Put a group of smart, creative and committed leaders together and you don’t automatically get a high performing, collaborative leadership team. You’ll often get something that looks more like a polite cage fight, with each player jockeying for position, working hard to avoid losing and maximize winning (winning = more authority, recognition, control, territory, headcount, being right, whatever). These struggles might be subtle, but the result is easy to spot: critical problems remain unaddressed; small-picture thinking; low accountability and trust; and of course, disappointing business results.
To be really collaborative, a team needs to consistently do three things very well together: Learn, Design and Fulfill. These are not platitudes—they each represent concrete and learnable skills essential for collaborative performance. Moreover, they are skills that collaborative teams practice together day in and day out, just like the practices that sustain elite athletes, martial artists, musicians, dancers, soldiers, and high performers in any discipline that demands deep skill, precision, and coordination.
Learning Together – this entails the ability to listen astutely to the concerns, commitments and possibilities behind what people are saying; and, reflective inquiry, which is the ability to formulate and ask powerful questions—and to be genuinely curious about the answers. Reflective inquiry allows us to observe and respectfully challenge the underlying interpretations and narratives that always accompany the facts, assessments, assumptions and explanations about what is going on, why, and what it might mean. When reflective inquiry is missing, so is important feedback and information about the business. Without this capacity to learn together, teams have a hard time making good decisions and “designing” the future together. They often end up solving the wrong problems or solving the right problems in superficial ways that don’t actually stick long-term. In addition, successful innovation is almost impossible, and the organization’s ability to respond quickly to changing conditions goes way down.
Designing Together – This is all about shaping the future. Collaborative teams integrate what they learn together into a shared picture, a narrative, about the future they want to create for their organization. This narrative spells out what success looks like, what milestones are important, and how to get there together (typically referred to with words like vision, mission, goals, objectives, strategies, standards, behavioral norms, etc.). Because they’re tuned in to their organization, the market and their industry (they’re continually learning together, remember), high-performing teams understand that part of their job is to continually update and refine their narrative about the future and how to realize it.
Committing Together – This sounds pretty vague, but we at Full Contact Institute are almost obsessively specific about the nature and practice of commitments our cliens are making. There are really just two ways that we human beings commit ourselves to anything: by physically doing it with our bodies (like throwing out all the sweets in the cupboard when we commit ourselves to eating better, or–at another extreme–throwing our bodies in front of the bus to save our child, for instance), or by uttering certain words (specifically, using the power of “speech acts”). Words like: Yes, No, Stop, Go, Because…, I will, We won’t, You may, I promise, Will you?…and the list goes on and on. But these are not just innocent throw-away words—the words we use to commit ourselves, our teams, our organizations, even our lives—can be as concrete and powerful as any physical move we might make with our bodies. And often much more powerful.
This is because words are the primary way that we get things done in organizations. For leadership teams (or project teams, management teams, or any other type of team), clearly understanding and learning to harness the “linguistic action” inherent in our everyday words makes the difference between alignment, accountability, and performance…and just hot air. There are several ways that we commit ourselves with language, but the one that may be most obvious is to make a promise. As obvious as promises may appear however, there are all sorts of ways that individuals and teams can and do inadvertently weaken, confuse, inhibit and poorly manage promises (and therefore performance).
So learning to recognize, make and manage promises effectively is not just a good idea. It’s the only way teams get the right stuff done together. As a coach and consultants who has worked with lots of teams and organizations, I’ve never once seen a case in which poor performance was not linked to weak promises. And weak promises are one of the sure-fire casualties of weak learning and design.
So, if you want to really harness the power of those smart, creative, committed leaders on your team, make sure you’re really learning together, designing together and making meaningful commitments to each other.