Category Archives: Teamwork

The Sound of Silence

I have talked about speaking up in business several times. Conversely I have also cited the American humorist Will Rogers on several occasions for his immortal line “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” Unfortunately while I may cite Will Rogers, I rarely follow his advice as I have created issues far more often by speaking up than I have by remaining quiet. You would think I would learn. I think those of you who know me are not surprised that I haven’t.

I’ll paraphrase another American comedian Ron Wood, and say that while I may have the right to remain silent, I rarely seem to have the ability to remain silent. But I’ll continue to work on it.

In business for the greater part we are all knowledge workers. That means that we provide and deliver our value to the organization in the form of our abilities to recognize and process information in the pursuit of the organization’s goals. Equally important is what is done with the information once it has been processed. Having information and not communicating it in an organization is almost as useless as not having the information at all. What good is having a solution if you don’t communicate it? So, our value is not just the knowledge we have but also our desire and ability to communicate to and with others.

Not everyone thinks, or processes information the same way. This is actually a very good thing for all involved.

Unless you are my wife. It seems to significantly frustrate her that I think so differently from her. She doesn’t understand how I can be so wrong so often when it comes to communicating with her. I guess I will continue to work on that too.

A healthy organization should have a healthy diversity of input from the team members. There should be an ongoing dialog on almost all topics as new issues are worked and old ones revisited for potential improvements. As the speed of business continues to increase and the time and distance associated with business decrease, it is probably safe to say that the conditions that were in place when a decision was made have changed.

The point here is that an ongoing dialog on a wide range of topics is important to the health and success of any team. Argument and examination by their very nature end up generating stronger solutions through addressing potential weaknesses to proposed solutions. But how far can or should a leader allow this dialog to go? When does continued discussion actually start to become dissension in the ranks?

Depending on the commitment of the team members and the trust of the team leader, I think the simple answer here is that ongoing discussion, even regarding previously “closed” topics should never be viewed as dissension. The reason is simple.

If you silence a differing opinion on one topic, you may have unknowingly also silenced that opinion on any of several other topics. No one likes to be told to shut up. Will Rogers was talking about our own self control, not the imposed control of others. If one is told to be quiet often enough on certain topics, they may of their own volition start to extend their reticence to other unintentional topics. And since no one is right all the time, there may in fact come a time when there will be a need for the knowledge that the differing opinion represents to generate the issue solution, and it may not be forthcoming.

A healthy organization has a strong amount of dialog going on between the members themselves and between the members and the leader. As ideas are generated and alternatives considered the discourse should increase. This again points out the difficult transition that would be leaders must make: that of moving from the position of generating and defending ideas to one of encouraging and acting on the ideas of others.

Most managers attain their position because they were able to generate and defend good solutions to multiple issues. This engenders a type behavior. However once they are in a leadership role it is no longer the sole behavior that they must demonstrate. Their new role must evolve into a utilization and growth of others to generate and defend good solutions. Hence the needs for the ongoing give and take between the leader and the team members.

But what happens if the manager doesn’t change? What becomes of the team dynamic if the person who was rewarded for generating good ideas continues to insist on generating all the good ideas?

The first indication that this managerial centralization of solution ideas is occurring is when the team communication starts to become reduced. Instead of a continuous stream of new proposals and iterations on older issues, there is less and less that is put forth. If the manager is going to generate the solution anyway, why not remain silent and wait for it.

As I noted earlier, no one likes to be told to be quiet. Whether it is directly in the form of publicly shooting down the proposals, or tacitly in the form of quietly just disregarding their input, no one likes to see or feel that their intellectual work is being disregarded, or continuously superseded by someone else intellectual work. If it happens often enough, team members will have a tendency to just shut down. They may work out the issues, but they just won’t bring forth the proposals and solutions if they don’t feel they will at least be honestly analyzed for function and purpose.

They in effect go silent and just wait to be told what to do. Either that or they have a tendency to leave for other organizations.

I’ve discussed the difference between compliance and commitment in the past. Commitment comes from team members feeling that their input and ideas are valued. That doesn’t mean that their ideas must always be selected. It means that they should be discussed. Rarely is an individual’s entire proposal invalidated. There are always pieces of it that can and should be incorporated into the final solution.

