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"Undiscussables" & Leadership

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SPECIAL
COLLECTION
FROM THE LEADERSHIP ARCHIVE
Learn how to identify the best
individual for each position and the
best me...
CONTENTS
SPECIAL
COLLECTION
How WinningTeams Work
1 How Leaders Can OptimizeTeams’ Emotional Landscapes
		 By Jeffrey Sanc...
How Leaders Can Optimize
Teams’ Emotional Landscapes
Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, Christina Bradley, and Lindred Greer
Employees...
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"Undiscussables" & Leadership

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* "Undiscussables" are collective, unconscious behaviors
*Difficult to uncover
*Aware of isolated problems
*Cannot connect the dots
*Wrong conclusions about team inefficiencies & poor performance

* "Undiscussables" are collective, unconscious behaviors
*Difficult to uncover
*Aware of isolated problems
*Cannot connect the dots
*Wrong conclusions about team inefficiencies & poor performance

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"Undiscussables" & Leadership

  1. 1. SPECIAL COLLECTION FROM THE LEADERSHIP ARCHIVE Learn how to identify the best individual for each position and the best methods for working with your groups. How Winning TeamsWork
  2. 2. CONTENTS SPECIAL COLLECTION How WinningTeams Work 1 How Leaders Can OptimizeTeams’ Emotional Landscapes By Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, Christina Bradley, and Lindred Greer 6 It’sTime toTackleYourTeam’s Undiscussables By Ginka Toegel and Jean-Louis Barsoux 15 WhyTeams Still Need Leaders Lindred (Lindy) Greer, interviewed by Frieda Klotz 18 A New Approach to Designing Work By Nelson P . Repenning, Don Kieffer, and James Repenning 28 Improve the Rhythm ofYour Collaboration By Ethan Bernstein, Jesse Shore, and David Lazer 36 How to Lead a Self-ManagingTeam By Vanessa Urch Druskat and Jane V. Wheeler
  3. 3. How Leaders Can Optimize Teams’ Emotional Landscapes Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, Christina Bradley, and Lindred Greer Employees bring a diversity of moods to work each day. Trying to smooth them out into one shared mood isn’t always the best idea. Emotions are running high. The disruptive events characterizing 2020 — a global pandemic, climate-related disasters, economic uncertainty, and social discontent — are leading employees to bring a higher level of emotionality to work than ever before. This is clashing with the culturally ingrained norm that an appropriate “professional” demeanor minimizes emotional expression. At the same time, work on emotional suppression suggests that there are long-term costs to keeping emotions buried and that, if stifled, they will erupt in counterproductive ways. For that reason, leaders can no longer avoid taking an active role in architecting emotional landscapes — the collective composition of employee sentiments. Because emotional landscapes directly influence how employees make sense of situations, tasks, and what actions to take, they can help or hinder the pursuit of organizational strategic objectives. By supporting emotional expression within their teams, leaders can help their organizations function at their best. The tools available to leaders for navigating such emotional landscapes with their teams are largely outdated strategies such as encouraging general suppression of emotions at work or offering generic pep talks. Leaders need a playbook for responding to employees’ emotional states with more nuance and, critically, in ways that are tailored to the situation. We offer four plays — to nurture emotions, to align them, to acknowledge them, and to diversify them — that allow leaders to manage the loaded emotional settings they’re working in and help creativity and productivity thrive. Limits of the Traditional Emotions Playbook Based on our executive leadership development work with global Fortune 100 companies as well as our ongoing research in this area, we’ve noticed that leaders tend to overly rely on two plays from the old, traditional playbook of emotional management of teams and organizations: giving a pep talk and sounding the alarm. Many managers remain enamored with the notion that rallying a positive, high-energy mood in a team is an effective strategy for obtaining exceptionally high performance. Accordingly, many managers adopt this play when kicking off meetings by pumping up their team to elevate everyone’s mood. Former Microsoft CEO Steve MI MIT T SLO SLOAN MANA AN MANAGEMENT REVIEW GEMENT REVIEW SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 1
  4. 4. Ballmer famously illustrated this approach with the fervor of a rock singer at a music festival. Though that’s admittedly an extreme example, we have seen many other leaders deploy an only slightly down-tempo cover version of Ballmer’s routine before meetings, by playing uplifting music, asking everyone to share a piece of good news, or getting everyone to stand up and move around before diving into the agenda. Alternatively, other managers rely on the mood-darkening strategy of sounding an alarm. Many believe that instilling anxiety by highlighting the cost of failure is an effective way to focus a team’s attention and effort. One newly promoted senior executive working in data security shared with us that he has found no better way to motivate his team than to openly share his concerns about the consequences of failing to meet current key performance indicators (KPIs). He reasoned that this kills employees’ complacency and pushes them to work harder. The stark differences between these two approaches hide an important similarity: Both create emotional alignment. Both steer teams toward a shared emotional experience — rather than individualized and diversified ones. Whether a manager relies on positivity or negativity, the result is a reduction in the breadth of feelings. Leaders use these plays because they can work in very specific situations. Indeed, an abundance of research supports the notion that increasing emotional alignment contributes to team performance, specifically when a team is executing a clear strategy. When a team shares a common mood, members are better able to converge on a single point of view and take the actions required to execute a given strategy. However, the full story behind the consequences of emotional alignment is more complex. Because emotional alignment minimizes important individual differences in reactions to current events, it can prevent teams from building an inclusive culture, however counterintuitive that may seem. More crucially, because convergence in a team’s mood directly reduces the diversity of perspectives represented, it shapes how teams operate: When there is uncertainty about the best path forward, striving for the same emotional mood actually suppresses views critical for the creative process, decision-making, and overall innovation efforts. Studies coming out of the behavioral sciences have revealed that more complex and diverse emotional experiences actually evoke a broader array of ways to think about a problem. Heterogeneous emotions beget diverse thoughts because of the way emotions interact with how knowledge is organized and retrieved. For example, the mood-congruent memory effect describes the phenomenon of how we are more likely to bring to mind knowledge associated with positive experiences when in a positive mood and with negative experiences when in a negative mood. The anger acquired during a grueling commute on the freeway more readily brings to mind all the pain and suffering in our lives than the joys and bright spots experienced a mere 24 hours earlier. Therefore, a collective that is in a similar mood will share a similarly biased perspective. A group with a more emotionally diverse landscape will have less bias and greater breadth in the points of view they bring to the problem at hand. Considering Context for Managing Emotions Rather than homogenizing the emotional experience at work, managers would be wise to deploy a much more tailored approach to emotion management that takes into account the nature of the task at hand and the ideal emotional landscape for that task. From our observations of managers over the years and what has been discovered about emotional landscapes, we recommend that leaders start with two initial questions when aiming to architect the ideal emotional landscape in their teams: W Wh ha at i t is t s th he n e na at tur ure o e of t f th he p e pr rim ima ar ry j y jo ob t b to b o be do e don ne a e at t t th he e m mo om men ent? t? Is the team’s current primary objective to execute upon a clear strategy that has already been mapped out in advance? Or, instead, do you need the team to innovate, to brainstorm, and to develop new solutions to a pressing problem? MI MIT T SLO SLOAN MANA AN MANAGEMENT REVIEW GEMENT REVIEW SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 2
  5. 5. W Wh ha at i t is t s th he c e cur urr ren ent em t emo ot tio ion na al l l la an nd ds sc ca ap pe o e of y f yo our t ur te ea am? m? Focus on what we call the “aperture of your emotional lens” to take a holistic view of your team — shift attention from individuals to patterns in the collective. Are the emotions among members relatively aligned, or are they diverse? Consider whether an external event (such as a major international crisis or a recent organizational announcement) has created a situation where team members are having similar feelings. Or, instead, has the variety of experiences in their individual lives (including such disparate events as the birth of a child, progress on a KPI, or that same theoretical organizational announcement) brought about a variety of moods? Focus on the emotional temperament of the entire group and not just one or two people. Your answers to these two questions (execution versus innovation, and aligned versus diversified) are essential for determining which of the four emotion management strategies will be most effective. Choosing the wrong play could detract from the effectiveness of your team. Expanding the Emotion Management Playbook Once you’ve identified the nature of the task at hand and the current emotional mood of your team, you’ll be able to identify a strategy that best fits your current circumstances. (See “Four Strategies for Your Emotion Management Playbook.”) Below, we detail why each strategy fits with each combination of circumstances. N Nur urt tur ure em e emo ot tio ion ns (w s (wh hen t en th he t e ta as sk i k is ex s exe ec cu ut tio ion a n an nd t d th he e c cur urr ren ent em t emo ot tio ion na al l l la an nd ds sc ca ap pe i e is a s alig lign ne ed). d). As noted earlier, research shows that a team is better able to coordinate on clear tasks when its members share a common mood. To benefit from this emotional alignment, leaders need to be active in encouraging and recognizing those feelings to lower the likelihood that new emotions will intrude, which would be counterproductive. Sustaining this cohesive emotional model can require some planning. If the team is upbeat, share information that will continue to rally everyone. If it’s more somber, acknowledge the mood with empathy. One leader recently shared with us how she has been handling the rise in negative emotions of her team due to the COVID-19 crisis. She told us that at the start of one meeting, many team members shared their fears about how the pandemic would affect the company. This leader avoided the temptation to lighten the mood and instead acknowledged that times were indeed tough. By validating the team’s negative feelings and avoiding the urge to sugarcoat the current emotional state, she avoided disturbing the camaraderie of shared concern. Her team maintained a common motivation to continue executing a plan for pulling through the hard times together. A Alig lign em n emo ot tio ion ns (w s (wh hen t en th he t e ta as sk i k is ex s exe ec cu ut tio ion a n