Friday, April 18, 2014

The leverage of small teams

Author Norman Maclean challenges his readers to address: "What the structure of a small outfit should be when its business is to meet sudden danger and prevent disaster".

With the current flattening of organizations, the day-to-day emphasis on team work in small work units, and the demonstrated potential that a small group can make a decision wielding enormous business leverage (how big was the team that decided to attack the World Trade Center in 2001?), Maclean's challenge is particularly timely.

In thinking about how to answer, you might consider:
  • Team structure (and protocols)
  • Various models of behavior (tolerance or not for chaos and change, etc)
  • Structured frameworks for change process, etc
  • Empowerment of improvisation (Mann-gulch),
  • Virtual small team loose coupling to collective culture (the work of Geert Hofstede on culture), and
  • Norms of respect (talk truth to power, etc)
Sudden danger certainly brings trust into the frame: would you trust a stranger to get you out of trouble? Perhaps, if there's no one else around, but your instincts are certainly going to be to turn to someone you can trust. And, trust and safety are certainly constituents of successful teams. My experience: trust doesn't scale too far, so the smaller the better as regards a close knit.

Preventing disaster sounds like there could be advance planning and premeditation to put the right protocols in place -- fire, flood, nuclear breakdown, etc. But also practicing the escape mechanism -- some may be on-the-shelf and largely untested -- do they actually work as intended?

The Gulf oil spill of a few years ago comes to mind. Sometimes, the small team on duty in the middle of the night is all there is between disaster and just another day at the office.

And, how does a structured framework for decision making process and decision fulfillment really work when stressed to the limit? My experience is that they are often tossed overboard pretty rapidly to be replaced by some process that is stress resilient.

Indeed, I often asked: why don't we use the latter routinely? Why is it the extreme solution instead of the usual solution? Answers: too expensive for long term sustainability and lack of scalability. "It" works on a small scale among a trusted and dedicated group, but not likely as the team grows into a "group".

Improvisation saved a few in the Mann-Gulch fire disaster, and many such disasters since. For a good reading on this one, go the link in the first sentence of this posting.

Intellectually, we probably all know that culture either encourages or impedes quick reaction responses to extreme situations, including the cultural acceptance of talking truth to power (and, by the way, the power respecting the message and the messenger).

But, its hard to push culture through an Internet cable. So, sometimes a small team is more like a small group and does not really have the advantages of a close knit team. For example, the norms of small close knit teams are almost always sufficiently informal that the message is aired and the substance often gets heard.

So, one summary observation: as you empower small teams you are empowering leverage: the ability to have large influence with modest effort... Can you handle it?

Read in the library at Square Peg Consulting about these books I've written
Buy them at any online book retailer!
Read my contribution to the Flashblog