As leaders, the discussion and selection process associated with functional strategies and solution implementation is delicate. Selecting and supporting the stronger aspects of the team’s work while acknowledging and remanding back the less applicable aspects for further work can be a tightrope like balance. Be too harsh a critic and risk alienating the team. Not be demanding enough and risk allowing less than optimal ideas and work into the process.

When faced with this type of conundrum it is easy to see why the default response may be to drive harder. It is also easier now to see why so many organizations seem to be getting quieter. If the manager believes that the best person to rely on is themselves, then why does there need to be a dialog.

Issue identification, goal and strategy setting, and problem resolution should not be quiet activities. They are the basis of all business progress. The noted past conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Erich Leinsdorf once said when discussing the music that he believed in friction and that without it there could be no progress.

Here was a leader (orchestra conductor) who had to lead as many as one hundred and twenty different team members (musicians), each with an instrument with a discrete voice, in the playing of some of the most complex symphonies in history. Each musician needed to play and contribute, but within the structure set by the conductor in the creation of the end product. In his time that organization was credited with some of its finest performances.

It is often thought that the conductor simply tells the musicians what to play and how to play it. Leinsdorf is credited with changing the process so that when he wanted something, he didn’t just demand it. He asked for it, and explained why he wanted it. The results and the performance reviews spoke to the success of his approach.

As business moves more and more to virtual types of office arrangements, and meetings become more like phone calls, the office continues to become a quieter and quieter environment. Managers can mistakenly interpret this phenomenon as the tacit agreement with their plans and policies. I think in most instances it is not.

I think the new office arrangements and business dynamics have only served to exacerbate some of these management tendencies. Regardless, there seems to be a large number of organizations that like in the old western movies, it can be said that things are quiet, almost too quiet. And the sound that silence makes should speak volumes as to where the ideas and solutions (as well as the future leaders) are, or in most cases are not coming from.

Do We Still Want Teams

It seems that throughout our lives we have been indoctrinated into the idea and benefits of teamwork. I think it starts off when we are children and our parents sign us up for the various team sports that are available. Whether it is little league soccer (or football to my European friends), or little league baseball or youth football (American football, again for my European friends), many of us have been conditioned to want to be part of the team. While this may in fact be a good socializing activity for children, I am beginning to wonder if the current idea of teams and what they have evolved to in business, may have outlived its usefulness in the business game.

Those that know me probably can try to understand how I can possibly question such a basic and heartfelt tenet of business. Everybody else is probably wondering what planet I am actually from. Please bear with me as I go through some of the observations and thinking (or lack of thinking as the case may be) that are going into these questions regarding business teams.

A little background first. I actually played little league baseball as a kid. I wasn’t real good, but I wasn’t bad either. I played third base. As I recall, I didn’t enjoy it all that much. You only really get to play when a ball is hit to you, or it’s your turn to bat. The rest of the time it seemed to go pretty slow.

I moved on. I took up tennis. It was more active, more involved, more of an individual sport. By this I mean that there were usually only me and my opponent on the court at any one time. Oddly enough I was also part of the tennis team. However the difference here was that whether I won or lost was not the result of how the rest of the tennis team played. No one could “pinch hit” for me. I could win and the team could lose. I could lose and the team could win. The success of the tennis team was the result of the sum of the successes of each of the individuals on the team.

It was interesting in that no one individual could win a baseball game, but I guess it could be construed that an individual could lose one. An example would be the baseball player that commits the error that allows the winning run to score. It was also interesting that no team could win a tennis match. It was solely up to the individual performance as to who won or lost.

It was also interesting to note that whether you won or lost was the key. That was the reason you kept score. Unlike today, there were no “participation” trophies. I’ll leave that rant for another time.

As another aside, I think there have been several attempts to create a “Team Tennis” league or format over the years. I don’t think any of them have been successful. It seems the public is not buying into the idea that you can turn what is viewed as in individual contest into a team sport.

When you look at great advancements and successes in business you rarely have them associated with a “team”. You have Bill Gates, and to a much lesser extent Steve Ballmer and Paul Allen at Microsoft. You have Steve Jobs and again to a lesser extent and Steve Wozniak at Apple. If you want to look at historical game changers look at Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. You don’t hear about their teams. You hear about them, and how they led the way and what they did to succeed.