an nd t d th he c e cur urr ren ent t em emo ot tio ion na al l l la an nd ds sc ca ap pe i e is di s div ver ers se). e). When your team needs to coordinate toward a common goal and you sense that it’s experiencing a wide range of emotions, the most effective way forward is to deploy a strategy that increases emotional alignment. Here, the “pep talk” or “sounding of the alarm” approaches described earlier are effective in preparing your team to execute its task. In this circumstance, managers need to take immediate and potent actions to help team members get into a similar emotional state. Earlier this year we saw one leader of a large nonprofit enact this strategy shortly after closing all in-person operations and shifting to remote work. Some stakeholders were delighted not to go into the office, some struggled to work while at home with their families, and others were anxious about the changes. This leader began to incorporate punctuated moments during virtual meetings to highlight specific examples of how the organization was continuing to deliver on aspects of its mission that were sacred to the employees. This worked to coalesce the collective mood toward a sense of hope and optimism. A Ac ck kn no ow wle ledg dge em e emo ot tio ion ns (w s (wh hen t en th he t e ta as sk i k is inn s inno ova vat tio ion a n an nd d t th he c e cur urr ren ent em t emo ot tio ion na al l l la an nd ds sc ca ap pe i e is di s div ver ers se). e). When the goal for your team involves finding novel solutions to a pressing problem and you recognize that your team is experiencing a diverse set of emotions, the best way to move forward is to let those different emotions be heard and validated. Avoid opening meetings in a way that could substantially raise or lower — and thus align — the entire group’s mood. Creating room for emotional validation allows people to MI MIT T SLO SLOAN MANA AN MANAGEMENT REVIEW GEMENT REVIEW SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 3
  6. 6. process their affective experiences, which is more productive than attempting to suppress them or pretending that people are unemotional robots. The diversity of emotions in the room will facilitate diversity of thought. One astute leader uses this approach to begin her Monday morning design hackathons. Recognizing the value of a room containing a mix of irritation from treacherous commutes, elation from weekend adventures, and everything in between, she begins with an online poll asking everyone to indicate two different emotions they are feeling. With this small step, she affirms the diverse emotional landscape in the room and how it’s a perfect mix to fuel their innovation task at hand. Di Div ver ersif sify em y emo ot tio ion ns (w s (wh hen t en th he t e ta as sk i k is inn s inno ova vat tio ion a n an nd t d th he e c cur urr ren ent em t emo ot tio ion na al l l la an nd ds sc ca ap pe i e is a s alig lign ne ed). d). As we’ve outlined, the level of innovative thinking you will get from your team will be suboptimal when there’s too much emotional conformity. It matters little whether you created this common mood or if it was the result of an external event. What a leader needs to do when a team is tasked with a creative project is to increase the complexity of the emotional landscape. One way to do this is powerfully simple: Set the stage for an ideation session by having team members reflect on specific meaningful moments from their careers and personal lives, including when they were excited and when they were angry. Have them jot down some words that capture how they felt in those moments. The underlying magic of this process is that the range of emotions attached to this broad collection of experiences will help unleash a greater variety of thoughts and perspectives to use in the innovation challenge. When we run this exercise in leadership development workshops, we typically ask just a subset of attendees to revisit these emotionally diverse memories. Later, we ask for a show of hands to see whether the number and variety of solutions are higher in that group, and we find that they nearly always are. This seemingly trivial intervention really does squeeze more creative thought from employees. A note on diversifying emotions: When there is big news that creates a similar emotional response — for example, your company’s major quarterly announcement — that’s not a good day for ideation, regardless of whether the news is a pleasant surprise or a major disappointment. It will be difficult to diffuse the team’s distraction and common emotions. Consider scheduling core ideation work for another time, when the source of emotional alignment has subsided. Although all four strategies for managing employee emotions have their places in different situations, from our experience, managers miss important opportunities by not using the acknowledge and diversify strategies. This is understandable, given that they depart from the conventional wisdom that aligning a team’s emotions is always helpful. Again, although a common mood accelerates execution tasks, it is counterproductive for the generation of innovative ideas. For creativity, emotional diversity is key. Managers who understand this can mindfully cultivate the different emotional landscapes required for execution versus innovation. It’s not that this leadership work was not required all along. Rather, the extremely emotional and dynamic events of 2020 are finally forcing leaders to do this difficult work. About The Authors Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks is the William Russell Kelly Professor of Business Administration at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Christina Bradley is a doctoral student in the Management & Organizations department at the Ross School of Business. Lindred Greer (@lindredg) is an associate professor of management and organizations at the Ross School of Business. MI MIT T SLO SLOAN MANA AN MANAGEMENT REVIEW GEMENT REVIEW SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 4
  7. 7. Four Strategies for Your Emotion Management Playbook Paying attention to the emotional landscape of a workplace allows leaders to respond to situations with nuance. Depending on what kind of job needs to be done and how aligned or diverse emotions are, different strategies can help teams most effectively pursue strategic objectives. MI MIT T SLO SLOAN MANA AN MANAGEMENT REVIEW GEMENT REVIEW SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 5
  8. 8. BENEDETTO CRISTOFANI/THEISPOT.COM I n 2008, Theranos engineer Aaron Moore created a mock ad for a prototype of the company’s blood testing device.Intended as a prank to amuse his colleagues,his ad described the device as “mostly functional”and included“leeches”among its“blood collection accessories.”1 Now, with hindsight, we can interpret his spoof not just as a joke but as a desperate bid to raise a taboo subject: The company’s device didn’t work and the leadership team was hiding that fact. Moore’s actions spoke volumes about the undiscussables at Theranos. Undiscussables exist because they help people avoid short-term conflicts, threats, and em- barrassment. But they also short-circuit the inquiries and challenges essential to both improving performance and promoting team learning. Our consulting work with dozens of senior management teams has taught us that a team’s ability to discuss what is holding it back is It’sTimetoTackleYour Team’sUndiscussables Subjectsthatareconsciouslyorunwittinglydeemedoutof boundscomein fourvarietiesandmakeitalmostimpossibleforteamstofunction. BY GINKA TOEGEL AND JEAN-LOUIS BARSOUX C O L L A B O R AT I N G W I T H I M PA C T : T E A M D Y N A M I C S SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 6
  9. 9. C O L L A B O R AT I N G W I T H I M PA C T : T E A M D Y N A M I C S what drives its effectiveness. We have observed this dynamic in a wide variety of settings and have drawn on this experience to propose a framework, a set of diagnostic questions, and some targeted solutions to help teams address their own undiscussables. This approach enables team leaders to identify the domi- nantundiscussablesintheirbusinessesandkick-start the necessary conversations to bring them to light. At Theranos, CEO Elizabeth Holmes and her top team were unwilling even to acknowledge con- cerns that were obvious to many of their engineers. It was significant that Moore didn’t share his mis- givings directly with his bosses but expressed them sarcastically and anonymously. When Holmes was told about the prank ad, she launched an investigation to identify the culprit. Instead of triggering debate, her actions reinforced the message that problems with the company’s product were not to be discussed. Within months of being reprimanded, Moore resigned, frustrated and disillusioned. The Theranos case illustrates what can happen when questioning voices are silenced and topics placed off-limits. At Theranos, that created a cul- ture of fear and denial that ultimately led to false claims made to investors and customers, as well as decisions that jeopardized patient health. The once-inspiring Theranos story ended with criminal fraud charges filed against Holmes and the collapse of a startup previously valued at $9 billion. While Theranos represents an extreme case of a dysfunctional organization,the underlying issue — team undiscussables — is all too common. And it’s getting worse as increasingly virtual and globally distributed teams find it harder to pick up signals of discomfort and anticipate misunderstandings. With fewer opportunities to raise undiscussables face-to-face (casually, over lunch or coffee), it be- comes even more important to identify and air concerns before they escalate and team and organi- zational performance begin to suffer. A Misunderstood Problem When the leadership teams we work with struggle with undiscussables, the symptoms they present to us range from unresolved conflicts among team members and uneven participation in meet- ings to destructive groupthink and employee disengagement.We have studied group dynamics in numerous nonbusiness settings, too — including elite sports teams, orchestras, medical teams, and a hostage negotiation team — and the pattern holds across contexts and levels: The more undiscuss- ables there are, the more difficult it is for the team to function. If they aren’t discussed collectively, they can’t be managed intelligently. Yet team leaders tend to overestimate the risks of raising undiscussables. They assume incorrectly that talking about negative subjects will sap team energy, reveal issues they cannot resolve, and expose them to blame for the part they played in creating the problems the group faces. In reality, we’ve found that discussing undis- cussables brings relief, boosts energy, and bolsters team goodwill. Team leaders also underestimate the conse- quencesofdoingnothingtoaddressundiscussables. Ignoring them invariably results in strained work- ing relationships that produce ineffective meetings marked by a lack of debate. This leads to bad deci- sions that are made worse, because without open, honest discussion, a team cannot learn from its mistakes or correct course. Left unmanaged, undis- cussables contaminate the team, choking its problem-solving abilities and capacity to learn and adapt to change. Four Layers of Undiscussability Executivesoftentalkaboutundiscussablesasthough they were all the same:views people hold and choose not to air in public. They are typically described as theelephantintheroom,the800-poundgorilla,orthe dead moose. Thinking this way both overlooks their complexity and makes them more fearsome. We propose a multifaceted view of undiscussables. The thinking-saying gap (Theranos engineers knew their device didn’t work but couldn’t say so) is just one category. There is also the saying-meaning gap, the feeling-naming gap, and the doing-knowing gap. (See“Mind the Gaps.”) Each type of undiscussable has its own drivers. Some emerge from cognitive barriers, others from emotional ones.Some are known to everyone on the team,while others are sensed only by a few or are ut- terly unknown, existing outside the team’s collective consciousness. Different types of undiscussables The authors reviewed various streams of research on team effective- ness and dysfunction, connecting the dominant management and social psychology perspectives on teams with the often- neglected psychodynamic literature on groups. Along with their consulting work with senior management teams, the authors have studied group dynamics in elite sports teams, orchestras, medical teams, and a hostage negotiation team. Their insights have been validated and refined by participants in executive education programs at IMD over the past 10 years. THE ANALYSIS SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 7
