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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

First published August 12, 2004

Free Your Team from This Dangerous Dysfunction 

Effective team-based decision-making is key to your organization’s scalability – don’t let dysfunction derail it. Any time you bring a team together, there are underlying dynamics at play. And when there’s dysfunction present, the cause(s) typically can’t be easily diagnosed. There’s a notable exception to this, however, and it’s one we have seen over and over again in a myriad of organizations. It’s something we call the “The Time Warp”. Before we examine the symptoms, let’s take a look at how a healthy team operates. Healthy Shifts In Horizon Functional teams are able, when in session, to easily and regularly shift their time horizon as needed. So, for one agenda item, there may be a need to look back and perform a brief autopsy. The team will ask ‘What?’, ‘Why?‘ and ‘How?‘ For the next item, the team may be required to peer into the future, to brainstorm, or project not-yet-realized events and outcomes. For a third issue, the team may find itself in the here-and-now, discussing current activities and present-day challenges. Some topics may involve the team switching back and forth between two, or even all three, time horizons – considering the past, present and future each in turn as needed. But for a team trapped in The Time Warp, this type of analysis isn’t possible. Such teams are perennially stuck in one time zone, rarely if ever breaking free of it, and rapidly retreating back to their ‘comfort’ time zone on the few occasions when they do. Let’s take a look at the three types of Time Warped team. See if any sound familiar to you: 1. The Bickering Undertakers. Teams who get stuck in the past usually do so because of an unrelenting need to find and apportion blame. Crippled by passive-aggressive office politics and/or personal agendas, bogged down by incessant autopsies of recent and not-so-recent mishaps, dropped balls and outright catastrophes, this team can’t dwell on anything current or future for five minutes without someone turning the dial back to the past. “Huh. Remember the last time we tried that?“, says George when a new idea is proposed (accompanied of course by a pantomimed eye-roll). Cue a return to a dead-horse discussion of a past screw-up that already had the lifeblood hammered out of it many meetings ago. “I’m not surprised the results are poor, given the way we set this up in the first place“, says Juanita during a discussion of a current marketing initiative (while looking pointedly at Dave, making clear where she believes the problem originated). Viola! – the team is dragged back to yet another go-round of an already done-to-death debate about the parameters of the initiative, and away from a here-and-now consideration of its actual results. 2. The Grind-it-out Tacticians. Being relentlessly stuck in the present is usually a result of an imbalance in the team profile – specifically, having too many Operators and Processors, and no (or not enough) Synergists and Visionaries. (If you’re not sure of your profile, you can find out quickly and easily here.) This results in a highly data-driven and/or action-oriented team – one that is overly focused on real-time execution at the expense of being able to either learn from the past, or to prepare with adequate flexibility for the future. You’ll know you’re in such a team when the focus from the first minute of every meeting is to get to the action points and finish; when any attempt to learn lessons from past results or events is universally dismissed as ‘paralysis by analysis’, or if attempts to blue-sky or brainstorm around possible future scenarios is met with eyebrow-raising and looks of condescension. 3. The Blue-sky Optimists. Sometimes, teams get stuck in the future – and the results are just what you might expect. Addicted to might-be’s, could-be’s and shiny new ideas, this team produces a seemingly endless pipeline of projections, proposals and scenarios, all compelling in their way – and some of them even implementable. Trouble is, the team’s energy, momentum and enthusiasm is so fully consumed by the kinetic fireworks display of brainstorming and innovating that there’s nothing left to focus on present-day implementation – let alone calm, considered review of the past. While pretty to watch at the outset – and invigorating to be involved with, at least for while – this lack of ability to produce actual results in the here-and-now means that Blue-sky optimists tend to be the most short-lived of the three Time Warped teams. Recognize any of these teams?/Think you might be in one? Fixing dysfunctional teams isn’t easy (believe me – I do it for a living), but for a Time Warped team, there is a simple, mechanical practice you can begin immediately which will at least give you a fighting chance of getting out. Set a time limit for discussion in any one time zone: 5 minutes, 10 minutes, an hour – whatever seems reasonable. Experiment. Tweak the times to reflect reality (some topics will need the team to spend quite a while in the past, others may need more emphasis on the current or future state). This won’t fix your Time Warp problem on its own – but it will provide some training wheels for you to make a start. And if you’d like to take additional steps, this will show you and your team how to achieve high-quality decisions consistently.

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