Successful Teams - Part IV

by Derek Winter


This is the fourth and last post in a series inspired and based on the books “Predictable Success” and “The Synergist” by Les McKeown. The first post summarised the 3 natural styles that describe the way people behave in groups or teams - The Visionary, The Operator and The Processor. The second post explored the dynamics created with these three styles in formal meetings and informal communications, and the consequences of the different ‘world views’ of each. The third post explored the learned role of a “Synergist” and the part they play in bringing a team together and facilitating their achievement of the outcomes they exist for.

In this post the focus shifts to how the different styles and roles play out across the lifecycle of an organisation, from start-up to end-of-life. This is a based on the framework Les introduces in “Predictable Success” and maps the roles identified in “The Synergist” across that framework, but importantly identifies the strengths of different combinations of people’s styles and some of the pitfalls of different combinations.

The overall premise is that Leaders can be brilliant, visionary, values-driven, focused, excellent communicators, loyal to their teams and entirely committed to achieving the goals of the organisation and still fail because they don’t recognise or understand where the organisation itself lies in its life cycle. Each phase of an organisations evolution requires certain skills and creates different challenges. “Predictable Success” presents a ‘map’ of a companies growth cycle which I will briefly describe as a backdrop to talking about how visionaries, operators, processors and synergists interact and contribute to each phase. 

Firstly it’s work knowing that in Les’ model...

  • Not every organisation makes it through all seven stages
  • It’s possible (and, quite common) to drop back to a previous.
  • Some organisations die at a certain stage
  • It is not possible to skip a stage.  You have to go through the white-water to get to predictable success…
  • But it is possible for organisations to remain in Predictable Success indefinitely!

The “Predictable Success” is the pinnacle of the life-cycle. The place that we all want our organisations to ‘sit’ in indefinitely. The suggestion of this book is that this is possible if you understand the way to get there and the danger signs of the following stages that head an organisation towards destruction.

I’m not going to analyse the model in detail here, but some key observations are:

In Early Struggle the two main challenges are:

  • Making sure there is enough cash to keep going and
  • Clearly establishing that there is a market for your product or service.

In Les’ experience through research and his own client work, more than two-thirds of all organisations don’t make it out of Early Struggle.

When you’ve broken through Early Struggle you get to Fun! 

  • Your key focus now moves from cash (finding) to sales (mining) and the business builds exponentially in a time of rapid, first-stage growth.
  • It’s in Fun that the organisation’s myths and legends are built and the “Hero’s” of the business emerge.

The consequence of continued success and growth is hitting Whitewater. 

  • You’re likely to start dropping the ball because systems and processes are not sufficient for increased volume and complexity
  • The organisation increases in complexity and the emphasis shifts from sales to profitability.
  • To achieve sustained, profitable growth you’re now required to put in place consistent processes, policies and systems (which is often harder than imagined)
  • Implementing decisions and making them stick becomes incredibly difficult.
  • Whitewater is where organisations and leaders often have an identity crisis and suffer a lack of confidence.

Surviving Whitewater leads to Predictable Success

  • The prime stage in your organisation’s growth where you set and consistently achieve your goals and objectives with a predictable and consistent degree of success.

When organisations shift too far toward depending on process and policies and there is a decline in creativity, risk taking and initiative then they’ve moved out of Predictable Success into the Treadmill where a lot of energy is being expended and there is no forward movement. 

  • It’s in the Treadmill that there is an emphasis on data over action and when good people start to leave – sometimes even the founder(s).
  • Without any effort to get out of the Treadmill, organisations will fall into The Big Rut where process and administration are more important than action and results, and where the organisation loses its ability to be self-aware.

And then there is the Death Rattle – a final chance at life through bankruptcy or acquisition – before the organisation dies in its present form.

So, now to the interesting bit; how do the different styles of people manifest themselves in the different stages of the organisation?

Early Struggle    - Is often a single Visionary trying to establish themselves based on one of their creative idea’s. Certainly dominated by visionaries and hence unstable

Fun            - Once the market and viability of the product is established the Visionary is joined by necessity by an Operator who can get things done without formal, established systems or processes.

Whitewater        - Things are getting complicated, so the Visionary and Operator introduce a  Processor expecting that to solve their problems and introduce good processes and procedures

Predictable Success    - As explained in the previous two posts, unless the Visionary, Operator and Processor are joined by a Synergist, things will remain hairy, but if a Synergist comes to the fore, then predictable success is sustainable.

What happens if we tip over onto the downward slope of the model? Each of the next phases can be categorised by the loss of one of the styles identified.

Treadmill        We loose the Visionaries because it’s not fun anymore. Too many systems and processes stifle their creativity.

The Big Rut      This focus on process and administration eventually see’s the Operators leave because they are restricted from achieving things (which is what motivates them) by too much red tape and bureaucracy.

Death Rattle      Lastly, at the last gasp, it is the Processor who is left to turn out the lights.

What is interesting in this analysis was that certain combinations of the roles are to be encouraged and prove important in particular circumstances:

Visionaries + Synergists are very good at brainstorming. Get them together to solve a problem.

Operators + Processors are very good at stress testing ideas and translating them into action

Visionaries + Operators very good at responding to crisis and implementing plans

Processors + Synergists are very good at maintaining systems/processes and then conducting a post-mortem or implementation review.

Whereas, 2 other combinations are worth avoiding!

Either Operators + Synergists or Visionaries + Processors don’t have enough common ground in their world views and personal styles to generate strong working relationships. They won’t gel and their output will be anaemic.

The value of all of this? For existing teams or groups, understanding the roles and the stage of life of the organisations provides significant information about what sort of issues you are likely to be facing (and how to rectify them) as well as the dangers that might lie ahead.

Understanding the make up of a team helps in identifying where to focus on professional development individually and collectively.

Understanding the make up of the team also allows you to identify what sorts of situations they will excel at and where their blind spots will be. It will also be invaluable in recruiting and growing the team by assisting you in identifying the best style of people to add to the group and the dangers or effects of adding different styles.