  10. 10. need to be surfaced in different ways. Some can be drawn out through direct questions; others must be inferred from patterns of behavior and then vali- dated with the team. (See“Diagnosing the Problem: A Checklist,” p. 40, for questions leaders can ask to identify their teams’undiscussables.) Although the following categories overlap some- what,differentiatingbetweentypesofundiscussables can help you tackle them more effectively. 1.You THINK but dare not say. Undiscussables are most commonly associated with risky questions, suggestions, and criticisms that are self-censored. Youmayjokeaboutthem(asMooredidatTheranos) or discuss them confidentially but never openly. Forexample,theincomingCEOintheAustralian subsidiary of a global information company quickly noted her new team’s wary exchanges in meetings and team members’ disconcerting tendency to nod approvingly in public only to criticize in private. They were unaccustomed to speaking their minds. Coming in with a tough change mandate, the CEO needed her team’s hon- est input and wholehearted buy-in. She had to address its cautious behavior. Views are left unspoken mostly when people fear the consequences of speaking, whether the risk is real or imagined.The main driver of this fear is often team leaders with an emotional, erratic manage- ment style and a reputation for responding harshly when people disagree with them. That makes team members feel unsafe. AsresearchbyHarvardprofessorAmyEdmondson has shown,a critical barrier to psychological safety is the weight of hierarchy.2 Power and status differences tend to discourage team members from bringing up issues or concerns they think the leader may view as disruptiveorevennoneof theirbusiness. Beginning the fix: How can leaders minimize those power differences and make it safe to speak up? By explicitly acknowledging they may unwit- tingly have created a climate of fear or uncertainty, inviting discussion about sensitive issues, drawing out concerns, promising immunity to those who share dissenting views,and lightening the weight of their authority in the room. In the Australian subsidiary, the CEO took sev- eral concrete actions.To model her commitment to openness and reduce mistrust, she asked the team to submit anonymous questions in writing about her style and her intentions.She then asked the HR head to run an honest dialogue session with the team (while she was absent) to encourage productive dis- agreement. The session focused on the difference between straight talk and fight talk.3 While both styles of communication are based on candor, straight talk distinguishes clearly between the indi- vidual and the issue; fight talk conflates them. In subsequent meetings, with the CEO present, whenever the team seemed reluctant to push back on a proposal, she would say,“I feel there might be something else. ... Let’s see if it would help for me to leave the room.And when I come back,I want you as a team to share your concerns.”This helped free peo- ple from their inhibitions. Eventually, as the team realized the CEO really did want constructive push- back,leavingtheroom becameunnecessary.Shealso replaced the rectangular meeting table with a round one to signal a more egalitarian environment and foster more intimate interactions. To encourage genuine give-and-take, team leaders must play a supportive role and be very conscious of how volubly they express themselves during discussions. They should avoid stating their preferences or opinions at the beginning of team discussions and refrain from immediately judging the contributions of others. They also can show MIND THE GAPS Teams struggle with undiscussables when they… … THINK but dare not say … FEEL but can’t name … SAY but don’t mean … DO but don’t realize SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 8
  11. 11. C O L L A B O R AT I N G W I T H I M PA C T : T E A M D Y N A M I C S that they are part of the group by sharing their mistakes and engaging in maintenance behaviors, including saying “we” rather than “I,” encouraging team members to voice their concerns, and acknowledging their contributions. In short order, the Australian information com- pany’s team meetings grew more productive as these new expectations and processes were inter- nalized and became routine. The CEO was able to execute her change mandate successfully, and team development, both individual and collective, accel- erated. Team members took the functioning of their team more seriously and carried the same principles into meetings with other teams. 2. You SAY but don’t mean. Alongside unspoken truths, there are spoken untruths. These undiscuss- ables reflect discrepancies between what the team saysitbelievesorfindsimportantandhowitbehaves (what academics have described as gaps between es- poused theory and theory-in-use).4 Teams often proclaim but fail to follow certain values, objectives, or practices that are supposed to guide and inspire them and create a sense of to- getherness. The disconnect between what’s said and what’s done is visible to all,but no one points it out for fear of endangering the team’s cohesion, even if that cohesion is based on a shared illusion. Here’sanexample:ThetopteamofaScandinavian paper giant struggled with plunging demand for paper caused by digitalization.In response,the tight- knit leadership team declared its commitment to “reinvent the company.”In reality,all the team talked about in meetings and retreats was efficiencies and cost cutting. The chief concern in such teams is protecting the group, as opposed to protecting the individual in the think-but-dare-not-say category of undiscussables. Silence is not based on fear as much as on an unques- tioned and distorted sense of loyalty to the team, its leader, or the organization. Drawing attention to the disconnect between intentions and actions would feel likelettingdowncolleaguesandkillingteamspirit.This falsepositivity,whichpeopleexpressbysimplymouth- ing accepted values, practices, and objectives — the espoused theory — hides any concerns that the team mightbeincapableof makingthenecessarychangesto the organization and that people might lose their jobs as a result. This protective impulse may appear inno- cent, but in the long run, it undermines learning and leads to disillusionment as people stop trusting the valueof oneanother’swordsandcommitments. DIAGNOSING THE PROBLEM: A CHECKLIST Here are some signs that your team may be struggling with one or more of the four types of undiscussables. 1. DO TEAM MEMBERS THINK THINGS THEY DARE NOT SAY? Do they agree publicly during meetings but disagree (and vent) privately? Do they often use sarcasm, silence, or nonverbal gestures to signal disagreement? Do they focus on managing up in meetings? 2. DO THEY SAY THEY SHARE CERTAIN VALUES BUT FAIL TO PRACTICE THEM? Are team meetings too undemanding and unrealistically upbeat? Do people cling to an image of cohesiveness, frowning on any criticism of the team as a sign of disloyalty? Do they always seem to adopt similar perspectives on problems? 3. DO THEY HAVE NEGATIVE FEELINGS THEY CAN’T NAME? Do meetings feel antagonistic (tempers fray; disagreements become personal)? Are people reluctant to comment on issues outside their direct responsibilities? Do team members organize themselves into rigid factions? 4. ARE THEY UNWITTINGLY ENGAGING IN UNPRODUCTIVE BEHAVIORS? Does the team have trouble identifying root causes for its ineffectiveness? Does it spin its wheels on minor issues? Do important items often get postponed or fall between the cracks? SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 9
  12. 12. C O L L A B O R AT I N G W I T H I M PA C T : T E A M D Y N A M I C S Beginning the fix: Team leaders must first ex- pose the hypocrisy of saying but not meaning and acknowledge their part in the charade, collecting anonymous examples of empty proclamations and challenging the overprotective mindset that inhib- its the airing of criticism. They can initiate the process by asking the team to complete this sen- tence:“We say we want to …, but in fact, we….” As the paper company prepared for yet another round of downsizing, it was becoming increasingly difficult to pretend that the team was reinventing the business. The cognitive dissonance between the mantra and the reality became too great for the CEO to accept.“In one of these endless group exec- utive meetings,”he told us,“I listened to myself and all my good, hard-working colleagues, and then I lost my temper and I said,‘What are we doing here? We’re telling the same story time and again: How tough life is. How the government doesn’t under- stand us.The customers are tough; the competition is unfair. We’re talking, talking, talking about what the world is doing to us.’” The CEO acknowledged that the team was not, in fact, doing what it said it was doing nor what the company needed: reinventing its business model and processes. In this way, he demonstrated the level of candor and self-criticism needed to break the team out of its slump, closing the gap between meaning and saying. His frankness also freed the team to reflect on other delusions that were keeping it idling. It soon concluded that its capacity for reinvention was constrained by the group’s homogeneity. So the team decided to assign the reinvention challenge to a more diverse group of 12 people who included more women, people with experience outside the paper industry, and non-Nordics. This team would function as internal consultants. Handpicked from 160 internal applicants, the group was eclectic and far better equipped to imag- ine out-of-the-box solutions. Eight years on, the organization has transformed itself into a company specializing in renewable materials. According to the former CEO, the dynamics within the team also changed dramatically.“I think we have a very open dialogue now. We don’t argue anymore about ‘Is the world changing or not?’ It’s already changed. Now, it’s all about,‘Can we get ahead of the curve? Can we change the world for the better?’” Team leaders play a key role in initiating the soul-searching, ensuring that the organization’s stated goal is the real goal, stressing a collective re- sponsibility to keep one another honest, listening to alternative viewpoints, and breaking down the unproductive and misconceived connection be- tween criticism and disloyalty. 3. You FEEL but can’t name. Some undiscussables are rooted in negative feelings — such as annoyance, mistrust, and frustration — that are difficult for team members to label or express constructively.But manifesting one’s anger or resentment is not the same thing as discussing it. For example, the top team of a German-based high-tech company was thrown into turmoil by unspoken tensions between two colleagues: one a fast-rising CTO, the other a recently hired COO. Following a series of clashes,they had stopped talk- ing. Each felt the other was behaving unreasonably. The behavior or comments of colleagues with divergent perspectives can trigger allergic reac- tions, often based on misunderstandings. Research shows that healthy disagreements over what to do or how to do it can morph quickly into interper- sonal conflicts.5 Too easily blamed on a vague“lack of chemistry,” these feelings can infect the whole team, especially when the pressure is on. Just one touchy relationship is enough to generate a malaise Team leaders must first expose the hypocrisy of saying but not meaning and acknowledge their part in the charade, challenging the overprotective mindset that inhibits the airing of criticism. SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 10