Teams seem to only be good if a leader steps up and provides the vision and direction and an unwillingness to accept anything other than the attainment of the goal. At that point “the” team actually seems to become “their” team. I am sure that there were many others involved with the successes attributed to the men I listed above, but it was the leadership and the force of will associated with the names listed that actually carried the day. The teams may have been good, but it seems that in many instances it was the individuals that were better.

I have written in the past that I believe the consensus environment present in business these days is the evolution of a defensive mindset. The appreciation and value associated with success seems to be overshadowed by the fear and avoidance of making a mistake. The consensus environment has evolved as a way to homogenize the business decision making process. If consensus is achieved there is a security in knowing that if the wrong decision was made, everyone else made it too and the blame will be equally spread.

More and more it seems that teams are created not to achieve a goal, but to achieve a consensus.

If we look at Gates, Jobs, Ford, Edison and Tesla, it is apparent that there were in fact teams associated with their achievements. But they were not the teams of today. They were teams that were organized and structured specifically to realize the vision of the individual. There are many stories associated with each individual where they would not accept less than their vision or compromise their goals based on the input of the rest of the team. There are also stories associated with what the teams went through in order to achieve the visions and goals of the leader.

There was never a question about a consensus or who would be responsible for any failures associated with the team.

They understood that if there was a failure, it was their failure, not the teams. Their team was an extension of their drive and direction. They also seemed to have a different definition or approach to failure. Thomas Edison had this to say about failure:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 1,000 ways that won’t work.”

Bill Gates had this to say about failure:

“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

And finally, Steve Jobs said:

“Embrace every failure. Own it, learn from it, and take full responsibility for making sure that next time, things will turn out differently.”

These were leaders that failed and were not afraid to fail again. They didn’t like failure. They hated it. They didn’t accept failure as the final decision. If they failed, they viewed it as temporary and something to learn from. They moved on and found another way to succeed. They didn’t stop until they succeeded.

In the team built, consensus oriented business environments of today it appears that company and organizational teams are more afraid of the perception of failure, no matter how transitory than they are driven by the need for success. These leaders understood that success had to be driven, that failure was to be learned from, and that mitigating responsibility for it was not part of the plan.

The team that was once organized to fulfill the vision of the leader seems now to be structured to protect the team members from the stain of possible failure. The avoidance of the responsibility for failure seems to have limited the team’s value as well as its ability to succeed. If everyone on the team must agree on a direction if the team is to move forward, then the team only moves forward very slowing.

If the structure and value of a team has indeed been reduced to furthering the consensus approach to doing business, is it time to step away from it? Gates and Jobs and all the others were very successful without it. Or rather, they built their teams to specifically follow their vision. The fear of failure didn’t paralyze them. They weren’t really all that interested in a consensus. They all knew failure for what it was and used it as the springboard for their next attempt.

Perhaps it is time to get back to vesting the responsibility for performance and success with the individual, instead of the team. If the individual has responsibility then there will be an entirely different dynamic in the team’s work process. It will no longer be so focused on getting everyone to “buy in” or agree on the direction to be taken. It will be more about each individual member of the team delivering on their responsibilities in alignment with the leader’s vision. As noted, those leaders never accepted failure as the final outcome and found a way.

It seemed to work pretty well for some pretty successful individuals.


What is the first question that gets asked when something goes wrong? This should be an easy one for everybody. The first question that is asked after something goes wrong, or not according to plan is: Who is to blame? It seems to be built into our DNA that we look for someone to blame. This process has evolved into an art form in recent times. It is now even the subject for tongue in cheek commercials, which in my book means blaming someone else for our own performance (good or bad) is now part of our social, and business fabric.

If we happen to fall off a ladder, we blame the ladder manufacturer for not putting a warning label of some sort on the ladder that clearly states that ladders are in fact dangerous pieces of equipment and that the scaling of them should not be attempted by the uncoordinated, clumsy or stupid. Going even further, the epitome of this blaming cultural art form has to be the getting burned by spilling hot coffee in our laps and then blaming the provider of the hot coffee for providing coffee that is too hot. The fact that “spilling” the coffee was involved seems to have been left out of this picture.

