Re-focus your team for the new year

Team building exercises can quickly turn into embarrassing wastes of time. But the best ones can be insightful, efficient, and strengthen communication among team members.

The New Year is a great time to tune a team’s working practices and sharpen focus. Below is an exercise I developed in my consulting days that got positive reviews internally and from clients. It takes about 2 minutes to set up and typically after about 15 minutes the torrent of new ideas has reduced to a trickle. Done regularly, it can become one of the rituals and myths that define the culture of your team. Tried this? Have a better exercise? Leave a comment and let me know!

  1. [Optional] send a quick email to the team members letting them know what the exercise will cover so they can prepare ideas in advance
  2. Hang 3 flip charts on the wall. Label them: Stop, Start, More.
  3. Start the discussion by reminding the team of their shared goals and priorities. Then direct everyone’s attention to the flip charts. In order to meet our goals, what are we currently doing that we need to stop, i.e., what are the distractions and wasteful activities? What are we not doing that we need to start? And what are we already doing well that we need to do more? See my previous post on New Year’s resolutions for more on the last one.
  4. Let everyone loose with markers to add their ideas to the flip charts. Circulate to encourage people to add and clarify comments.
  5. As the scribble rate subsides, bring the group back together to review and discuss the results. Get a sense as to which ideas are broadly supported and which are pet peeves.
  6. Either during the session or afterwards, follow up with the team members with which actions to pursue as a result of the feedback. Where possible, empower the folks who provided the ideas with the accountability (and resources) to see them through to completion.

Should the “squeaky wheel” on your team get extra attention?

One of the hardest leadership decisions to make is how to carve up discretionary time for coaching direct reports — we all know there is more work to do than time in the week to do it.

Got a few minutes?

If you don’t make this decision actively, by default it will be made for you, by your direct reports, sounding something like:

  • “A few of my friends are applying to graduate school, and I’ve been thinking about it too. Do you have some time this afternoon for me to run some questions past you?”
  • “I know my last performance review wasn’t great, it’s just that I don’t feel that the projects I’m doing are really…taking me anywhere. Can we talk?”

And then over the next 20 minutes (or 2 hours), you dig deep and show your best motivational, inspiring, empathetic, and visionary leadership self to the no-longer-disenfranchised Sally Staffer who bounds back through the cubicle farm to work. Exhausted, and a little relieved, you turn back to your sales proposal or whatever it was you were doing that is actually going to put money in Sally’s paycheck this month.

Meanwhile, that all-star you hired six months ago–what was her name again?–has finished up another project, early, and it’s better work than you were turning out after two years on the job. Why doesn’t she ever stop by your desk? What would an hour of your inspirational best do to her, and the company’s, performance? Or is she already interviewing with your competitor because she’s not getting the senior development time she rightly deserves?

Leaders who don’t take charge of the discretionary development time are destined to spend it with the “squeaky wheels” who are marginally committed and mediocre performers, living out a world predicted by the Peter Principle. Many versions of talent management / performance management matrices are available to help you to understand where each of your employees stand.

Cornell’s Talent Management Matrix compares current performance and future potential.

All the matrices have a current, quantitative axis (e.g., performance rating) and a forward-looking, qualitative axis (e.g., capability, commitment). Your discretionary development time should go first into the top right corner containing the best performers today that have the highest potential for the future. Michael Beer’s book talks about getting the whole organization to High Commitment, High Performance. The ones in the lower left corner should be actively managed out of the business.

Yes, invest time to understand the motivations, interests, and development hurdles of the folks in the other corners: you will both learn something from the conversations, and the business and your career-long network of talent will be better for it. But when you are the one setting the agenda and dividing up your scarce time, it won’t be taken up by the “squeaky wheels” at the expense of the A-players quietly giving their best.