Were we ever a team? How do teams make good decisions?

Engineering PhD students have to decide, at least a year before they get their degree, whether they want to go into Academia or Industry after graduation. I met Professors who told me that, in their view, if you got a PhD it was to join Academia. But, having come from Industry, that was not my view. I saw both as valid choices; and if properly managed, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. But there is a big difference between the two choices.

No, the biggest difference I am thinking of is not the salary.

As I told my students many times, the biggest difference is that Academia is ruled by the maxim, “every man (or woman) for himself”, whereas in Industry the maxim is, “we are all in the same boat”.

I have always valued the Team dynamics lessons I learned in Industry.

Why the difference?

The University system is built for you to excel (or fail) as an individual. Historically, professors in tenure track are seldom part of a team. Instead, everyone is most concerned about getting their own grants, funding their own research, and publishing their own papers. It is true that in the last decade or so there has been some growing emphasis on some kind of mentoring. And it is also true that generalities don’t apply to every group, department, or school in every university.

But it is a fact, that the Department Chair is not your boss. You don’t really answer to the Chair, or even the Dean… as long as you follow the rules of the system you are free to build your own empire; the principle of academic freedom guarantees that.

It has been like this for what seems like forever. And you would expect it to remain so (monolithic) as long as most new professors come into tenure track as soon as they graduate. After all, would you expect them to have a view of that life that is any different from what they learned by watching their own professor?

Industry is different. In the same way that generalities do not apply to all Academic settings, they cannot be expected to apply to all Industry settings. But, by and large, Industry stopped being monolithic long ago.

The reality of competition, eventually forces companies to examine themselves. If you are losing profits, market share, or customer confidence while your competition is prospering, you have to do something about it. And to do something about it, you have to understand what is happening and why? 

coworker's hands linked together

In the US this awakening began in the 1930s with the realization that when management includes employees in analyzing and solving the problems, productivity increases. This realization would eventually grow into what we know today as Total Quality Management. The progression was not linear. Post World War II America did not want to listen to W. Edwards Deming’s ideas, but Japan did. And they excelled by considering quality not something you inspect for, at the end of the production line, but something you build into the production process so you “get it right the first time.”

As long as competition and the realities of the marketplace force Industry to accept the need for continuous self-examination, chances are good that not only will profitability increase, but also that the workplace environment will be a life-giving as opposed to life-draining experience for the employee.

The life-giving experience is what Teams are supposed to be all about.

Yes, I know Industry is not a panacea

You and I know that there are many companies (and huge ones at that) where the workplace environment is definitely in the life-draining category. How can that happen and the Company remain viable, is a question we would have to ponder in depth at another time.

My first answer has always been that “anything will work for a little while”. So that if the time span of that “little while” is enough for the perpetrators to gain what they wanted and then bail out, or sell the company, or for the Board of Directors to react and shake the whole system up, then the shock of that final transient event will mask the reality of what was happening.

Another possibility is that the company is so large that there are no significant competitive pressures that can affect it in real time. Mega corporations have such huge inertia that it takes a long time for a pathological management philosophy to cause enough damage to be noticed (and therefore to force self-examination.)

Nevertheless, Industry as a whole continues to recognize the need for self-examination and the improvement of Team dynamics. That is why companies like Integris Performance Advisors exist. (I am not advertising for them but just use them as an example, and because the balance of this blog is based on their take on this blog’s subject.)

How do teams make good decisions?

That is the question I want to address today. If you go to the website link above you can read in detail their exposition. Their viewpoint is based on the “The Five Behaviors® model” for teams (Trust, Conflict, Commitment, Accountability, and Results).  

team disucssing options on a white board

The gist is that for a Team (an organization) to obtain results, it will have to make decisions among multiple choices. Since the choices are different and the people making up the team have different personalities, different opinions, and different goals (the team members can come from different parts of the organization), the decision-making process is an exercise in conflict resolution, with the ultimate goal to obtain the commitment to go forward with the chosen action.

Note that conflict, as a result of multiple viewpoints, is a good thing. A leader who short cuts the decision-making process by dictating the choice to be made is wasting the power of the Team’s diversity.

The website lists 6 possible approaches to making a decision:

  1. Reach Unanimous Team Decisions
  2. Solve Using Democratic Team Votes
  3. Come to a Compromise
  4. Postpone a Decision
  5. Decide to Not Decide
  6. Disagree and Commit

All these involve discussions that require every team member to explain their viewpoint and listen to the opposing viewpoints, and honestly analyze the pros and cons.

Clearly, we all would prefer #1. And it can happen. But you would expect it to be rare. In such a case I would think that either the problem to be solved was trivial, not enough viewpoints (choices) made it to the table, or a unanimous decision was achieved because team members chose to compromise immediately rather than deal with the (uncomfortable) conflict necessary to ensure every voice is heard. (Again, that would be a waste of the power of Team diversity.)

