Murky Waters

November 26, 2012 by
Filed under: Leadership, People 

I’ve run into a number of companies over the years that have a keen interest in breaking out, in growing or expanding, in really taking off. Many of those, unfortunately, need to understand that there things they need to do before tackling their next big adventure – they need to get their team swimming in the same direction.

There might be small indications of problems, such as people stumbling over each other’s toes as they try to get that release out of the door. Maybe it’s just an underlying inertia, like never being able to find the time to get to those hot new features that are going to really improve the product. Often these are dismissed as ‘just the way it is’ at work, and the company still seems to trod along, even if a payday or two causes a little sweat to appear on the owner’s brow.

Sometimes the problems are more obvious. Real flareups about priorities, whether they are this feature over that or this customer or that. At times the priorities are between someone’s personal life and expectations at work. There might be trouble keeping employees or contractors, or trouble getting rid of ones you don’t really want to linger around. The problems might appear in the product itself, with nasty bugs or lingering issues that just don’t seem to go away, or in the people, where someone may see themselves as more equal than others on the team.

Every team will have some of these things, at least some of the time. There is no team that gets away with a perfectly easy path to success, there are always times when the waters get a bit murky. Sometimes downright turbid.

If you are in the situation where these things are the norm rather than the exception, if the problems you are facing are big ones that won’t go away, don’t even think of trying to progress to the next big thing.

Not until you have cleared up those murky waters.

One of the nasty things about these issues is that they won’t go away on their own. Even worse, they definitely won’t scale in a pleasant way as you try to attain bigger and better things: they will only get uglier.

They are all signs that the people on your team aren’t well aligned. With these signs, there are two key things that you need to address:

  • you need to get everyone motivated to work together, to respect one another and to commit to an honest effort. While you might be lucky enough to have a group that already shares these characteristics, it is rare to get this accidentally. It takes real effort to cultivate this in many teams, building up appreciation for the skills and perspectives that people bring to the team, an awareness that no individual can possibly be as bright, creative or productive as the team as a whole, and absolutely no tolerance for anything less.
  • you need a clearly expressed vision of where the team is headed as distinct (and better) from where you are now, as a way of pointing this team toward this shared destination. This becomes the driver for the specific goals and projects that will get you there, which become the waypoints that you use to measure and celebrate progress.

There is quite a bit of connection between these two things, and it is the first thing that most companies need to explicitly work on today. Even if there is no interest in taking a great leap into the future, a group that is not working together as a team will make even sustaining the status quo way more work than it should be.

As you make that transformation with your team, it is worth starting out with the expectation that you can bring everyone on board. There may be times, though, when someone isn’t comfortable playing with those rules, and they may choose to move on to their own ‘bigger and better things’. Don’t try to hang on to these people, even if you may fear losing a lot of technical knowledge: the cost of retaining someone that isn’t an effective team player far outweighs any perceived benefit of keeping that person around. Think of it as a learning moment, and don’t let someone get to that point of holding you hostage again in the future.

Indeed, the value in cleaning up the murky waters of team dysfunction can be so great that you may find yourself thinking less about a next big adventure, as the status quo has become so much more pleasant – and profitable.

If you don’t clean things up, though, it really doesn’t matter what you strive for – those issues will continue to weigh you down and cloud your vision. – JB

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