  13. 13. Healthy disagreements can morph quickly into interper- sonal conflicts. Just one touchy relationship is enough to generate a malaise that hinders team deliberations through emotional and social contagion. that hinders team deliberations through emotional and social contagion.6 Faulty perceptions mostly go uncorrected be- cause the antagonists don’t test their inferences. Based on their own worldviews and self-protective instincts, they presume they know why the other party is acting in a particular way and let that drive their behavior. This leads to escalating tensions. Beginning the fix: The feuding parties need help to investigate the differences — in personality, experience, and identity — that sustain and fuel their apparent incompatibilities, their so-called lack of chemistry. The team leader’s role is to ensure that individuals feel equally welcome and accepted within the team and promote diversity as a source of insight, not friction. One strategy is to ask team members to complete the sentence “I feel …” to literally put a name to the feeling to surface whatever is bothering them. A neutral coach can help team members open up by asking essential follow-on questions and probing for clarification when needed. This process can be augmented with a formal assessment tool that cap- tures individual team members’personality profiles and a common framework that helps people under- stand the roots of their colleagues’behaviors. In the case of the German high-tech company’s CTO and COO, a striking contrast in their profiles offered insight into some of the difficulties they were having. On one dimension of the personality assessment, the COO favored big picture thinking and gravitated toward new ideas, while the CTO was extremely detail-oriented and practical, lean- ing toward the tried-and-true. This insight helped explain why the CTO constantly raised objections to the COO’s sweeping solutions to problems. In the process of discussing how their personal- ity scores tallied with their self-images, another factor emerged: The COO saw himself as a problem SLOANREVIEW.MIT.EDU solver, while the CTO defined himself as a self- starter, relying on his own independent judgment. These differences in self-image helped explain why the valuable experience of the COO was re- sisted by the CTO, who resented interference and dreaded becoming “dependent.”At the same time, the COO felt frustrated that he was being prevented from solving the problem. The CTO appeared to the COO as a know-it-all; the COO saw the CTO as someone who could not and would not take advice. Unwittingly, each behaved in a way that refuted the other’s core work identity. Inevitably, they drove each other crazy. To diminish such tensions,you must try to disen- tangleintentfromimpact.Evenif feedbackandadvice are well intentioned,they may challenge another per- son’s self-image as competent, honest, or likable, triggeringastrong,negativeemotionalresponse. Once you understand where colleagues are coming from, it becomes easier to value and lever- age their input without taking their comments or behavioral quirks as attempts to show off, frustrate, or take advantage. But self-knowledge is equally valuable: When you can see and describe your own tendencies accurately, your colleagues are less likely to take your quirks personally. The breakthrough, in the case of the high-tech company’s CTO and COO, was a role-play exercise, asking each to put himself in the other’s shoes. They proved so adept at describing how the other felt that they ended up laughing.There was no lack of empa- thy — just very different approaches and priorities. Realizing that their respective behaviors were not malevolent or personal,they were able to start work- ing together more effectively, recognizing the contributionseachcouldmaketotheotherandtheir organization. They also were able to get feedback from other team members to help them maintain the behavioral changes to which they had agreed. SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 11
  14. 14. C O L L A B O R AT I N G W I T H I M PA C T : T E A M D Y N A M I C S 4. You DO but don’t realize. The deepest undis- cussablesarecollectivelyheldunconsciousbehaviors. These undiscussables are the most difficult to un- cover.Members of the team may be aware of isolated problems in their dynamic, but they cannot connect the dots and infer root causes, so they jump to the wrong conclusions about what is behind team ineffi- ciencies and poor performance. Consider this example: The CEO of a French travel company complained about the dearth of de- bate and lack of engagement within his team.We sat in on one meeting, and he was right. The trouble was,hewastheproblem.Hewasdisengagedandeas- ily distracted, and team members unconsciously got the message that they were not important to him. This is what psychologists call projection, wherein we ascribe our own thoughts and feelings to someone else. The CEO was disengaged, so he thought the team was. Of course, the team quickly replicated his behavior,becoming disengaged itself, and the CEO had no idea he inspired it. Teams instinctively develop defensive routines to cope with anxiety, such as that generated by feeling ignored or undervalued. This allows them to avoid thinking about or even naming the underlying is- sues.But it also blocks learning,preventing the team from responding and adapting effectively to emerg- ingchallenges.Teammembersatthetravelcompany were unwittingly mimicking their leader; that was their coping mechanism. If they were checked out, they wouldn’t be bothered by the fact that he was. As described by British psychotherapist Wilfred Bion,unconscious and unacknowledged undiscuss- ables manifest in seemingly unrelated team dynamics — hence the difficulty connecting the dots. At the travel company, there were hub-and- spokeexchangeswiththeteamleaderthatprevented team members from interacting, conversations dominated by the same two people, and a distract- ing preoccupation with a fake foe. All these interactions impeded critical self-review.7 And they disguised the true source of dysfunction. Behavior patterns that emerge from anxiety begin on an unconscious level and then become part of “the way we do things.” Team members fall into rigid roles, sit in the same chairs, and follow rituals that impair their ability to question assump- tions and get their jobs done. Beginning the fix: Though unnoticed by the team, warped interaction patterns may be readily discernible to outsiders. The team leader can invite a trusted adviser from another part of the organiza- tion or an external facilitator to observe the team and give feedback on communication habits, in- cluding body language, who talks and how often, whom people look at when they talk, who inter- rupts whom, who or what is blamed when things go wrong, what is not spoken about, who stays si- lent, and whose comments are ignored. A trained observer can then engage in what MIT Sloan School of Management’s pioneering organiza- tionalpsychologistEdgarScheincallshumbleinquiry, in which the aim is to elicit information and feelings important to the team’s mission. The questioner’s outsider status allows for naive, unthreatening ques- tioning of the unconscious processes at play.8 The Five Whys technique (asking “Why?” at least five times), made famous in Six Sigma methodology, can help the outsider drill down to deeper levels and surface what the team is avoiding. Priortobeginningourworkatthetravelcompany, weaskedtofilmoneof thetopteam’smeetings(thisis part of our usual process).We saw that there were lots of side conversations. People slouched and fiddled with their phones during presentations. The impres- sionwasof agroupgoingthroughthemotions. Then, we showed the team a series of clips focus- ing on all the occasions the CEO was distracted by his phone. Initial amusement turned to embar- rassment as the sequence ran on and on, but we The good news is that destructive and unconscious dynamics lose their power when they become visible and a topic for discussion. SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 12
  15. 15. interrupted it after three minutes and told the team, “Tell us what you see.” The CEO was shocked.“Had you told me I was doing it, I wouldn’t have believed you,”he said. The team members were also surprised, but once the evidence was visible to them, they had little diffi- culty decoding the message the CEO was sending: a lack of respect and appreciation for other people and their work. Of course, that discouraged open debate. The CEO’s behavior also authorized the team to act in similar fashion, producing the very outcomes — disengagement and unproductive meetings — that he complained about. The good news is that these destructive and un- conscious dynamics lose their power when they become visible and a topic for discussion. But, to help reset their behavior in meetings and inculcate new habits, the team members also took two con- crete measures: They agreed to a one-month ban on devices in their meetings (with fines donated to charity for violations), and they drew up a team charter clarifying new behavioral expectations that included listening to each other, asking more ques- tions, delaying assumptions, and summarizing conclusions and follow-up actions. As is often the case,the content of the charter was not particularly original, but it empowered every team member to enforce the new ground rules in the moment by pointing to the prominently displayed document they had all signed. Six months later, the CEO told us that the team’s meetings were shorter, more focused,and generating richer debate. Team Detox Most teams have — and suffer from — undiscuss- ables in all four categories. But instead of trying to fix all of them at once, we advise team leaders to take a sequential approach, starting with the two more conscious categories they can have an imme- diate impact on: knowing but not daring to say and saying but not meaning it. Firstthingsfirst. The best point of entry is mak- ing sure “we do what we say.” This is low-hanging fruit, as the consequences of “not doing what we say” are visible to all and reflect a collective failing rather than an individual one. Also, when the top team is involved, a misalignment between words and actions can have a profoundly corrosive impact on the entire organization, leading to cynicism, dis- engagement,and conflicts at all levels. As team leader, you are well placed to start the conversation about how to improve team processes and address dysfunctional communication pat- terns.Youcanengageinsomepreparatoryreflection by asking yourself,“Is this a problem I have helped create?”Acknowledging your own responsibility is a powerful way of unblocking the discussion and set- ting an expectation of candor. Easy wins can help team members realize that what they gain will outweigh the pain — generating momentum to move from above-the-surface un- discussables to deeper undiscussables that usually require facilitation or external intervention. Team time. Surfacing and removing undiscuss- ables is never a one-off exercise. To prevent the buildup of new undiscussables, you have to make timeforinward-focusedteamtalk,notjustoutward- focused work talk. We once studied a Swiss negotiating team spe- cializing in kidnappings and hostage situations. Required by U.S.C. 3685). (1) Publication title: MIT Sloan Management Review. (2) Publication No.1532-9194. (3) Filing Date: 10/1/2019. (4) Issue Frequency: Quarterly. (5) No of Issues Published Annually: 4. (6) Annual Subscription Price: $89.00. (7) Complete Mailing Address of Known Office of Publication: MIT, E90-9200, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge MA 02139-4307. Contact Person: Mackenzie Wise. Telephone: (617) 253-7170 (8) Complete Mailing Address of Headquarters or General Business Office of Publisher: MIT, E90-9200, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139-4307 (9) Full Names and Complete Mailing Addresses of Publisher, Editor, and Managing Editor: Publisher: Robert W. Holland Jr., MIT E90-9178, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139-4307. Editor: Paul Michelman, MIT E90-9191, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge MA 02139-4307. 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No. Copies of Single Issue Published Nearest to Filing Date: 25,038. (b) Total Paid Print Copies + Paid Electronic Copies: Average No. Copies Each Issue During Preceding 12 Months: 35,080. Actual No. Copies of Single Issue Published Nearest to Filing Date: 36,890. (c) Total Print Distribution + Paid Electronic Copies: Average No. Copies Each Issue During Preceding 12 Months: 36,585. No Copies of Single Issue Published Nearest to Filing Date: 39,034. Percent Paid (Both Print & Electronic Copies): Average No. Copies Each Issue During Preceding 12 Months: 96%. No. Copies of Single Issue Published Nearest to Filing Date: 95%. This Statement of Ownership will be printed in the Fall 2019 issue of this publication. I certify that all information furnished on this form is true and complete. Robert W. Holland, Jr. STATEMENT OF OWNERSHIP, MANAGEMENT, AND CIRCULATION SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 13
