What is your team’s creed?

I was watching Stanley McChrystal’s TED talk the other day. He gives an interesting perspective of leadership and learning the deal with the challenges of modern management in a very hierarchical style organization like the army. This is one issue he discusses:

And you have to watch and take care of each other. I probably learned the most about relationships. I learned they are the sinew which hold the force together. I grew up much of my career in the Ranger regiment. And every morning in the Ranger regiment, every Ranger — and there are more than 2,000 of them — says a six-stanza Ranger creed. You may know one line of it, it says, “I’ll never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy.” And it’s not a mindless mantra, and it’s not a poem. It’s a promise. Every Ranger promises every other Ranger no matter what happens, no matter what it costs me, if you need me, I’m coming.

When we talk about culture and the norms of the team that are a part of that culture we always need to consider how these norms are maintained. What is your team’s creed? What do you stand for and do you talk about it every day? What do you actively encourage – not as a blind command coming from above – but by a passionate belief emerging from below?



Prioritizing one-on-one

Photo by Amazon

I am currently reading A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All by Wendy Koop. In it, I found this paragraph:

Joe emphasizes that the critical purposes served by these management structures go well beyond improving teachers’ effectiveness. “It doesn’t sound that revolutionary to have one-on-ones with every teacher every week, but it’s absolutely critical. This is the venue for people’s voices to be heard, for problem solving, for being sure that everyone is getting what they need to do their job.” The fact that these school leaders are thinking so deliberately about management at all distinguishes them from many conventional incarnations of the principal role. In many schools one principal is technically the manager of fifty or even one hundred teachers, and there may be little, if any, interaction–not to mention effective management–happening in that relationship. “When I was teaching, I met with my principal only once. I never met with any sort of coach,” Joe recalls. “That system just cannot get us where we need to be. I do understand why that happens. There are always twenty things tugging at a school leader. The day can become very reactive, but if you want to create an exceptional school, you have to set aside time in the calendar to hear from, coach, and manage your team members.”

I am not sure I need to add a lot.  Structured process, culture and personal humane relationships go hand in hand together with the emergence of excellence. It could be a school, a for-profit company or any other organization. Creating the right norms and maintaining them by prioritizing treating the people your work with like unique individuals is a sure proof way to succeed in the long run.


What we stand for

Photo by Horia Varlan

I don’t know if what I am going to do is considered plagiarism or copyright infringement. I don’t think this particular author will see it this way anyway. I honestly don’t care, as the following blog post is so powerful I feel an urge to bring it, in full, here. A few days ago, Seth Godin wrote:

The worst voice of the brand *is* the brand

We either ignore your brand or we judge it, usually with too little information. And when we judge it, we judge it based on the actions of the loudest, meanest, most selfish member of your tribe.

When a zealot advocates violence, outsiders see all members of his tribe as advocates of violence.

When a doctor rips off Medicare, all doctors are seen as less trustworthy.

When a fundamentalist advocates destruction of outsiders, all members of that organization are seen as intolerant.

When a soldier commits freelance violence, all citizens of his nation are seen as violent.

When a car rental franchise rips off a customer, all outlets of the franchise suffer.

Seems obvious, no? I wonder, then, why loyal and earnest members of the tribe hesitate to discipline, ostracize or expel the negative outliers.

“You’re hurting us, this is wrong, we are expelling you.”

What do you stand for?

Godin’s writes mainly (although not exclusively) about marketing. This post, however, is not about marketing or branding. It is, as the last line emphasizes, about what we stand for.

How many times have you stood up and said: “You’re hurting us, this is wrong, we are expelling you”. How many times did you say: “this kind of behavior will not do here”. What are you doing everyday to actively maintain the norms that make you proud of who you are and what you are doing?

For me, management and teamwork boils down to this. When and how to put your foot down against behaviors that go against the team. Of course, “behaviors that go against the team”, should not be confused with “ideas that don’t conform to what we are thinking”. Diversity of opinions, styles, approaches and motivations are welcome. Rudeness, disrespect, bullying, fear of failure and discouragement of effort are not. I think most people could agree on that. Can most people do what it takes to make this a reality? Probably not. Surely most managers I know or heard of can’t. So, what are you waiting for? In some respects, being unique has never been easier.


