Creating these Vital Discussions is the central requirement for making teams work, for occurring during these interchanges is the synergistic life and creativity and magic - the raison d'etre - of the team; during Vital Discussions the team becomes a team rather than just a list of individuals.
The central value of Vital Discussions is that they Create Knowledge. They are also exciting, enjoyable and rewarding for the individual participants and turn 'just a job' into an attractive calling, meeting a critical personal need of today's 'knowledge workers'.
This article is about these Vital Discussions. It defines "Vital Discussion" as 'stage centre' for critical communication in a business and one of the most important generators of new knowledge. It describes the circumstances in which such discussions can happen and can be made to happen.
A definition of Knowledge: "Knowledge is information that changes something or somebody -- either by becoming grounds for actions, or by making an individual (or an institution) capable of different or more effective action." (Peter Drucker)
I believe the most critical communication in Knowledge-based Businesses occurs during 'Vital Discussion' because it is in the course of the Vital Discussion that the strength of teams is applied to the development of new knowledge - meaning new knowledge that is critical and essential to the success of the team's project. It is during such Vital Discussions that the team becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
The planned, organized creation of the circumstances for Vital Discussions goes a long way toward differentiating a business of the old style (managers and workers; command and control; inwardly and vertically focused; the process of critical decisions solitary or confined to very few people) from a Knowledge Economy business (everybody attitudinally equal with a few 'foremost among equals'; focus on achievement as a team in a vigorous, demanding, critical, knowledge and competitive context; outwardly and horizontally focused; broad sharing of almost all the business's knowledge).
In the old economy critical discussions were between often badly-informed middle and senior managers, and were almost always tightly constrained by the needs of the business's rigid, control-oriented hierarchy, excessive respect or fear of managers, resistance to showing ignorance because of consequences, societal need to be formal and by the needs of internally focused, customer-ignoring, internal politics. These constrained, artificial circumstances led to much wastage of information and knowledge, and hence significant business inefficiency. However because all businesses were the same, businesses operated in these ways were competitive with each other.
In the Knowledge Economy each businesses critical need for the dramatic results produced by the competitive strengths of the 'in the groove', 'on-a-roll' motivated knowledge worker team overcome the dinosaur managers fear-based need for control. And, just as in the old economy, effective Knowledge Economy leaders will do what they have to be competitive - they will create the circumstances for 'Vital Discussions'.
"The best swordsman in the world does not need to fear the second best swordsman, but the man ignorant of swords but knowledgeable about gun powder." Mark Twain.
It's an interaction between two or more people that has the following characteristics:
- the people unreservedly respect each other and have some familiarity with each other as individuals
- they share a common interest - at the minimum the success of the business in the short or medium term
- they have a personal interest in the content of their jobs, since they are managing their own careers and personal security
- they know they depend on each other's information (from the point of view of the discussion) for the business to succeed
- each person knows they have information critical to the business's success
- they don't know what that information is - and they are aware of that mutual ignorance
- they know that they have to toil and struggle at effectively communicating this information to each other - meaning they know they have to verify that communication has happened, accurately and completely
- they know they have a responsibility to transmit the knowledge developed in discussions to other members of their 'team' in a way that is relevant to those team members
- they believe that if they successfully communicate they will have contributed something to the business that is greater than each of the individuals on their own could have created
- and they believe that this creative contribution will occur if they successfully communicate.
- finally because they are, in Maslow's terms, self-actualizing knowledge workers they believe that the communication is occurring because they believe that they and the business is doing something worthwhile beyond surviving and making money. (Article 6 discusses Maslow's Hierarchy and "Self-Actualizing Knowledge Workers").
It is to turn some part of the information that the individuals have into knowledge that contributes to the current team project.This requires:
As much as possible Vital Discussions must be 'staged' to occur in front of the whole team (and only in front of the whole team), because:
Vital Discussions should happen only with the whole team present because this is efficient (everybody checks and internalizes the knowledge concurrently), knowledge is only transferred once and everybody knows the knowledge has been transferred. Additionally it is very difficult to accurately duplicate identical knowledge transfer at a later time - and it is certainly impossible to re-run the Vital Discussion that will have occurred.
What circumstances have to exist for Vital Discussions to occur ?
What is needed to promote the occurrence and effectiveness of Vital Discussions in a Knowledge Economy business ?
The business must respect and understand Knowledge Workers as individuals. Each employee needs to be treated as an individual working at the top of Maslow's Hierarchy - (Article 6 discusses Maslow's hierarchy).
The business must have a developed, systematic and exciting means of communicating its Practical Business Vision and Business Plan Objectives (and the rationale behind each) to its employees on an ongoing basis.
The Project Start-Up Phase is extremely critical. Teams must have time and space to work with each other before serious knowledge development can occur. They must become individually and group 'calibrated'; each person must acquire a good level of understanding of the others. Opinion formers must emerge; reluctant communicators must come on-board and be encouraged. The project must be discussed, justified and placed in context in front of the team; individual queries must be exhaustively satisfied. Individual knowledge and 'delivery' responsibilities must be identified and clarified. The team leader and project manager must be accepted. Additionally the role of decision makers who are not in the team and who interact with the team must become apparent and accepted.