  16. 16. C O L L A B O R AT I N G W I T H I M PA C T : T E A M D Y N A M I C S With the stakes so high, the team could not afford to let undiscussables disrupt its process. The team was outstanding at monitoring its dynamics in real time (with the assistance of a designated observer), as well as reviewing what happened,taking account of feelings as well as facts. Similar principles hold in business. High- performing teams pay attention not only to what they achieve but how they achieved it by working to- gether. This does not come naturally. You have to work at it and introduce routines and forums to purge your team of undiscussables before they take root and cause problems. The top team of a fast-expanding European software group we worked with systematically de- votes half a day during its twice-yearly retreats to a discussion of how the team is working together. The session is facilitated by the head of HR, who tells them, “You’re all busy running your areas. If you’ve stepped on one another’s toes along the way, now’s the time to get it out on the table.”As a more regular exercise, at the end of meetings, the CEO sometimes asks team members to complete the phrase“I’m concerned about …”to try to catch po- tential issues early on. We have seen other teams use similarly simple practices to prevent undiscussables from accumu- lating.Some adopt a check-in routine at the start of meetings to iron out niggling concerns that might be bothering the participants. An alternative is to air these matters at the end of meetings by going around the table three times, asking, “What was helpful?” “What was not helpful?” and “What would you do differently at the next meeting?” A healthy team must be able to review and revise its own functioning. Exception to the rule. While the pressure to avoid tough issues never lets up, surfacing undis- cussables almost always pays off — provided it is done in a constructive manner. There is just one situation where we would not recommend it: If you’ve inherited a dysfunctional team and have to achieve something fast, spending time diagnosing and unearthing undiscussables may not be an optimal approach. In such instances, it is often more effective to adopt a positive psychology strategy, applying ap- preciative inquiry,such as discussing what the team does well or has done right, with the same forensic rigor you would apply to unpacking dysfunctional behaviors and events, and building from there.9 The goal in this situation is to find ways to work aroundanyweaknessesandalignstrengthstodevelop positive emotions and relationships before taking on the hard work of discussing undiscussables. However, the takeaway remains the same: In an increasingly fast-paced world, teams desperately need a space to talk about the way they go about their business. Ginka Toegel is a professor of organizational behav- ior and leadership at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland. Jean-Louis Barsoux is a term research professor at IMD. Comment on this article at http://sloanreview .mit.edu/x/61108. REFERENCES 1. J. Carreyrou, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018): 47. 2. I.M. Nembhard and A.C. Edmondson, “Making It Safe: The Effects of Leader Inclusiveness and Professional Sta- tus on Psychological Safety and Improvement Efforts in Healthcare Teams,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 27, no. 7 (November 2006): 941-966. 3. S. Miller, D. Wackman, E. Nunnally, et al., Straight Talk: A New Way to Get Closer to Others by Saying What You Really Mean (New York: Rawson Associates, 1984). 4. C. Argyris and D. Schön, Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1978). 5. L.L. Greer, K.A. Jehn, and E.A. Mannix, “Conflict Transformation: A Longitudinal Investigation of the Relationships Between Different Types of Intragroup Conflict and the Moderating Role of Conflict Resolution,” Small Group Research 39, no. 3 (June 2008): 278-302. 6. K. Jehn, S. Rispens, K. Jonsen, et al., “Conflict Conta- gion: A Temporal Perspective on the Development of Conflict Within Teams,” International Journal of Conflict Management 24, no. 4 (2013): 352-373. 7. W.R. Bion, Experiences in Groups (1961; repr., London: Routledge, 1989). 8. E.H. Schein, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013). 9. D.L. Cooperrider and S. Srivastva, “Appreciative Inquiry in Organizational Life,” in Research in Organizational Change and Development, ed. R.W. Woodman and W.A. Pasmore (Stamford, Connecticut: JAI Press, 1987): 129-169. Reprint 61108. Copyright © Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2019. All rights reserved. SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 14
  17. 17. [INTERVIEW] WhyTeamsStill NeedLeaders Whenpeoplecollaborateremotely,hierarchykeepsthemmovinginthesame direction—butleaderscanflextopromoteautonomyandcreativity. LINDRED (LINDY) GREER, INTERVIEWED BY FRIEDA KLOTZ I n recent years, agile and flat working structures have gained favor at many companies and struck a responsive chord with employees who are put off by stifling hierarchies. But doing away with hierarchy can cause confusion, spark complaints from employees, and hasten departures, says Lindred (Lindy) Greer, associate professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and faculty director at its Sanger Leadership Center. While agreeing that rigid forms of hierarchy can impede innovation, she has found that it can provide many important benefits when managed well. Greer first became inter- ested in team structures more than a decade ago while inves- tigating diversity, hoping to understand how gender and race play out in social interac- tions. She found that team members tended to be less focused on their colleagues’ gender and ethnicity than on the power they wielded. She then decided to explore how hierarchies work in organiza- tions and what happens when they go wrong. She has written a number of groundbreaking articles on hierarchy, status, and the social dynamics of teams, including, most recently,“Why and When Hierarchy Impacts Team Effectiveness”in the Journal of Applied Psychology.1 MIT Sloan Management Review correspondent Frieda Klotz spoke to Greer as she was about to travel to Seattle to coteach a course on leadership development with an orchestra conductor at a business incubator.What follows is an edited version of their conversation. MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW: A few years ago, many management experts and business leaders were saying that hierarchy had had its day and that the future belonged to flat organizations. What’s happening? Is the pendulum swinging back? GREER: Hierarchy is probably the most common form of organizing the workplace. There aren’t a lot of good alternatives to it, and companies need some say in manag- ing workers, particularly as they scale. However, there are also a lot of downsides to hierarchy, and over the last decade my collaborators and I have documented the many ways in which it can go wrong. Team members squabble over resources, engage in power struggles, and battle over rank. All of this harms performance. One of the burning questions in management research right now is, what are the best alternatives to hierarchy? But it’s a com- plex picture — hierarchy isn’t always bad or harmful, and its effectiveness may de- pend on where and how it’s implemented, and how the person at the top manages the hierarchy. For example, there is grow- ing interest in remote work and virtual teams, and in that context hierarchy works quite well. Why is hierarchy a good way to structure virtual teams? GREER: Hierarchy makes it easier to coor- dinate how people work together. So for teams that most need structure — those operating under uncertain conditions or when the task is unclear, as often happens in virtual or remote teams — hierarchy is highly effective. It still has downsides, but the need for it is so great that it trumps whatever internal politics and bureau- cracy come with it.You simply need that structure to keep people moving together. Often when people work remotely, there is an assumption that they have more auton- omy and freedom than office workers. But is it wrong to think so? GREER: Hierarchy does not have to mean less autonomy. For example, when I talk to the CEOs of companies doing really well with a remote-work model — I’m thinking about Automattic, which owns WordPress,or 10up,a successful web-design company — they emphasize the need for MICHAEL AUSTIN/THEISPOT.COM SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 15
  18. 18. structure. In practice, this means that they put much more effort into coordinating how people work together than other companies. They formalize role descrip- tions and onboarding better, and they’re more intentional and specific in their re- cruiting and hiring. For example, they’ll do interviews through Slack to test inde- pendence and communication virtually. They say this makes them better at navi- gating the people side of business largely because the remote workforce is utterly intentional about the way interactions are structured. Buteventhoughtheworkersareaccount- able to someone, they can still retain decision control in their areas of expertise because the company has clear values that guide how to make decisions. That’s the thing: Hierarchy can go hand in hand with autonomy. