Building teams is NOT about speed

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This has always been weird to me: a lot of guys who come to run organizations are big sports fans, or deify sports, or think of themselves as the Widgets Middle Manager equivalent of Bill Belichick. And yet, they never actually stop and think about how sports teams work and are built.

Look at a team like the Patriots. They’ve been very good for a very long time, but before that — albeit almost two decades ago at this point — they sucked for a long time too. You need the right players in the right spots, and the right system to support said players, and that takes time. Michael Jordan was great in 1985 when he entered the league. He didn’t consistently beat the Pistons until about 1990 or so. It takes time. You need to build it out. Look at the Cleveland Browns right now. They’ve been absolute trash for years. But in the first game last weekend, they held a team considered the second-best in the conference (Steelers) to a tie. They are coming up, those Browns. Eventually they might be good. It took time.

When we put work teams together, this is often what happens:

  • There is some supposedly urgent problem
  • We grab bodies from 1–2 silos and maybe cross-functionally go to another silo
  • The team is expected to get together and magically just begin hitting targets, solving problems, and making money
  • There’s often not even a kickoff meeting to explain WTF is even happening (although some orgs are better at this)

So why is this fraught?

Well, it’s not how teams ever would come together. Check this out from Stanford professor Lindred Greer, who I’m pretty sure I’ve quoted before:

“Management dramatically underestimates the amount of effort needed to create and maintain common vision for a team,” Greer says. “There is almost never enough alignment on this when teams are brought together.” Every team should take part in an orientation in which goals are stated explicitly, benchmarks are established, and responsibilities of each team member are made clear. Greer also suggests teams contemplate what failure might look like and how to avoid it, as those that do tend to perform better over time.

Basically, when a team comes together, it needs a few meetings of level-setting, expectations, process discussion, what success looks like, what failure looks like, the problem being solved, etc. After all that stuff is done logically, then the team can start working successfully on the issues at hand. But diving right in and just assigning KPIs and deliverables and deadlines and all that, which most teams do? It doesn’t work.

So why do we do it?

Because most managers, over time, have learned to frame everything as “urgent.”

This is smart in one way. Many people are inherently lazy and it gets ’em up and going (well, sometimes).

It’s bad in a lot of other ways. Namely: urgency almost never goes hand-in-hand with priority, so you’ve got a bunch of chickens running around with their heads cut off, and the left hand seemingly never knows what the right hand is doing. It’s pretty fraught. And, honestly, when there’s no priority, there’s limited trust — and that means office politics will skyrocket.

So we do it — we rush headlong into tasks without any broader purpose — because we’re conditioned by this idea that everything is or must be completely urgent.

The “kickoff call”

Sometimes these things are done well. I have admittedly seen that.

At my last full-time job, though, this one manager I had to deal with a lot was absolutely awful at kickoff calls. Because lots of other managers were too, the top brass created these scripts where you had to say stuff like “The explicit purpose of this call is to ____________” and “These people are gathered on this team to make sure we ____________.”

It was like a really bad wedding set-up, in some ways.

This manager I worked with a lot was horrible at it, and he usually did the scripts with a mix of resentment and cluelessness, so people were half-laughing (“Oh, he’s insulting this dumb thing the SVPs make us do!”) and half-clueless about what we were all doing. None of his kickoff calls accomplished a single thing.

Now, to compound this issue, his boss was a guy who would enter a new team situation and just start it up like this: “OK, so we need a deck about customer success — Cara, September 21st sound good?” Cara had no idea what she was doing, but this guy was a big boss, so she said yes. September 21st also had no context. Why then? What else is Cara working on?

Add Manager 1 and Manager 2 (his boss). How effective do you think the work emerging from this silo was?

Short answer: not very.

How do we get better?

Be OK taking time to level-set. Respond to work issues instead of simply reacting to them. Have conversations. Understand what’s what. Set priorities. Know how people like to work.

Short answer: take the time. Yes, time is money — although not as much as we think. And yes, time is of the essence. And yes, we’ve all got urgent shit to do and we’re so busy and everything is such a big deal and oh wow and Oh God and oh no and oh.

Time is a resource we can’t renew, sure. But everything of value in your life takes time: building relationships, building careers, learning about who you are. A KPI-driven work team takes time too. So does winning a Super Bowl. You gotta put in the work. You can’t just dive headlong at it.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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