A few years ago, I read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and it remains to be, for me, one of the most practical and applicable management books. Patrick Lencioni, the author of that book, has published a number of other books which have received high reviews as well, and I decided to read one of his more recent ones The Advantage – Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.
The main premise of this book is that:
The single greatest advantage any company can achieve is organizational health. Yet it is ignored by most leaders even though it is simply free, and available to anyone who wants it.
Sounds simple, so why is it that difficult?
But before leaders can tap into the power of organizational health, they must humble themselves enough to overcome the three biases that prevent them from embracing it. The Sophistication Bias: Organizational health is so simple and accessible that many leaders have a hard time seeing it as a real opportunity for meaningful advantage…The Adrenaline Bias: Becoming a healthy organization takes a little time. Unfortunately, many of the leaders I’ve worked with suffer from a chronic case of adrenaline addiction, seemingly hooked on the daily rush of activity and firefighting within their organizations…The Quantification Bias: The benefits of becoming a healthy organization, as powerful as they are, are difficult to accurately quantify.
What exactly is organizational health and how do I recognize it?
A good way to recognize health is to look for the signs that indicate an organization has it. These include minimal politics and confusion, high degrees of morale and productivity, and very low turnover among good employees…And so a good way to look at organizational health -and one that executives seem to respond to readily— is to see it as the multiplier of intelligence. The healthier an organization is, the more of its intelligence it is able to tap into and use. Most organizations exploit only a fraction of the knowledge. experience, and intellectual capital that is available to them. But the healthy ones tap into almost all of it. That, as much as anything else, is why they have such an advantage over their unhealthy competitors.
How do we create it, or get there?
An organization doesn’t become healthy in a linear, tidy fashion. Like building a strong marriage or family, it’s a messy process that involves doing a few things at once, and it must be maintained on an ongoing basis in order to be preserved. Still, that messy process can be broken down into four simple disciplines: Discipline 1: Build a cohesive leadership team…Discipline 2: Create Clarity…Discipline 3…Overcommunicate Clarity…Discipline 4: Reinforce Clarity.
On the first discipline – building a leadership team, let us start with the fundamentals, with the definition:
A leadership team is a small group of people who are collectively responsible for achieving a common objective for their organization…This is perhaps the most important distinction between a working group and a real leadership team. Collective responsibility implies, more than anything else, selflessness and shared sacrifices from team members.
What are the key behaviors of a leadership team:
On building trust:
Members of a truly cohesive team must trust one another. I realize that sounds like the most patently obvious statement ever made, something that every organization understands and values. As a result, you’d think that most leadership teams would be pretty good at building trust. As it turns out, they aren’t, and I think a big part of it is that they have the wrong idea about what trust is…The kind of trust that is necessary to build a great team is what I call vulnerability-based trust. This is what happens when members get to a point where they are completely comfortable being transparent. honest, and naked with one another, where they say and genuinely mean things like “I screwed up,” “I need help,” “Your idea is better than mine,” ‘T wish I could learn to do that as well as you do,” and even, “I’m sorry”…Trust is just one of five behaviors that cohesive teams must establish to build a healthy organization. However, it is by far the most important of the five because it is the foundation for the others. Simply stated, it makes teamwork possible. Only when teams build vulnerability-based trust do they put themselves in a position to embrace the other four behaviors, the next of which is the mastery of conflict.
On mastering conflict:
Contrary to popular wisdom and behavior, conflict is not a bad thing for a team. In fact, the fear of conflict is almost always a sign of problems. Of course, the kind of conflict I’m referring to here is not the nasty kind that centers around people or personalities. Rather, it is what I call productive ideological conflict, the willingness to disagree, even passionately when necessary, around important issues and decisions that must be made. But this can only happen when there is trust…When leadership team members fail to disagree around issues, not only are they increasing the likelihood of losing respect for one another and encountering destructive conflict later when people start griping in the hallways, they’re also making bad decisions and letting down the people they’re supposed to be serving. And they do this all in the name of being “nice.”
On achieving commitment:
The reason that conflict is so important is that a team cannot achieve commitment without it. People will not actively commit to a decision if they have not had the opportunity to provide input, ask questions, and understand the rationale behind it. Another way to say this is, “If people don’t weigh in, they can’t buy in.”
