rarely use it.
Sometimes we get in over our heads — too much work, work we don't understand, or even complex politics. We can ask for help, but we often forget that we can. Even when we remember, we sometimes hold back. Why is asking for help, or remembering that we can ask, so difficult? How can we make it easier?
Working on complex projects, we often face a choice between "just do it" and "wait, let's think this through first." Choosing to just do it can seem to be the shortest path to the goal, but it rarely is. It's an example of a Finger Puzzle.
Choosing is easy when you don't have much to choose from. That's one reason why groups sometimes don't recognize all the possibilities — they're happiest when choosing is easy. When we notice this happening, what can we do about it?
Sometimes our own desire not to have choices prevents us from finding creative solutions. Life can be simpler (if less rich) when we have no choices to make. Why do we accept the same tired solutions, and how can we tell when we're doing it?
Whether we belong to a small project team or to an executive team, we have limited resources and seemingly unlimited problems to deal with. How do we decide which problems are important? How do we decide where to focus our attention first?
When we notice patterns or coincidences, we draw conclusions about things we can't or didn't directly observe. Sometimes the conclusions are right, and sometimes not. When they're not, organizations, careers, and people can suffer. To be right more often, we must master critical thinking.
When a project team hits a speed bump, it often learns that it had all the information it needed to avoid the problem, sometimes months in advance of uncovering it. Here's a technique for discovering this kind of knowledge more systematically.
Our plans, products, and processes are often awkward, bulky, and complex. They lack a certain spiritual quality that some might call elegance. Yet we all recognize elegance when we see it. Why do we make things so complicated?
To solve problems, we change existing policies or processes, or we create new ones. We try to make things better and sometimes we actually succeed. More often, we create new problems — typically, for someone else.
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