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. What does your recent research say about how hierarchy works or doesn’t work in an office environment? GREER: Research has generally historically focused on the benefits of hierarchy. The core assumption, drawn from animal be- havior, was that hierarchy was a natural way to organize people, that if one person was dominant, others would be more sub- missive. The research assumes that people find hierarchy comfortable and seek it out in times of crisis. My research challenges the view that hierarchy is always good by showing that it can lead to inequities and conflicts within teams. One of the prob- lems is that the structure it provides isn’t always the right one, in both the form of structure and the context in which it is applied. For example, people aren’t always happy about how they’re ranked, and there can be power struggles and turmoil around roles. In some contexts, like cre- ative brainstorming, hierarchy just gets in the way and fosters competition rather than collaboration. How does that kind of conflict affect team performance? GREER: In the 2018 paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology, my coauthors and I showed that on average, hierarchy causes power struggles and personal conflicts and can thereby undermine team performance. In other research, we found that 70% of the time peer disputes turned into personal conflicts and power struggles.2 This was really bad for the teams’productivity as well as for the employees’happiness. Given the potential problems, what can companies do? GREER: Managers need to be smarter about how they use hierarchy. Good leaders know how to flex — to use hierarchy to get things done but also to flatten the organization when they want workers to be creative. The Navy SEALs have an excellent approach: When they’re on the ground, there’s a clear chain of command. If their commander says,“Get out now,”there’s no playing devil’s advocate — no one argues.You listen and you fall into rank. But once they go back to the base to debrief, Navy SEALs literally take their stripes off at the door.When they sit down, everybody’s equal and has a voice.This is important because one person on the team might have noticed something really critical that nobody else saw,which could inform their plans for the next assignment.So they flatten out; they share ideas. Then they go back outside, put on their stripes and uni- forms, and literally fall into rank again. I spent the last half year or so studying startups to see if there were companies that had effective ways of flexing as well. These were early-stage tech companies, represent- ing both B2B and B2C business models. Many of them just accepted hierarchy, while others were resigned to being flat and chaotic. But some of the best-managed companies were able to flex the hierarchy fluidly. Day to day and meeting to meeting, I saw managers who could make the team hierarchical but also flatten it when they needed to. I think realizing how to manage that duality — and allow for autonomy — is at the heart of this.At the end of the day there needs to be a leader, but it doesn’t mean every interaction is hierarchical. Are there special skills managers need to learn? GREER: Companies are realizing that to do hierarchy well, they really need to invest in leadership development. Even startups re- alize that leadership is a set of behavioral tools that can be learned. A lot of the companies are also experi- menting with different types of structures, whereprojectteamsareflatterbutreportreg- ularlytoapanelof internalcompanyadvisers (as opposed to leaders).The trouble is that a lot of these experiments are not data driven. They don’t collect large-scale data to see whether the infrastructure actually works. One experiment that has received a fair amount of exposure is known as holacracy. Why Teams Still Need Leaders (Continued from page 15) “ The Navy SEALs have an excellent approach: On the ground, there’s a clear chain of command. … But when they sit down to debrief, everybody’s equal and has a voice.” — LINDY GREER F R O N T I E R S SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 16
  19. 19. It was introduced by management at Zappos, the online shoe retailer, in 2013, where it was used to scale back hierarchy in favor of flat, cross-functional groups. In the course of the experiment, Zappos discov- ered that it needed an elaborate rule book to guide people on how to use the hola- cratic method. In fact, it was much more complicated than the hierarchy they’d started off with.When the CEO, Tony Hsieh, gave employees the option of accepting the new system or leaving the company, one-third of them walked out.3 Since then, Zappos has made a bunch of changes but has maintained some aspects of the system.Although I think ideas like holacracy have value, in my view imposing rigid schemes is the wrong way to go. As for other approaches, there are aspects of agile that have shown promise. But companies still need to figure out how to allow for moments of hierarchy. Members of agile teams still need to coor- dinate and find ways to resolve conflicts. Even if you’re not using hierarchy, you always need a decision-making role. The question is, how can you encourage work- ing together and coordination in a simple and elegant manner? So where does this leave managers? Do they keep looking for good alternatives to hierar- chy or focus on the flexible flattening you’ve described? GREER: Until we have an alternative model that is established and has been shown to work, the simplest and safest approach for companies is to use hierarchy but also to train leaders to use it well: to be able to flex and adapt how they use it. This means selecting leaders who have the skill sets to foster teams that are empowered and hierarchical, while training both leaders and teams how to adapt the hierarchical structure to handle the demands. Frieda Klotz (@friedaklotz) is a freelance journalist and correspondent for MIT Sloan Management Review. Comment on this article at http://sloanreview.mit.edu/x/61110. REFERENCES 1. L.L. Greer, B.A. de Jong, M.E. Schouten, et al., “Why and When Hierarchy Impacts Team Effectiveness: A Meta-Analytic Integration,” Journal of Applied Psychology 103, no. 6 (June 2018): 591-613. 2. F.R.C. de Wit, L.L. Greer, and K.A. Jehn, “The Paradox of Intragroup Conflict: A Meta- Analysis,” Journal of Applied Psychology 97, no. 2 (March 2012): 360-390. 3. A. Groth, “Is Holacracy the Future of Work or a Management Cult?” Oct. 9, 2018, www.qz.com. Reprint 61110. Copyright © Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2019. All rights reserved. SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 17
  20. 20. YOU CAN HARDLY pick up a business publication without reading about the ever-increasing pace of change in technologies and markets and the consequent need for more adaptable organiza- tions. Given the imperative of adaptability, it is not surprising that few words have received more attention in recent conversations about management and leadership than “agile.”1 Organizations ranging from large corporations like General Electric Co. to tiny startups are trying to be both flex- ible and fast in the ways that they react to new technology and changing market conditions.2 The word“agile”appears to have been first applied to thinking about software by 17 developers in 2001.3 Having experimented with more iterative,less process-laden approaches to developing new ap- plications for several decades, the group codified its experience in an agile mani- festo. “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it,” they wrote. In soft- ware development, agile now has a variety of manifestations, including scrum, ex- treme programming, and feature-driven development.4 The results have been sig- nificant. A variety of studies show that agile software development methods can generate a significant improvement over their more traditional predecessors.5 Butwhatdoesthismeanoutsideof soft- ware? Can agile methods be successfully applied to other types of work? Many pro- ponents (a number of whom started in the software industry) argue that the answer is yes, and a growing collection of books, pa- pers, and blog posts suggests how it might be done.6 The evidence, however, remains limited to date, and a recent article by two ANewApproachto DesigningWork R E D E S I G N I N G WO R K : O P E R AT I O N S Foryears,managementthinkersassumedthattherewere inevitabletrade-offsbetweenefficiencyandflexibility— andthattherightorganizationaldesignforeachwasdifferent. Butit’spossibletodesignanorganization’sworkinwaysthat simultaneouslyofferagilityandefficiency—if youknowhow. BY NELSON P. REPENNING, DON KIEFFER, AND JAMES REPENNING THE LEADING QUESTION How can companies achieve both agility and efficiency in their work? FINDINGS Make a distinction between well- defined and ambiguous tasks. Break processes into smaller units of work that are more frequently checked. Identify points at which collaboration is needed. SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 18
  21. 21. R E D E S I G N I N G WO R K : O P E R AT I O N S of agile’s founders cautions against applying agile indiscriminately.7 The blogosphere is also replete with discussions of an ongoing agile backlash. To provide some practical advice to business lead- ers trying to understand what agile might mean for their organizations,we take a different approach.Our research suggests that in applying agile methods from the software industry to other domains, managers often confuse practices and principles. When agile methodswork,theydosobecausetheassociatedprac- tices manifest key behavioral principles in the context of softwaredevelopment.But,successfulasthoseprac- tices can be when developing software, there is no guarantee that they will work in other contexts. The key to transferring a set of practices from one domain to another is to first understand why they work and then to modify them in ways that both match the new context and preserve the underlying principles. The goal of this article is to help you understand several key work design principles that undergird not onlyagilepracticesinsoftwarebutalsoToyota Motor Corp.’s well-known production system in manufac- turing. Once you understand these underlying work design principles — through a framework we call dy- namic work design — you can create work processes in your own organization that are both more flexible and more efficient.(See“About the Research.”) Stability Vs. Uncertainty Academics and managers alike long believed that or- ganizationshadtomaketrade-offsbetweenflexibility and efficiency.A central notion in the academic the- ory on organizational design is contingency, the idea that organizations and their associated processes need to be designed to match the nature of the work they do. One of the most common variables in con- tingency theory is the degree of uncertainty in the surroundingenvironment(oftenalsoconceptualized as the need for innovation).When both the competi- tive environment and the associated work are stable and well understood, contingency theory suggests thatorganizationswilldobestwithhighlystructured, mechanistic designs. In contrast, when facing highly uncertainsituationsthatrequireongoingadaptation, the theory suggests that organizations will do better with more flexible,organic designs.8 An early advocate of the mechanistic approach to work design was Frederick Winslow Taylor, author of the 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management.9 Taylor’s essential insight was simply that if work is regularly repeated, it can also be studied and improved. In stable, well-understood environments, it is thus often best to organize work in ways that leverage the efficiency that comes with repetition. For example, in a modern factory, well- defined tasks are specified, and the work proceeds serially,moving from one carefully constructed and defined set of activities to the next. There is little need for collaboration in these settings, and the or- ganizational structure that surrounds stable and repeatable work tends to be hierarchical to ensure that everybody follows the prescribed work design. The cost of such efficiency is adaptability. Due to the high degree of routinization and formalization, mechanistic process designs are difficult to change in response to new requirements. Though efficient, a mechanistic design is not agile. When, however, the environment is unstable and uncertain, discrete tasks are harder to define, and therefore organizations cannot rely on a sequence of clearly defined steps. For example, product develop- ment teams often face challenges for which there is little precedent. Contingency theory holds that in unpredictable environments like new product devel- opment, organizations rely more on things like training and collaboration and less on routinization and careful specification.Developing a breakthrough product or service usually can’t be organized like a factory assembly line.Marketing experts may develop a set of initial requirements,which are then passed on to designers and engineers, but the requirements often evolve through multiple iterations as designers and engineers determine what is technically feasible. Consequently, effective development processes often require ongoing real-time collaboration, rather than roteadherencetoasetof sequentiallyorganizedsteps. Though the contingency theory was first devel- oped more than 50 years ago, its basic insights reappear frequently in contemporary management thinking.Many flavors of process-focused improve- ment, such as total quality management, Six Sigma, and business process reengineering, are extensions to Taylor’s fundamental insight that work that is repeated can also be improved. Recently, the increasingly popular design thinking approach can be thought of as a charge to tackle ambiguous, ABOUT THE RESEARCH Our dynamic work design framework originated more than 20 years ago when two of the authors worked together to improve both manufacturing and product development at Harley- Davidson Inc. (At the time, one of the authors [Don Kieffer] was leading Harley- Davidson’s largest engine development project, and another [Nelson Repenning] was doing research on failures in new product development.) Following the principles of action research, in the ensuing decades we have regularly iterated between trying to help organizations improve their work design and build- ing a theory grounded in the underlying social science for why these interventions did or did not work. Over the years, we have done dozens of projects in a vari- ety of industries, including oil and gas, software, and genetic sequencing. We have also supervised more than 1,000 work design projects done by executives in our courses at MIT. SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 19