This familiarization phase must be plugged into each schedule. And it must be recognized that many key errors occur during the initial phase of a project start-up, so that there must be room for adjustment, corrections and re-starts before critical commitments become irreversible.
The team leader must be able to create an atmosphere that tolerates and supports all the varying capabilities and personal characteristics of the team members. It is extremely important that individual team members must feel confident that they can be vulnerable without being attacked in some way, because "Fear cramps imagination" (Peter Senge). Individuals must be able to think out loud and be supported and tolerated because this is a very important personal process for experimenting, sparking ideas, exploring and discovering missing knowledge. The rules of brainstorming often apply in Vital Discussions.
"Giving people self-confidence is by far the most important thing you can do because then they will act. Self-confidence is thinking things through thoroughly and having the courage of your convictions." (Jack Welch: Chairman, CEO, General Electric)
For teams to be successful they:
(a) need to understand what they have to achieve for the business - the teams objectives
(b) have to be able to successfully function as a group of people working synergistically.
The teams objectives for the business are described by a combination of "The Practical Business Vision", "The Business Plan", "The Necessity Statement", and "The Project Schedule". The latter is worked out by consultation with the team members at the projects start-up.
To make the team work successfully I believe in a concept I call "The Led Team".
Teams need leaders. To make the team work successfully I have successfully used an approach I think of as "The Led Team", which is based on using a Team Leader-Facilitator whose primary responsibility is facilitating the successful functioning of the team as a team - not the success of the project or the delivery of the product. Teams are taken gently, but firmly in the direction of the projects objectives. Maintaining focus on these objectives - particularly the schedule - is the Team Leader-Facilitator's main discipline on the team. The Team Leader-Facilitators creates the communication circumstances - as described earlier in the article - whereby the team works as a focused, driven manner. The responsibility for achievement of objectives always stays with the team's members; team members must at all times feel this responsibility otherwise they will relax and simply 'follow the leader', thereby transforming the team into a group of isolated, controlled individuals - as in the old economy ! The Team Leader-Facilitator creates the circumstances for the Vital Discussions that create synergy amongst team members - the circumstances by which the team completes the project successfully.
The Team Leader-Facilitator has a delicate task in leading Vital Discussions. He has to get things done, decisions made, risks evaluated, schedules met, performance objectives reached - by the team. He must ensure that each of the team members maintain their focus on the objectives. He must continually ensure that team members retain ownership, authority and responsibility for their always unique 'knowledge-gives-responsibility' role in the team. If the project start-up was properly managed by the business's leaders team members will have a very good idea of the objectives and limitations because they will have participated in setting these objectives and agreed that their responsibilities in achieving them can reasonably be expected to be achievable, within an agreed and carefully discussed framework for acceptance of risks. They will also accept the role of the Team Leader-Facilitator in sewing together the fabric of individual team members deliverables to build the whole product.
A critical part of the Team Leader-Facilitators role in reporting is maintaining an ongoing judgment of the likelihood that the project will achieve its objectives. This is developed during regular meetings with the team to gather a team-agreed, team-shared, team-committed view of the status and the schedule. The Project Manager's role in reporting is confined to the management of information describing the schedule status of the team's project. The Project Manager is responsible for developing and maintaining the schedule with the team members and with the Team Leader-Facilitator. The Team Leader-Facilitator and the Project Manager jointly create a vital piece of ongoing business knowledge - the status of the project, reported to the business leaders as schedule status, achievement of objectives and probability of meeting the projects critical objectives.
(In this model the Project Managers responsibility is to bring generic skill and knowledge to setting up and maintaining schedules, using data provided by team members and a process developed by the business. The Project Managers responsibility is to the Project Office. The Project Office manages information describing utilization of the business's resources.)
The Team Leader-Facilitator delivers status reports to the business's leaders. For some team members this reporting responsibility confers on the Team leader-Facilitator an important halo-effect reflecting the business's dependence upon them. A critical part of the Team Leader-Facilitators role in reporting is maintaining an ongoing judgment of the likelihood that the project will achieve its objectives. This is done by regularly meeting with the team to gather an agreed, team-shared, team-committed view of the status and the schedule. The Project Manager is responsible for developing and maintaining the schedule with the team members and with the Team Leader-Facilitator.
This is a description of the communication aspects of the critical start-up phase of a project using 'The Led Team' approach. The Team Leader-Facilitator leads and facilitates the following steps at the project inception:
(a) Training and refreshing the team members communication understanding and responsibilities, and setting up a meeting structure.
(b) Reviewing and continually refreshing the project schedule, with the assistance of the Project Manager.
