Successful Teams - Part I

by Derek Winter


Predictable Success Dominoes.jpg

I recently dug out and revisited two books by Les McKeown and and was reminded of the straightforward common sense wisdom that had attracted me to them in the first place.

I was pondering what it is that makes some teams successful and see's others struggle as well as why any given team (or organisation for that matter) might progress from one state to the other.

I originally had the pleasure of hearing Les speak in a tee-pee installed in a remote field in West Wales of all places. The Do Lectures was to be a memorable experience in more ways than one and as an aside, I’d encourage anyone to make the investment of attending a Do Lectures either in Wales, the US or Australia. It’ll be well worth your time and money.

It was one of those moments where an idea is so simple that you wonder why you’ve never thought of it yourself. Such common sense once you’ve been exposed to it, yet the clarity and simplicity belies a depth and distills a complexity that stands the test of time. (I’ve written previously on this blog about simplicity, which I’d humbly suggest is worth a read!) In that presentation Les was talking about how an organisation of any scale can enjoy “Predictable Success” (and perhaps unsurprisingly this was the title of his book on the topic!). But more of that later.

Back to the question that took me back there. What did these books teach me about what it takes to lead a group of people to be successful?

It perhaps could go without saying that Organisations of any size or type don’t succeed in and of themselves; they succeed only through individuals working in teams and groups. Teams or groups of people either deliver on the organisations goals/vision through their daily activities; Or they produce stress, indecision, confusion, uncertainty, distrust and frustration.

So, the nature of interactions between people is fundamental to an organisations success and likewise the nature of interactions between people is the key to the success of individual teams or groups. In his follow up book, (The Synergist) Les identified three different styles or modes of operating that people have in a team. In reality we play a mixture of the three styles, but one will be our default; Our predominant characteristic. We will all default to one of 3 natural styles when we are in a group or a team. These styles reflect the way we think and work. The relationship between these three styles can either create momentum and success or gridlock.

The foundational point in Les’s observations is that the ’triangle’ of the three roles together is inherently unstable because each achieve a sense of fulfilment or satisfaction in very different, often competing ways. That is to say a team with one member of each style will be inherently dysfunctional.

The fourth style (unsurprisingly called The Synergist) is a learned style that when added to the mix can overcome the gridlock and help the other 3 styles be successful together.

I want to explore these characteristics first*, because it is through this lens that the concepts of “Predictable Succcess” become even more interesting (I think). In this first blogpost I will introduce the three natural styles or roles. In the second blogpost I will summarise how these styles interact in formal meetings and informal communications. In the third blogpost I’ll look at what a Synergist is and why it’s important and in the last blogpost in the series I’ll discuss how these roles play a part in the growth and evolution of an organisation and either allow it to enjoy “Predictable Success” or cause it to ultimately fail.

The three styles are Visionaries, Operators and Processors.

Visionaries

Visionaries are big-picture thinkers turned on by ideas. They are likely to be easily bored with details and are driven by the desire to create and to achieve. These people achieve their best when they are working towards a goal they truly believe in.

A sense of fulfilment comes through the act or art or creation. They are quick to move onto the next thing.

Therefore when working with a visionary it’s best to involve them at the beginning of an ideation/creation process rather than bringing new idea’s to them that they didn’t have input into. It’s important to listen openly to them but to be selective how and what you involve them in.

If you’re managing a visionary it’s important to ensure they have variety in their work, and to make accountability absolutely clear, with frequent reviews to ensure it remains clear. It is worthwhile ensuring that there are not too many visionaries in one team.

If you’re working for a visionary, make sure that you have a good grasp of detail, maintain a positive outlook, and build their trust over time. It’s only once you are trusted, that you can provide a ‘challenge’/‘test’ function to their blue sky dreaming to improve on and filter their enthusiastic ideas.

Operators

Operators are the ‘do-ers’ in any organisation – they’re the task focused, practically-minded people that get on and stuff done. They don’t mind bending the rules and working outside process and procedure to get there because their sense of fufillment comes through completing one thing before commencing the next. Getting things done and ticking them off.

If you are working with an operator it can be frustrating because they’ll be impatient with delay and ‘maverick’ towards systems and processes. It’s important to identify potential area’s of conflict early and work to avoid problems.

If you’re managing an operator, give clear directions, allow them to be autonomous, but enforce boundaries consistently where necessary. They will need assistance with prioritisation and delegation.

If you’re working for an operator, bear in mind that they prefer to work in isolation, They are not good at delegating. It will be necessary to build trust by working alongside them (physically). It will often be necessary for your to find ways to get them interacting with the rest of the organisation and tap into their undoubted capability as a coach and mentor.

Processors

Processors have an innate desire to bring order to any situation – they focus not only on what they’ve been asked to do, but also on the underlying systems and processes that will make doing it more consistent and repeatable – and if those systems and processes don’t yet exist, they’ll begin by designing and implementing them (usually before completing whatever task is was that they were assigned).

A sense of fulfilment for an operator comes through this due diligence – documentation, categorisation, data, analysis and testing.

If you’re working with a processor respect their need for order, listen carefully, give credit where credit is due and refrain from exaggeration and assumption, stick to the facts.

If you’re managing a processor, be sure to set clear, precise goals, make sure commercial priorities are understood, have patience and improvise sparingly.

If you’re working for a processor, understand the underlying patterns and rhythms of their work, and understand their priorities. Take care in communicating big surprises or bad news. Innovate incrementally, not in giant leaps.

Even from this brief overview, it is clear that each ‘style’ of person thinks, talks and acts differently in accordance with their natural style resulting in three wholly different agendas being pursued. This is usually not a conscious pursuit of a different agenda, simply a preference for engaging in a particular way and being motivated by different things.

With Visionaries, Operators and Processors in a group or team setting, those differences in motivation, goals and perspectives can create a perfect storm.

Motivations:

Visionary:        To start new things and to solve problems
Operator:        To finish tasks and fix things
Processor:       To systematise and supervise

Goals:

Visionary:        To solve problems by talking and thinking
Operator:        To take action by deciding and doing
Processor:       To control by analysing and aligning

Perspectives:

Visionary:        Patterns and Perspective
Operator:        Opportunities and Obstacles
Processor:      Compliance and Contingent liabilities

It is easy to see that without some unifying oversight, these traits will make it very hard for a team made up of these styles to be functional.


* This series of posts are to a great degree for my own benefit, to synthesise the two books and capture my understanding. As such they are often more a book review and summary than a discussion or exploration.