Number 2, the choice by democratic vote or “majority rules”, is tried and true. This requires that the discussion (and negotiation) successfully reduce the number of choices to 2 or 3, and the group leader then determines that voting is the most expedient way to choose. Now, I quote directly from the website’s explanation:

The democratic vote is an accepted way to reach a decision, and the losing side is usually able to accept that they have been heard, a different option has been chosen, and that they now need to rally behind the decision the majority has made.”

Option #3, Come to a compromise, will be the necessary approach when the team members supporting “opposing” choices are passionate about their position and not willing to give in lightly. Then the tactic has to be to find the areas of overlap where both sides can come together.

If the reader is starting to feel uneasy about the concept of compromise, let me point out that for the Team to succeed, it has to reach a decision that receives the commitment from the whole team, so that the chosen action can be pursued wholeheartedly by everyone.

Why everyone?

Because if the action chosen fails, we all fail together.

This is what I meant when I said, in Industry, “we are all in the same boat.” What is good for you, is good for me; because if the company prospers, we all prosper. Or, as God told Jeremiah to tell the people of Judah, the people He was sending off on exile to Babylon:

Jeremiah 29:7 And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray unto Jehovah for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.

The IntegrisPA website says it this way:

If a compromise can be reached, both sides feel they have been heard, and, while the solution doesn’t provide either camp with everything they wanted, it is workable for everyone. Most importantly, all members can continue to do their jobs and achieve team goals without a loss of unity.”

Options #4 and #5 may seem counterintuitive:  Why would you Postpone a decision? One reason is you may be trying to force a decision without enough data. If the Team feels that they cannot accurately “count the cost” of some of the choices on the table, it would be foolish to go on. More work needs to be done by everyone to get actionable choices. Similarly, Decide not to decide is the right decision when none of the choices before us is good enough. Again, more work is needed, more ideas (viewpoints) are needed to come up with a viable alternative.

In either of these two cases, I recommend that the Team leader set a deadline for reconvening the team, and assign the stakeholders the task of getting as much data as possible on the problem, and brainstorm on new possible solutions before that next meeting.

Number 6, Disagree and commit, is my favorite because it is so realistic. We may have tried finding a compromise but it just is not working. After honest open discussion some of the Team members may see the value of the opposing point and change their opinion but not everyone. What do you do then?

Remember, not reaching a decision that everybody is willing to commit to is not an option. We all sink together or we all sail together. So, here is where the Project leader, the person ultimately responsible for the task to be accomplished (could be the “boss” but not always) has to make the choice. This is how the website explains it:

Here’s how you can disagree and still commit to the final decision:

  • Acknowledge what you have heard.
  • Ask the other side to consider additional information or a different viewpoint. 
  • Accept that the other person’s priorities may differ from yours, and that, if it’s their project, they have to make the decision.
  • Support your coworkers in implementing the decision that has been reached.

As a team, it’s important for every team member, every department head, and the executives in charge, to understand why they need to participate fully in the discussion and then be willing to commit to implementation of the decision.”

The secret to success:

Did you notice, in the above, the key common denominator to successful implementation of these approaches? I underlined it every time it appeared: Once the decision is made, everybody supports the implementation of that decision, regardless of whether the choice made was your favorite or not.

group of people on a mountain at dusk

That’s what makes a team successful. That is how real-life work gets done in Industry, because if the Company prospers, we all prosper. If you cannot honestly accept this, then you are in the wrong Company. Why are you still working here?

If you have ever been trained in the Karrass Negotiation Seminars, you recognize this directive as the “win win” strategy. In every negotiation, the goal is to find the solution that gives a win to both sides.

The skills that promote good team decisions are not just needed in Industry. The principles apply to almost all the interactions we have with other people because chances are they don’t think about things the same way we do; and we are all in this boat (life) together.

Were we ever a Team?

Now, I invite the reader to identify which, if any, of these team decision approaches is used by politicians today. And I don’t mean at the Federal level only, but also at the State level, and maybe even at the City government level. For that matter, forget politics. Is this how we, as American citizens, approach the civic decisions of our time?

Can you remember the last time that we, as a people, agreed to commit fully together to support a decision that impacts all of us, so as to ensure that it was carried to its most successful conclusion possible (regardless of whether that decision was our preferred choice or not)?

(And before any one of us plays the “God” card (Acts 4:19) we all need to acknowledge that the civic decisions of our time that may directly violate God’s Word are a small percentage of all the decisions our public servants make day in and day out.)

Doesn’t it feel like the standard modus operandi of our day is: “If you don’t do what I want, I am going to stand back and drag my heels and wait until you fail”? I hope that we all realize that that is a self-fulfilling prophecy because we are all in the same boat. It doesn’t matter who is at the helm… when the boat hits that iceberg, we are all going down.

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