Sunday, January 24, 2010

Stock Pot of Water

I’ve been thinking of a leadership metaphor; it involves a stock pot and a wooden spoon. The steel pot is filled with water. It needs to be emptied. And the only tool we have is the wooden spoon.

I’m a simple guy with a bias toward action, so my inclination is to grab the spoon and get to work, one spoonful at a time, scooping the water out of the pot. It will take some effort, won’t be particularly spectacular, but the job seems clear, the resources limited, and we’re wasting time as long as we aren’t draining the pot. As long as we stick with it, the job will be completed.

While this all seems so very simple, there are alternative leadership approaches.

Study It
There are those that would want to do some figurin’ before getting underway. Even though the work seems simple, they want to know more before getting underway. Determine that each spoonful, adjusting for spillage, averages to be about 94% of a tablespoon… determine that there is 2.7 liters of water in the stock pot… do the math… adjust for evaporation… factor in breaks… you get the picture.

Document It
A slight twist on the “study it” approach is the “document it” approach by which you simply write up the findings of the “study it” approach and put it on your shelf, bound nicely in a three-ring binder. The satisfaction of filing the report replaces the satisfaction of finishing the job.

Rationalize It
If this really needs to be done then there ought to be a better way. Don’t they know that we need more resources than this wooden spoon? If they were serious about getting this work done, they would have given me better tools and more staff. I’m not doing anything until they make this easier.

Boil It
I have a better idea… a more spectacular idea… an idea that will be far less work and will be seen by all as brilliant. All I need to do is light the wooden spoon on fire, set up the stock pot over the fire, and the water will boil, turn to steam, and “presto.” Of course the fire from the spoon barely warmed the water, let alone brought it to a boil. The fire was spectacular, and it was an amusing idea, but we still have a pot full of water and now we don’t even have the spoon.

Can you think of others?

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


A couple of recent conversations clarified a vital question: what does it really mean to be a member of a team? A defining characteristic that has emerged and been helpful in our conversations is agreement.

It might be helpful to first be a bit more specific about what we mean when we say team, since team is one of those words we throw around with few boundaries. For the purposes of this discussion, I am meaning a work team that:

  • Operates with a specific charter and agenda,

  • Is comprised of members who have specific roles and the ability to contribute as a team member, and

  • Has the authority and resources to meet the demands of the agenda.

In work teams like these, the rule should be agreement.

Mere democracy is not agreement. If a group operates according to “majority rule,” whether it is a small committee or a large country, it is not a team. That isn’t a bad thing at all, just a different “thing” than a team. There are all sorts of circumstances where “majority rule” is the best solution, it simply isn’t a team.

The rule of agreement takes into account that team members posses varying perspectives as well as differing amounts of influence. This is an important distinction from a democratic process in which every vote has the same value in every decision. Members of a team should acknowledge that each team member brings different things to the table. Each has a unique perspective, and some perspectives are better suited for various tasks and decisions than others. Some may have various levels of authority and responsibility that impact how agreement may be reached. While it may seem that more influential/powerful members of the team are less agreeable, it could be that their responsibilities require them to be more deliberate in a process toward agreement.

Blind obedience or unswerving allegiance is not agreement. A productive team should not allow for members who are simply “yes men.” It is often the most loyal thing one can do to help members of a team avoid a mistake, or insist on making a good idea a great success. On the other hand, those who only think of their role in terms of being a contrarian or antagonist are not productive members of a team.

Agreement should be neither political or protectionist. Reaching agreement should not be a matter of trading votes (“I’ll support you this time if you support me next time”). It should also not be a matter of giving in to simply protect a position, role, or job. The best team members often approach their work as being “self employed,” not so desperate to protect their job that they give in to anything that might threaten their position.

When agreement is not possible there are at least a couple of potential conclusions. It could be that the work at hand is not suitable for the team, or any team. Or it could be that there needs to be a change in the membership of the team. If a team is intent on operating with agreement, then there may be times that call for difficult decisions.

One of the markers that indicates that a work group has become a real team is when the members consider each other trusted colleagues that “have your back.”

These are just some ramblings of things I’m thinking about in this regard. I expect to do some more reading, thinking, and writing along these lines in the coming weeks. In addition to unpacking some of what I’ve written above, other aspects that I hope to give some attention include:

  • Leading a team

  • Team work under time constraints or emergency conditions

  • Dealing with members who are not meeting the demands of the team

  • Moving forward as a team after a difficult process of coming to agreement

  • Taking things off the teams agenda when the task or decision calls for another approach

  • Joining a team… breaking in when you’re new

I'm happy to have your feedback!