In a world where individuals are somewhat out of control, how do you help your team focus on what they can control? Consider the story of how a very small team is making a huge difference in a world they don’t have much control over; it could give you the belief, inspiration, and a few simple tools that will allow you to make the important stuff happen in your world.
We recently had the honor of serving our country on a six-month assignment. We were not on the front lines in Afghanistan, but worked with a small division of a U.S. government agency trying to protect our country in case of a bio-terrorism attack. The leader of this division was struggling to figure out how to help his team perform at a higher level, improve processes that they could control (this is central), and ultimately help raise morale on a team where many felt powerless.
Part of the team’s struggle was trying to educate Congress about their work, a political challenge they had never been trained for. Adding further complexity, the team also must succeed in partnership with an alphabet soup of government agencies.
What originally started as an inquiry about a half-day conflict management session that transitioned into a two-day offsite meeting, which quickly turned into a six-month transformation project that addressed a root issue for the entire department. As in private-sector startups, this department was moving so quickly, with fast-shifting demands, that it was very difficult for the team to gain perspective to improve effectiveness.
These days it is very difficult for many teams to prioritize, because all projects can be justified, at least on the surface. Employees today are generally far more sophisticated about reading the tea leaves in their organizations, but these same employees can’t see all parts of an organization and the portfolio of current projects. How many divisions today have a central project management office (PMO) managing all aspects of work? For smaller divisions, this would be nirvana. Even if they did have a PMO, these projects must be vetted with leadership and, more importantly, align with the corporate strategy.
This team had one advantage: They had a very clear mission and were charged with articulating their concerns and developing a way to work more effectively with leadership to achieve specific goals. As part of the transformation process, the team wrote a “pride statement,” describing what would make them proud to accomplish together. They decided, “We have the ability to make change.”
They identified problems and developed plans to address them, indentifying four initiatives that would yield the highest impact. These initiatives focused on streamlining certain internal processes, using integrated project teams more effectively, incorporating business plans into agency announcements, and improving operational communications. They created their four initiatives with 90-day deadlines, some of which could be completed sooner, while others would result in the team aligning internally in order to make recommendations to other agencies.
Taking time to evaluate the environment is vital to the success of any team. Without reflection, even the most productive teams can veer off track. Equally important is having the right tools at hand. Here are three this team used effectively.
Tool #1: Choose only the most essential initiatives that can be accomplished in 90 days and align with your longer-term objectives. It might sound simple, but it takes discipline. Think about a staging area for building a house—you can’t just build it overnight. Land must be cleared, a hole dug, a foundation created. The idea of this tool is to make choices that help you set up for the next 90 days and then the next 90 days after that. These periods are separated by times of assessment, appropriate celebration, and then projections for the next 90 days.
Tool #2: Clear accountability and ownership held by the individual help drive the team to make the work happen by “date certain.” Remember the movie Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks, and the scene where the team at Ground Control had a very clear set of materials to work with and a finite amount of time to save the astronauts from death? It’s amazing what is possible with a firm deadline.
Tool #3: Clear the path for lane drivers (accountable individuals), to set up leadership to fully own team performance, so they ensure that their people have what they need to be successful. We had monthly planning sessions, which we asked questions that got at the heart of progress, risks, and next steps. These candid conversations helped the team keep the necessary focus and ensured their progress.
In a world where fast-paced change is the norm, you and your team can’t control everything. However, with a sharp focus on key initiatives and appropriate tools, you can position yourselves to successfully make things happen in a way that makes a difference.