On embracing accountability:
Even well-intentioned members of a team need to be held accountable if a team is going to stick to its decisions and accomplish its goals. In some cases, people will deviate from a plan or a decision knowingly, tempted to do something that is in their individual best interest but not that of the team. In other cases, people will stray without realizing it, getting distracted or caught up in the pushes and pulls of daily work. In either case, it’s the job of the team to call those people out and keep them in line…At its core, accountability is about having the courage to confront someone about their deficiencies and then to stand in the moment and deal with their reaction, which may not be pleasant. It is a selfless act, one rooted in a word that I don’t use lightly in a business book: love. To hold someone accountable is to care about them enough to risk having them blame you for pointing out their deficiencies.
On focusing on results:
The ultimate point of building greater trust, conflict, commitment, and accountability is one thing: the achievement of results. That certainly seems obvious, but as it turns out, one of the greatest challenges to team success is the inattention to results. What would members of an executive team be focused on if not the results of their organization? Well, for one, the results of their department. Too many leaders seem to have a greater affinity for and loyalty to the department they lead rather than the team they’re a member of and the organization they are supposed to be collectively serving. Other distractions include a concern for individual career development, budget allocations, status, and ego, all of them common distractions that prevent teams from being obsessed with achieving results…The only way for a team to really be a team and to maximize its output is to ensure that everyone is focused on the same priorities— rowing in the same direction, if you will.
The second discipline is about Creating Clarity:
The second requirement for building a healthy organization—creating clarity—is all about achieving alignment. This is a word that is used incessantly by leaders, consultants, and organizational theorists, and yet for all the attention it gets, real alignment remains frustratingly rare. Most executives who run organizations—and certainly the employees who work for them—will readily this.
This is done by answering six fundamental questions:
1. Why do we exist? 2. How do we behave? 3. What do we do? 4. How will we succeed? 5. What is most important, right now? 6. Who must do what?
On what do we do:
If an organization’s reason for existence answers the Question, Why?, then its business definition answers the question. What? It’s critical that it be clear and straightforward. It should not be crafted so that it also be used in marketing material. The point is just to make sure that the leadership team is crystal clear about, and can accurately describe, the nature of the organization’s business so that they don’t create confusion within the rest of the company or, for that matter, in the market. It’s as simple as that.
On how we will succeed:
We came to realize that the best way for an organization to make strategy practical is to boil it down to three strategic anchors that will be used to inform every decision the organization makes and provide the filter or lens through which decisions must be evaluated to ensure consistency. Strategic anchors provide the context for all decision making and help companies avoid the temptation to make purely pragmatic and opportunistic decisions that so often end up diminishing a company’s plan for success.
On who must do that:
There is not a great deal to be said about this particular question, aside from warning leadership teams not to take it for granted. Although there is often clarity among executives in most organizations about who does what on the team, making assumptions about that clarity can lead to surprising and unnecessary problems.
The third discipline is Overcommunicating Clarity:
What those leaders fail to realize is that employees understand the need for repetition. They know that messaging is not so much an Intellectual process as an emotional one. Employees are not analyzing what leaders are saying based solely on whether it is intellectually novel or compelling, but more than anything else on whether they believe the leaders are serious, authentic, and committed to what they are saying. Again, that means repetition is a must.
The fourth and last discipline is Reinforcing Clarity:
As important as overcommunication is, leaders of a healthy organization cannot always be around to remind employees about the company’s reason for existing, its values, and so on. In order to ensure that the answers to the six critical questions become embedded in the fabric of the organization, leaders must do everything they can to reinforce them structurally as well. The way to do that is to make sure that every human system every process that involves people—from hiring and people management to training and compensation, is designed to reinforce the answers to those questions. The challenge is to do this without adding too much structure.
A concluding reminder that success in creating healthy organization rests on the leaders of the organization:
There is just no escaping the fact that the single biggest factor determining whether an organization is going to get healthier—or not—is the genuine commitment and active involvement of the person in charge. For a company, that’s the CEO. For a small business, it’s the owner. For a school, it’s the principal. For a church, it’s the pastor. For a department within a company, it’s the department head. At every step in the process, the leader must be out front, not as a cheerleader or a figurehead, but as an active, tenacious driver.
While there is a considerable effort involved, there is also a substantial reward:
At the end of the day, at the end of our careers, when we look back at the many initiatives that we poured ourselves into, few other activities will seem more worthy of our effort and more impactful on the lives of others, than making our organizations healthy.
A recommended read in the area of organizational leadership and management. If you have not read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, I highly recommend you read that one first.