  22. 22. uncertain tasks with a more collaborative, less hier- archical work design.10 In general, contingency theory gives managers a straightforward approach to designing work: Assess the stability of the com- petitive environment and the resulting work, and then pick the best mix of defined tasks and collabo- rationtofitthechallengeathand.(See“ATraditional Approach to Work Design.”) If the work being de- signed consists of well-defined tasks (for example, assembling components), then it is best to organize it serially, or, as we label the cell on the bottom left, using the“factory”mode. Conversely, if the work is highly ambiguous and requires ongoing interaction (for example, designing new products), then the work is best organized collaboratively,or,as we label the cell on the top right,in“studio”mode. Though powerful,this approach to work design is not entirely satisfying for two reasons. First, it de- scribes an unpalatable trade-off:Work done using the serial factory design isn’t very flexible,making it hard to adapt to changes in external conditions, and work done using the collaborative studio approach often isn’tveryefficient.Second,fewtypesof workperfectly fit the archetype of well-defined or ambiguous work. Even the most routine work has the occasional moment of surprise, and conversely, even the most novel work, such as designing a new product or ser- vice, often requires executing routine analysis and testing activities that support each creative iteration. Academic theory notwithstanding, real work is a constantly evolving mix of routine and uncertainty. At first glance, agile methods appear to fall more toward the collaborative side of the work spectrum. However,ourresearchsuggestsadifferentinterpreta- tion. The conventional approach to process and organizational design is almost entirely static, im- plicitly presuming that once a piece of work has been designed, everything will go as planned. In contrast, a dynamic approach to work design suggests viewing work as an ever-evolving response to the hiccups and shortfalls that are inevitable in real organizations.As we will describe later in this article,agile methods ac- tuallytranscendthetraditionalserialvs.collaborative work framework by creating better mechanisms for moving between the two basic ways of organizing work. By identifying mechanisms to cycle back and forth between well-defined factory-style tasks and collaborative studio modes when appropriate, an agile approach can considerably reduce the trade-off between efficiency and adaptability. Dynamic Work Design at Toyota What does this look like in practice? Consider a well-known example of work and organizational design, Toyota’s Andon cord. Work on Toyota as- semblylinesistheepitomeof theserial,mechanistic design. Tasks are precisely specified, often detailing specific arm and hand movements and the time A TRADITIONAL APPROACH TO WORK DESIGN In a traditional approach to work design, if the work being designed consists of well-defined tasks (for example, assembling components), then it should be organized serially, in what we call the “factory” mode. Conversely, if the work is highly ambiguous and requires ongoing interaction (for example, designing new products), then the work should be organized collaboratively, in what we call the “studio” mode. A dynamic approach to work design suggests viewing work as an ever-evolving response to the hiccups and shortfalls that are inevitable in real organizations. “Factory” “Studio” Organize collaboratively Organize serially Well-defined work Ambiguous work SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 20
  23. 23. R E D E S I G N I N G WO R K : O P E R AT I O N S that each action should take. In a plant we visited recently, training for a specific role began with the trainee learning to pick up four bolts at a time — not three and not five. Only when the trainee could pick up four bolts regularly was she allowed to learn the next motion. But, despite an attention to detail that would have made Taylor proud, sometimes things go awry. In the Toyota scheme, a worker no- ticing such an issue is supposed to pull what’s known as the Andon cord (or push a button) to stop the production line and fix the problem. While the management literature has correctly highlighted the importance of allowing employees to stop the line,11 what happens after the cord is pulled might be more important. During a recent visit we took to a Toyota supplier in Toyota City, Japan,we observed that one operator on the factory floor was struggling to complete her task in the al- lotted time, and so she hit a yellow button, causing an alarm to sound and a light to flash. (This factory has replaced the Andon cord with a yellow button at each operator’s station.) Within seconds, the line’s supervisor arrived and assisted the operator in resolving the issue that was preventing her from following the prescribed process. In less than a minute, the operator, now able to hit her target, returned to her normal routine, and the supervisor went back to other activities. What,from a work design perspective,happened inthisshortepisode?Initially,theoperatorwaswork- ing in the “factory” mode, executing well-defined work to a clearly specified time target. (See the box on the lower left in the exhibit “Dynamic Work Design at a Toyota Supplier.”) But when something in that careful design broke down, the operator couldn’t complete her task in the allotted time. Once the problem occurred, the operator had two options for responding.She could have found an ad hoc adjustment, a workaround or shortcut that would allow her to keep working. But this choice often leads to highly dysfunctional outcomes.12 Alternatively, as we observed, she could push the button, stop the work, and ask for help. By sum- moning the supervisor to help, pushing the button temporarily changed the work design. The system briefly left the mechanistic, serial mode in favor of a more organic, collaborative approach focused on problem resolution. Once the problem was re- solved, the operator returned to her normal task and to the serial work design. The Toyota production system might at first ap- pear to be the ultimate in mechanistic design, but a closer look suggests something far more dynamic. When a worker pulls the Andon cord, the system ac- tually moves between two modes based on the state of the work.Though the nature of the work couldn’t be more different, such movement between the two modes is also the key to understanding the success of agile software development. Agile as Dynamic Work Design As we discussed earlier,the last two decades have wit- nessedasignificantchangeintheconductof software development. Whereas software was once largely developed using what is known as the waterfall approach, agile methods have become increasingly popular. From a dynamic work design perspective, the waterfall and agile approaches differ significantly. In the waterfall approach, the software develop- ment cycle is typically divided into a few major phases. A project might include a requirements phase,an architecture development phase,a detailed coding phase, and a testing and installation phase.A waterfall project typically cycles between three basic DYNAMIC WORK DESIGN AT A TOYOTA SUPPLIER At a Toyota supplier, a worker on an assembly line can press a button if he or she faces a problem. A manager then helps solve the problem through collaboration; once the problem is solved, the worker returns to his or her task. Pushing the button thus initiates a temporary shift in the work design — from serial to collaborative work and then back again — that increases agility. Change work mode “Factory” “Studio” Problem solved Problem Push button Problem- solving Organize collaboratively Organize serially Well-defined work Ambiguous work SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 21
  24. 24. modes of work.First,the bulk of the time is spent by software architects and engineers working individu- ally or in small groups, completing whatever the specific phase requires.Second,typically on a weekly basis, those people leave their individual work to come together for a project meeting, where they re- port on their progress, check to ensure mutual compatibility, and adapt to any changes in direction provided by leadership. Third, at the end of each phase, there is a more significant review, often known as a “phase-gate review,” in which senior leaders do a detailed check to determine whether the project is ready to exit that phase and move to the next. Development cycles for other types of non- software projects often work similarly.13 Agile development processes organize the work differently. For example, in the scrum approach14 (one version of agile), the work is not divided into a few major phases but rather into multiple short “sprints” (often one to two weeks in length) fo- cused on completing all of the work necessary to deliver a small but working piece of software.At the end of each sprint, the end user tests the new func- tionality to determine whether or not it meets the specified need. Like the waterfall method, the agile approach to software development also has three basic work modes — individual work, team meetings, and cus- tomer reviews — but it cycles among them very differently. First, proponents of agile suggest meet- ing daily — thus moving from individual work to teamwork and back every day — in the form of a stand-up or scrum meeting, where team members report on the day’s progress, their plans for the next day, and perceived impediments to progress. Second, agile recommends that at the end of each sprint, the team lets the customer test the newly added functionality. Finally, in something akin to the Andon cord, some versions of agile also include an immediate escalation to the entire team when a SLOANREVIEW.MIT.EDU piece of code does not pass the appropriate auto- mated testing, effectively again moving the system fromindividualworktotheteamcollaborationmode. Viewed from a dynamic work design perspective, agile offers two potential benefits over waterfall.First, in waterfall development,the frequency of collabora- tive episodes is usually too low,both among the team members and between the team and its customers.A