Norm maintenance cost

Photo by vagawi

I play basketball weekly with a number of groups. It is my favorite sport and I enjoy the physical activity very much. However, I see this activity as a hobby and while it is important for me to compete and win, it is more important to enjoy the process. A few years ago I found myself playing with a group that was too competitive, kept arguing and shouting at each other. I ended up leaving. It was not worth the effort.

About two weeks ago I was attending one of these weekly meetings and enjoying myself. Suddenly, two of the guys started arguing. One of them used profane language and the other person got so mad he attacked him and tried to kick him. The rest of the players stopped him and nothing happened. We continued playing and everything seemed fine. I forgot about it.

About a week later we got an email from the attacker. He said our team leader (the one who organizes the game, collects the money, etc.) asked him to leave the group. He wrote that he accepts the decision and that he wished all of us luck. For a split second I asked myself – “why? Nothing happened”. But it did not take me long to recover. I hit reply and send an email to the team leader. “Well done” I wrote. “That was a brave, unconventional decision”.

It was the easy path to ignore the incident. Everybody gets angry. Nothing really happened. We stopped the person in time. This is the commonplace line of thinking. However, if you are trying to set the culture of an organization or create the norms of a group, these moments are a remarkable test of management and leadership. Sociologist Diane Vaughan calls this the normalization of deviance. When small, seemingly insignificant deviations from the norm, slowly but surely pile up until they change the organization’s culture. These deviations start in the smallest tiniest infractions of the norm and build their way up. It is a slippery slope.

Let’s say you espouse a culture of openness to ideas in your team. The next meeting somebody tells his new crazy idea and another teammate immediately reacts by making a face and saying: “this wouldn’t work”. What do you do? What is your decision at that moment? Do you stop the meeting and talk about the infraction of the norm or do you politely lead the discussion to the possibilities represented by the radical idea? I believe norm creation starts with small (and difficult) things. And it demands constant maintenance. Ignoring the remark might not lead to a disaster right away, but it sets the tone. If you maintaining the norms is not costing you something, it is a sure sign you are probably not doing it.

Are you making the tough decisions and putting your foot down in places that don’t seem to matter? What are the norms you are espousing with your team? What kind of deviance from them do you see every day? What are you doing about it? What is your norm maintenance cost?


What leg-braces, a bus station and the Challenger tragedy can teach us about rules


I have been writing about rules for a few weeks now and how the abundance of rules is destroying our practical wisdom. We saw and example for that a few days ago. TSA officers made a 4-year-old wearing leg braces to take of his metal leg-braces (although he can’t walk with them) in an airport security check. Now, he can’t walk without them, so his mother wanted to help him walk through the machine, but the officers told her that he must walk alone.

Now, I have a lot of respect for the people who work in jobs that require security. They see thousands of cases everyday and most of them are not terrorists. But the mere chance that one of the will be is enough. They follow the rules because those rules are meant to protect us. But these rules, they have limitations. And those people should know what they are.

The same goes for the guards who watched a 15-year-old girl being beaten by other teenagers in the bus station and did not intervene because their orders were: “observe and report”. So they called the cops. Really? You have to see it to believe it:

When you see that, you know something is wrong with the way we use rules. We are losing something.

I was reading an article by Diane Vaughan called the Trickle-down Effect: Policy Decisions, Risky Work, and the Challenger Tragedy for a case I am working on. I think one of the quotes there is relevant here:

A particularly challenging administrative problem that we can extract from the Challenger tragedy is to instill a rule-following mentality that will assure coordination and control in a crisis, and at the same time teach people to “drop their tools:” to recognize the situation for which no rules exist and for which the existing rule does not apply.

That is a big challenge. Because rules, when used like they are used in this kind of situation are norm killers. Are practical wisdom killers. It is so hard to go back from a rule following mentality to a practical wisdom one. Because when you follow rules, your ability to recognize what to do when there are no rules diminishes. The only solution, and it is a long-term solution, is to reduce the amount of rules that we use. Is to rely more on trust and wisdom and human judgment. Not in everything. Maybe not in security checks. But a lot more than we do now in many more areas.

I don’t really think we have a choice.