Previous month:
December 2011
Next month:
February 2012

January 2012

Do We Really Believe in Teams?

One of the mantras of most managers is that teams outperform collective individual performance. There is lots of research that substantiates that, and in any case it is summed up in that well-known poster acronym: T.EA.M., or Together Each Achieves More. Put another way: teams produce a synergy in which the net output is not additional but geometric. Four people as a group produce 1+1+1+1= 4 units of productivity; but four people as a team can produce 1x2x3x4=24 units of productivity! The most spectacular example of this, which uses a totally different algorithm, is the domestic partnership when it’s a real team: two people create extraordinary productivity in each other.

That said, however, the reality on the ground is that team outperformance is less a belief and more
a thought; and thoughts are nowhere near strong enough to break the emotional needs of managers – the needs to control, to micro-manage, to divide and rule. In short, many managers pay lip service to teams and creating teams, butconsciously or sub-consciously sabotage the creation of them.; they end up instead with groups or departments of people, all sharing a label – the Finance department, the HR department and so on – but being nothing like a real team.

What then is a real team? What makes it different from a group? There are of course many lists of these qualities, but I think it comes down to four key elements.

First, teams have a remit or reason for being together – they have a purpose for which they exist. Second, teams accept and embrace interdependency; in other words, everyone in the team has skills and knowledge which is absolutely essential for the purpose to be achieved. Third, team members believe in the power of teams and so act accordingly; and fourthly, and finally, teams are always accountable to the whole organisation – they do not create fiefdoms and separate empires working autonomously from the main and larger mission of the whole organisation.

With this in mind, the starting point for all managers is to get a grip on whether they are genuinely creating and promoting teams, or whether they are deluding themselves with ‘team talk’, but actually sabotaging their creation.

To do this I have found five simple questions, which, because they are so objective, tend to expose reality. So answer Yes or No to these five questions:

  1. Do you think teamwork important in your work?
  2. Do you conduct training programmes to ensure your team is effective?
  3. Do you review the effectiveness of your team(s)?
  4. Have you been involved in training programmes run by your direct line manager to ensure team
  5. Do your line managers review the effectiveness of their team(s)?

If the answer to any of these questions is NO – what are you going to do about it? If your only YES is
to question no. 1, then you have been caught with your pants down! Think about it.

The Antidote to Fear: Trust

I read an ancient Arabic story the other day about a merchant traveller with his caravan on his way to Baghdad. Half way to his destination the merchant encounters Pestilence who informs him that he too is on his way to Baghdad. Pestilence’s reason for travelling there is to kill five thousand people. Having delivered that piece of stunning news Pestilence disappears and the merchant continues his trip.

We next see the merchant returning from Baghdad where again he is intercepted by Pestilence. The merchant is angry.

“You lied to me,” he roars at Pestilence. “You told me you would kill five thousand people, but fifty thousand are dead.”

Pestilence patiently replies, “I told you no lie. I said I would kill five thousand people, and I have killed exactly five thousand people.” There is a pause and then he completes the information: “Fear killed the rest.”

Fear? Yes, fear – a word that is now synonymous with all that is problematic with being human. For some fear is the root disease behind all our maladies. It is fear that causes us to do wrong and hurt others as we seek to secure ourselves; fear that causes stress and leads to all sorts of illnesses; and fear that leads us to react to situations instead of being creative about them.

So what is the antidote to fear? The antidote is the same as it always has been: trust. First, trust in God. This is easy to say, but much more difficult to do. Can we accept the wisdom of the universe and rejoice in all our circumstances, not just the good or the fun bits?

Second, trust in others. Most people would agree that over the last fifty years there has been a serious deterioration in trust between peoples and communities. Yet our only real security – whose lack ignites fear – is with other people; if we cannot trust others we are destined to a life of fear, of always covering our back, of checking up on, of imagining the worst. How do we establish trust
between people?

Finally, trust in our Self – in our essence, or our soul. We need to enter our own souls and find there goodness and worth – and so the strength to face anything. Of course, the heart has traditionally been the seat of the soul, and that is why when we trust the in our Self we find courage. Courage, etymologically, derives from the heart. Trust in our Self, then, produces courage, which is also an
antidote to fear.

And why is this so important – because we are starting a new year with many new challenges. The economic meltdown could be cause enough to despair. Then again the situation in many areas of the world – North Korea at the moment and in some other states like Iran – leads one to fear the outbreak of a wider war. The fall in living standards, the chronic indebtedness of individuals, the scarcity of jobs and civil unrest, the general malaise of hopelessness partly originated by lack of any belief systems in the West, and if these weren’t enough on their own to inspire fear, there is the Mayan prophecy about the end of the world this coming December!

So, let us resist to the temptation to live in fear. Instead we must trust in God, learn to trust others, and most importantly find that trust of our Self within our Self, so that we can face 2012 with courage and confidence. And in doing so, prevail.

How Nothing Creates Performance and Beauty

I was with some friends the other day, including Ginny Richards, and she had just played the piano superbly well. We were discussing how it is that some people play the piano – or instrument or sing – so expressively, and others, who may be technically proficient, make it all sound so dead.

There is no easy answer, but my own focused on the space between the notes. Whether intuitively or not, the great instrumentalists play the notes but are more aware of the spaces between them. In fact these spaces frame the notes and are as important as the notes themselves; for it is in the contrast between a note sounding and its succeeding emptiness that the soul of the music resides.

Technically proficient performers tend to mechanise the notes and the spaces: they measure, precisely so, and thus no real feeling permeates the bridge between the sounds and its cessation. The expressive performers sense that note and its attendant silences – aching to speak through them indeed – are intimately connected; thus, in playing, they work to make the connection explicit.

Of course, this is also true in other disciplines. English poetry, for example, at its best and greatest, depends on rhythm and metre – the stressed syllable is framed by the unstressed ones, and in that contrast powerful emotions can be generated. And this is one reason why purely visual – or image-driven – poetry is less evocative. Certainly, the deliberate randomness of so much post-modern poetry completely fails to touch us at a deep level because there is no patterning of the sound effects, so the responses tend to be merely cerebral. In short people who like this stuff do so because it reflects their own view of the world, not because the poetry has entered the silence between the noise of words – and so driven to the surface the full force of the deep, chthonic gods of human emotion.

But perhaps most importantly of all is in the area of meditation which deploys the same principle. To wit, against the ‘something’ – the fullness – of life, the meditator enters the ‘nothing’ of meditation. As the Tao Te Ching puts it: ‘thirty spokes surround the hub: in their nothingness consists the carriage of effectiveness’. Breathing reflects this – the fullness of the breath in is followed by the emptiness of the breath out, but before the ‘out’ can happen there is a point of space, of turning, when the breath is neither in nor out, but suspended, as it were, on nothing.

When we meditate we deliberately try to empty our minds, and by doing so we return refreshed to the world of ‘things’. Further, it could be said that meditation on ‘nothing’ refreshes – cleanses – the doors of perception that have become so locked up for most of us.

I started by using words about playing the piano “superbly well” and singing so “expressively”, but really the one word, the most important word, that captures what happens when we pay attention to the spaces between the beats, the ‘nothings’ between the ‘somethings’, is the word ‘beauty’. We hear the beauty in the music and in the poetry; and arising from the meditation we see it – the beauty - in all that is natural, and sometimes even in what is not.

Thus, step by step, music, poetry, and meditation lead us eventually to the mystic realm where all is beautiful.