developerworkingforaweekortwowithoutacheck- in could waste considerable effort before it’s clear that he or she has made a mistake or gone off course. In practice,developersoftendonotwaitthislongandin- formally check in with supervisors or teammates. While seemingly functional,these check-ins can lead to a situation in which the entire team is not working from a common base of information about the state of theproject.Insuchcases,theoperatingmodestarts tomigratefromtheboxonthelowerleft,the“factory” mode,totheoneonthelowerright,whereambiguous work is organized serially. This results in costly and slow iteration, which we call ineffective iteration. (See “Dysfunctional Dynamics,”p. 35.) Research suggests that in RD processes,this mode can be highly ineffi- cient.15 Similarly, checking in with more senior leadership only in the form of periodic phase-gate reviews means that the entire team could work for months before realizing that it is not meeting management’s expectations, thus also potentially causingrework. The agile approach to software development also improvesthequalityof thetimethatdevelopersspend working alone. The focus on developing pieces of functionality means that both the team and the cus- tomer are never more than a few weeks away from a piece of software that can be used,making it far easier toassesswhetheritmeetsthecustomer’sneed.Incon- trast,inwaterfall,theearlyphasesarecharacterizedby long lists of requirements and features, but there is nothing to try or test.It’s not surprising that waterfall methods often lead to projects in which major defects Checking in with more senior leadership only in the form of periodic phase-gate reviews means that the entire team could work for months before realizing they are not meeting management’s expectations. SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 22
  25. 25. R E D E S I G N I N G WO R K : O P E R AT I O N S and other shortfalls are discovered very late in the de- velopmentcycleandrequirecostlyrework.16 Applying Dynamic Work Design Both the Toyota production system and agile-based software methods are thus examples of what we call good dynamic work design. In contrast to traditional static approaches, dynamic work design recognizes the inevitability of change and builds in mechanisms to respond to that. Once managers recognize the necessity of moving between more individual and more collaborative modes of work,they can build on four principles to create shifting mechanisms that are well matched to the work of their organization. 1. Separate well-defined and ambiguous work. Begin by clearly separating well-defined and ambig- uous tasks. Trying to handle both types of work in the same process often leads to trouble. (See “Dysfunctional Dynamics.”) Often, the two types can be separated by inspection, but if not, then look for the signature element of ambiguous work, itera- tion. When work is well defined, it can be moved to the next stage like the baton a relay runner hands off. When done correctly, it doesn’t need to come back. In contrast, when work is ambiguous, even the best effort often needs to be revisited. If you find that a particular task often requires multiple iterations through the same set of steps, that’s a good sign that you are confronting ambiguity inefficiently. 2.Breakprocessesintosmallerunitsofworkthat aremorefrequentlychecked.If you strip away all the hype, the agility of any work process — meaning its ability to both adjust the work due to changing exter- nal conditions and resolve defects — boils down to thefrequencyandeffectivenesswithwhichtheoutput is assessed. In both traditional, pre-Toyota manufac- turing and waterfall software development, the assessments are infrequent and not particularly effec- tive.Consequently,bothapproachestendtobeslowto adjust to changes in the external environment, and quality will be achieved only through slow and costly rework cycles. In contrast, when assessments are frequent and effective, the process will be highly adaptable and quality will improve rapidly. The fun- damental recipe for improved process agility is this: smaller units of work,more frequently checked. 3.Identify the chain of individuals who support thosedoingthework.It is also important to identify thehelpchain—thesequenceof peoplewhosupport those doing the work. In manufacturing, the help chain starts with a machine operator and extends from foremen to supervisors all the way up to the plant manager. In software, the help chain often be- gins with an engineer and moves through the team leader to more senior managers, ultimately ending withthecustomer.Itiscritical,inourexperience,that you identify the chains of individuals who do and support the work, not their roles, departments, or functions.Increasing agility requires knowing whom to call when there is a problem or feedback is needed. 4.Introducetriggersandchecksthatmovework intoacollaborativemode.Once you understand the help chain, you have two basic mechanisms for acti- vating it: triggers and checks. A trigger is a test that reveals defects or misalignment and then moves the work from a factory mode to a more collaborative mode.In our opening example,the Toyota operator’s inability to complete the assembly task on time trig- gered her pushing a button and then receiving help from a supervisor. A check involves a prescheduled pointwhentheworkismovedtoamorecollaborative environment for assessment. In agile software devel- opment,thisshifthappensdailyinstand-upmeetings where the team quickly assesses the current state of the project.Completing a sprint creates a second op- portunity,thistimetocheckinwiththecustomer. Improving Procurement Performance Using this dynamic work design framework within a company can lead to significant improvements in both efficiency and adaptability. Consider the case of a company we’ll call “RefineCo,” which owns several oil refineries and distribution terminals in the United States. The company had a procurement organization that was uncompetitive by almost any benchmark. RefineCo paid more for similar parts and services than its competitors, and the procure- ment group’s overhead costs were higher than the industry average. Even more troubling, when criti- cal parts were not delivered to a refinery, it often turned out that the location was on “credit hold” due to an inability to pay the supplier in a timely fashion. Every participant in the system, from se- nior management down to the shipping and receiving clerks,was frustrated. SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 23
  26. 26. DYSFUNCTIONAL DYNAMICS What happens when organizations don’t do a good job of cycling between factory and studio modes of work? We have observed two related failure modes, ineffective iteration and wasted attention. When they are combined, they create a truly unproductive work design — one we have dubbed the axis of frustration. (See “The Axis of Frustration.”) Ineffective Iteration Consider first what happens when elements of the work in question are highly ambiguous but are nonetheless organized serially (captured in the box in the lower right-hand cor- ner). Relative to a more collaborative design, this approach tends to create slow and costly iteration. The lack of speed comes because the ambiguity must travel among participants to be re- solved, thus requiring multiple rounds, each of which takes time. Worse, when knowledge work is designed serially, many of these interactions take place through email or text messaging. Re- search suggests both that such communication modes are less effective for reducing ambiguity than face-to-face com- munication and that those sending such messages are unaware of those limits.i Trying to resolve ambiguity via email or text messaging tends to create more misunderstandings and often necessitates multiple iterations. Wasted Attention On the flip side, organizing well-defined work in a collaborative fashion also creates inefficiency. If the work is clearly defined, then it doesn’t benefit from a collabor- ative approach, and collaboration just multiplies the cost. Worse, too much collaboration may prevent the efficiencies that come with the learning curve that emerges when people repeat the same task.ii The Axis of Frustration Whereas functional work processes move between the factory and studio modes, our research suggests that absent careful design attention, processes can devolve to the point where they move between the failure modes described above, oscillating between wasted attention and ineffective iteration — the dynamic we call the axis of frustration. Getting stuck on the axis of frustration typically starts with time pressure — a project is behind schedule or a more repetitive process is not delivering on its targets. When peo- ple feel they are behind, they don’t want to take the time to shift into collaborative studio mode for problem-solving, pre- ferring to stay in the factory box on the lower left and “just get the work done.” The consequence of this decision is to leave one or more problems unresolved, whether it is an element of a product design that doesn’t work or a defect in a manufactured product. Eventually, these problems will be discovered, usually by an activity downstream from the one that generated it. And, if this problem is not then solved in collaborative studio mode (again due to time pressure) but instead sent back for rework, then the system has effectively moved from the box on the lower left to the box on the lower right and is now in “ineffective iteration” mode. The consequence of ineffective iteration is that the process becomes increasingly inefficient and incapable of meeting its targets. Senior leaders are, of course, unlikely to stand idly by and will eventually intervene. Unfortunately, the typical interven- tion is often to scrutinize the offending process in more detail, usually in the form of more frequent and more detailed review meetings. (As a manager we once interviewed said, “I knew my project was in trouble when I was required to give hourly updates.”) But the form of those reviews makes all the difference. If they are well designed and focus on resolving the key problems that are causing the iteration, then they can move the system back to a more productive cycling between factory and studio modes. Such interventions, however, are the exception rather than the rule. Most work processes have not been designed with escalation mechanisms in mind. So, when senior managers want to intervene and scrutinize a project, they don’t know where to look and want to review everything. The result of such scrutiny is long review meet- ings, the majority of which focus on elements of the process that are just fine, thereby trapping the process in the upper left-hand box, “wasted attention.” Worse, long review meetings and the prepara- tion that they require steal time and resources from actual work, thus intensifying the time pressure that prevented a proper shift between work modes in the first place. Without careful attention to the mecha- nisms that move a process between the individual and collaborative modes, processes can increasingly cycle between ineffective itera- tion and wasted attention, basically moving between frantically trying to solve (or at least hide) the latest problem before the next review, and endless, soul-destroying review meetings that never get to solving the problems that would really make a difference. Organize collaboratively Organize serially “Factory” Ineffective iteration Wasted attention “Studio” Well-defined work The axis of frustration Ambiguous work THE AXIS OF FRUSTRATION When organizations make the mistake of both structuring well-defined work collaboratively and ambiguous work serially, the result is a highly inefficient process we call the axis of frustration. This process oscillates between wasted attention and ineffective iteration. SPECIAL COLLECTION • HOW WINNING TEAMS WORK • MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 24

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