Put a group of smart, creative and committed leaders together and you don’t automatically get a high performing, collaborative leadership team. You’ll often get something that looks more like a polite cage fight, with each player jockeying for position, working hard to avoid losing and maximize winning (winning = more authority, recognition, control, territory, headcount, being right, whatever). These struggles can be pretty subtle, but the result is easy to spot: critical problems remain unaddressed; small-picture thinking; low accountability and trust; and of course, disappointing business results.
To be really collaborative, a team needs to consistently do three things very well together: Learn, Design and Commit. These are not platitudes—they each represent concrete and learnable skills and they are essential for collaborative performance. Moreover, they are skills that collaborative teams practice together day in and day out, just like the practices that sustain elite athletes, martial artists, musicians, dancers, soldiers, and high performers in any discipline that demands deep skill, precision, and coordination.
Learning Together – this entails the ability to listen astutely to the concerns, commitments and possibilities behind what people are saying; and, reflective inquiry, which is the ability to formulate and ask powerful questions—and to be genuinely curious about the answers. Reflective inquiry allows us to observe and respectfully challenge the underlying interpretations and narratives that always accompany the facts, assessments, assumptions and explanations about what is going on, why, and what it might mean. When it’s missing, so is important feedback and data about the business. Without this capacity to learn together, teams have a hard time making decisions and “designing” the future together. They often end up solving the wrong problems or solving the right problems in superficial ways that don’t actually work long-term. In addition, successful innovation is almost impossible, and the organization’s ability to respond quickly to changing conditions goes way down.
Designing Together – This is all about shaping the future. Collaborative teams integrate what they learn together into a shared picture, a narrative, about the future they want to create for their organization. This narrative spells out what success looks like, what milestones are important, and how to get there together (typically referred to with words like vision, mission, goals, objectives, strategies, standards, behavioral norms, etc.). Because they’re tuned in to their organization, the market and their industry (they’re continually learning together, remember?), high-performing teams understand that part of their job is to continually update and refine their narrative about the future and how to realize it. Nothing stands still for long, so neither should an organization’s ends and means. In addition to KPI’s, we like the idea of KLI’s—Key Learning Indicators, to help leadership teams stay focused on what matters and the key to what matters—learning, design, and…meaningful commitments.
Committing Together – this sounds pretty vague, but we at GJC are almost obsessively specific about the nature and practice of commitments. There are really just two ways that we human beings commit ourselves to anything: by physically doing it with our bodies (like throwing out all the sweets in the cupboard when we commit ourselves to eating better, or throwing our bodies in front of the bus to save our child, for instance), or by uttering certain words (through language). Words like Yes, No, Stop, Go, Because…, I will, We won’t, You may, I promise, Will you?…and the list goes on and on. But these are not just innocent throw-away words—the words we use to commit ourselves, our teams, our organizations, our assets, even our lives—can be as concrete and powerful as any physical move we might make to commit ourselves. And often much more powerful.
This is because language is the primary way that we get things done in organizations. For leadership teams (or project teams, management teams, or any other type of team), clearly understanding and learning to harness the “linguistic action” inherent in our everyday language makes the difference between alignment, accountability, and performance…and just hot air. There are several ways that we commit ourselves with language, but the one that is most obvious is by making a promise. As obvious as promises may appear however, there are all sorts of ways that individuals and teams can and do inadvertently weaken, confuse, inhibit and poorly manage promises (and therefore performance).
So learning to recognize, make and manage promises effectively (among other linguistic commitments) is not just a good idea. It’s the only way teams get the right stuff done together. As coaches and consultants, we have worked with lots of teams and organizations, and there has never once been a case in which poor performance was not linked to wea promises. (As you may be guessing by now, of course, weak promises are one of the casualties of weak team learning and design.)