(c) At project start-up the Team Leader-Facilitator initiates a "Spoof" product design with all the team members. This phase is essentially a prolonged meeting during which each member describes his anticipated contributions to the project, with indications of technical approach and a risk assessment. Team members essentially carry out a fictional development of the product in front of each other describing the knowledge interfaces they expect with each team member, partitioning their individual responsibilities and describing the technical solutions they propose to use. Each team member must produce a list of deliverables.
It is during this phase of the project that many of the most critical 'Vital Discussions' will occur. The Team Leader must very carefully monitor team members confidence levels in the estimates. The Team Leader must work very hard to ensure that team members are communicating, looking for any indication of misunderstandings or inconsistencies by questioning and exploring in front of the whole team. The Spoof Design Phase has the following purposes:
- to establish communication between the Team Leader-Facilitator and the team
- to establish the communication style needed by the Team Leader-Facilitator
- to mutually 'calibrate' the team members in each others communication styles
- get the team working together
- get a substantial understanding of the risks inherent in the project
- establish an initial system design or list of possible approaches for evaluation
At the completion of the Spoof Design Phase the Team Leader-Facilitator reports status to the business's leaders as described earlier.
(d) At this point in the project the Team Leader-Facilitator will have established initial working relationships and will have found out the teams abilities and deficiencies in communicating. The project will be moving into the initial work phases, with the major risks being abated by eliminating the significant unknowns from each team members work item list as soon as possible. The Team Leader-Facilitator may feel a need to repeat the Spoof Design phase (to refine the system design or rework it completely), or to partition the project to include a risk elimination phase - depending upon guidance received from the business's leaders. The Team Leader-Facilitator may be working intensively with individuals or small groups of team members to persuade them to find solutions to the issues they have identified. This critically includes ensuring that the team members are properly integrating their contributions together to form a complete solution to the needs outlined in the Necessity Statement.
Creating 'Vital Discussions' is the central requirement for making teams work, for it is during these intense communication interchanges that the life and creativity of the team occurs; hence successful creation of the circumstance for 'vital discussions' is critical to running modern businesses. Creating the circumstances for vital discussions to continually, reliably, occur requires planning, investment of time, resources and integrity on the part of the business's leaders. The environment has to be right, so does each individuals motivation, much information has to be distributed, facilitative leadership has to be active. Everybody must know and respect each other; there can be no respect purely for position. There has to be excitement about the shared objectives; cynicism must be absent. Creating and leading Vital Discussions is the responsibility of the Team Leader Facilitator - the person responsible for making the team successful by using communication techniques. This person is not responsible for the project or products success; this is a responsibility that must remain with the team. The Team Leader-Facilitator's main management tool is maintenance of the teams focus on the objectives - particularly schedule. The Team Leader-Facilitator uses special techniques during the start-up phase to ensure that the team is working synergistically via vital Discussion. The Team Leader-Facilitator is responsible for reporting the projects progress to the business's leaders.
Topics mentioned earlier.
The Practical Business Vision Statement is the picture that the business should have of where it is going, in every employees head. It originates with the business's leadership but reflects inputs
from every level of the business. It must project a slightly larger than life reality that is attainable at a stretch but not be isolated from real possibilities. It provides the basis for
development of strategy and operational plans. It essentially defines the business's current and immediate future special qualities that will ensure its future success. It should animate the
business. And in the context of a Knowledge Worker business it must speak to every employee. Therefore it is much more than the 'one-liner' that is sometimes described as the Vision of older types of
business. It is a picture of the business's direction in the context of its customers, technology, proprietary knowledge, competitors and employees. The time view is 1.5 years long, with a detailed 3
and 6 month view. It should be updated every 3 months and completely refreshed every 6 months. The updates should be carefully communicated to every employee, using communication techniques that are
able to reach all the different types of individuals in the workforce.
The Practical Vision Statement is something that is alive and ever changing and constantly refreshed in the employees minds because it should enter into the hidden micro- and macro- decisions that the employees constantly make when they decide where to put their efforts at every minute of the day. Without a clear vision the employees are left to their own devices or the local politics of their immediate structure.
The Practical Vision statement should be a little like Coca-Cola advertising - it must constantly permeate the business.
The Business Plan is a stark statement of what success for the business means in terms of sales targets, margins, employee rewards for objectives met in the next 1-6 quarters. It is a detailed projection of what sales must be made from what markets, what investment resources are available, headcount plans etc. It also lays out the general framework of targets and constraints that the business will achieve, over the next two years. It should be presented to all the employees with the Practical Vision Statement.
The Necessity Statement is a new product requirement specification designed and expressed as a message to stimulate focused excitement and challenge to the people who are to deliver a new, necessarily innovative, product. The target audience of the Necessity Statement is the group of people charged with architecting the product. The purpose of the Necessity Statement is to provide a carefully bounded 'sandbox' within which the product architects must work. A successful Necessity Statement gives the product architects maximum freedom within which to work whilst describing to them only the essential limitations - carefully constrained freedom leads to focused invention and innovation. The Necessity Statement thoroughly defines the space within which the product has to be conceived and delivered.
© Copyright 1999-2010 Andrew Herrington Pateo Consulting