Building The Right Team

It’s a new year, your company has new priorities, and it’s time to get to work on new improvement initiatives.  That means putting together new teams, sending out the invites, and holding kickoff meetings.  But have you ever noticed that in many of those meetings, it’s the same people sitting around the table?  In several companies I’ve worked at, not only has it been the same people, but those people are often department managers.  If your organization has a similar habit, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

One school of thought argues it’s a good thing.  After all, you want the people most affected by the problems to be involved in solving it.  While I agree that some of the people in the trenches need to be the ones to dig themselves out, I argue it’s an overall bad thing, because:

  • It promotes shallow bench strength.  Stretching people by giving them new challenges is one of the keys to enabling professional growth.  How is that going to happen if they’re never provided an opportunity to improve things?  When these same people are also the department managers, it’s even worse – a leadership vacuum is created.  Managers that are excessively sitting in these meetings aren’t circulating among their employees providing guidance and removing obstacles.
  • It slows down the velocity of change.  This is simple math – how many projects can the same group work on at the same time?  Isn’t it better to spread out the involvement in order to grow the organizational bandwidth of problem solvers?
  • It stifles innovation.  Ideas from an unchanging group eventually become stagnant.  It seems to me that the goal often becomes one of checking the box versus striving for a genuine improvement.  If you think I’m being overly dramatic on this point, think back to your own experiences – how often have you heard the phrase, “that won’t work because…”?  That’s the sound of innovation swirling around the drain. 

How do you get the right team together to charge up your improvement efforts?  I suggest that the most effective problem-solving teams are a mixture of young & old, grizzled veterans and newbies.  The most important characteristic to screen for is a core belief that all company processes should be subject to constant evaluation and improvement.  Those people are out there; here’s how to find them and get them on your team:

Invite the curious.  

If you are mingling with the troops on a regular basis like you should be, it’s likely you already know the individuals who regularly ask the questions about why your company does things a certain way.  Those questions represent curiosity, and those are individuals you want on your improvement team.  Bonus points if those people also happen to be part of upstream (supplier) and downstream (customer) departments.

Invite the baggage-free.  

These are individuals who know essentially nothing about the current process.  Implementing this one may cause others to look at you as though you have three eyes, but the logic here is sound – if you want to get truly new ideas on the table, it’s valuable to view a situation through innocent eyes.  (You can observe this in young kids – they often see things with a baggage-free clarity that eludes and astounds us bigger people.)

Invite the survivors of the trench wars.  

Yes, it is important to have the current state represented, you just don’t want a whole conference room full of them.  An important function of these individuals is to document current processes and pressure-test proposed solutions. 

The mix of the three groups depends on the specific nature of the project; you’ll have to determine what makes the most sense.  Once you get your team assembled, however, you need to create an atmosphere in which the three groups of participants have an equal voice.  This can be challenging because the grizzled veterans can easily dominate the group dynamics, and may even try to hijack the project by bringing a final solution to the kick-off meeting and ramming it through until everyone agrees.

You also need to make sure that each department representative is empowered to make decisions on behalf of their department.  This is the major reason you see managers in so many of these meetings – for some reason a culture of enabling staff members to make project-focused, department-level decisions does not exist.

By using the above tips to identify and invite the right team, I hope you will find your teams better able to knock all of those new strategic priorities out of the park.