I have digressed, but I think you get the picture. Since childhood we have been conditioned to create excuses or blame others for our behaviors. “The dog ate my homework” has moved into our cultural lexicon, as a method of blaming an unexpected external event for not having an assignment completed. “The sun was in my eyes” likewise has evolved into a catch-all method of blaming external factors for not being able to perform an expected function. The bottom line here is that we like to blame other people, issues, factors and things for when we fail to meet expectations. The fact that the dog may have been around for years or that the sun has been around since well before the dawn of man and is a known source of glare, both of which could have and should have been taken into account during preparations, is conveniently not mentioned.

All of this evolution and history of the culture and art of passing the blame for our inability to achieve our objectives or to succeed in completing our tasks brings us to business. I think we have all been around people who are never at fault for missing their goals. They are artful. They are glib. They are eloquent. But they are not leaders. They usually elicit looks from their peers that are normally reserved for politicians, used car salesmen and poorly trained puppies that may have tried their best but just couldn’t seem to go on the paper.

The simple fact is that sometimes in business things do not go the way we hoped, expected or planned. It can be for reasons that are outside of our control or within our control. It doesn’t matter. For whatever reason the job didn’t get done. It happens. I will now impart to you the best phrase to use when creating excuses and placing blame when this type of situation occurs:

“It was my responsibility.”

Stand up. Look in the mirror and recognize the person responsible. Regardless of what happened you shouldn’t get to blame anyone else. Leaders understand this.

It may not have been their fault that the objective was not achieved, but it was their responsibility to achieve the objective.

Other leaders recognize this. It is the leader’s responsibility to put the team in a position to succeed. That means they need to provide the appropriate resources (time, money, people, there really are no other resources than these) to get the job done. If the team doesn’t succeed you cannot blame the team. It is the leader’s responsibility to put the team in a position to succeed.

It is the leader’s responsibility to put the right people on the team. If the right people are not on the team it is not the team’s fault. The team will do the best that it can with the people that are selected for it. It is the leader’s responsibility to foresee the potential issues and roadblocks to the team’s success. It is not the team’s fault that the unexpected occurred. The team is in place at the direction of the leader. A leader needs to be prepared with alternative and back-up plans in case the unexpected does unexpectedly occur.

In business as with falling off a ladder, we seem all too prepared to place the blame for any missed achievements on others. We are all too willing to place the blame elsewhere for our own lack of performance. We also seem to be all too willing to allow others to exhibit the same blame shifting behavior. The blaming art form has given rise to a new activity and the creation of a new word to deal with the blame generation process:

“Blamestorming”: The Oxford Dictionary defines blamestorming as: Group discussion regarding the assigning of responsibility for a failure or mistake. The Urban Dictionary defines it as: Sitting around in a group, discussing why a deadline was missed or a project failed, and identifying a scapegoat. Check out:–BLAMESTORMING

No team is mistake free when it comes to the execution of their responsibilities. No team achieves one hundred percent of their objectives one hundred percent of the time. No team should be blamed for this fact. Just as the leader should acknowledge and attribute all team successes to the team, the leader should NOT blame the team for any failures associated with the team’s performance. Just as the leader receives their credit for the team’s performance from the fact that they enabled the team to be successful, so should they take responsibility for not enabling the team’s success.

Blame is a funny thing to me. I think it openly diminishes the one doing the blaming. However it also seems to unavoidably diminish the one being blamed. Once the accusation is made or the blame assigned, at least some of the stigma associated with that event will remain, regardless if the accusation or blame is proved to be unfounded. That to me is a lose – lose proposition. There is no benefit to be gained by anyone by trying to assign blame anywhere.

The leader that stands up and takes responsibility, and does not look to attribute blame to anyone else, will again be the leader that is looked up to by their team and will be respected by their peers. Just as the leader receives some of the credit even though they attribute the success to the performance of their team, they will also not receive all the blame by taking responsibility for the issues associated with the missed achievements by the team.

I know it goes against just about everything we have seen and been taught to this point of our lives, and it also seems to go against what is now accepted as the cultural norm but when it comes to issues in business I just can’t see the value in someone uttering the professional equivalent of “The dog ate my presentation” or “the fluorescent lights were in my eyes” when not taking responsibility for their performance.


I singled out a team member from another leader’s organization during an organizational leadership meeting the other day to make sure that he was recognized for the great work he had done in supporting me and my team on a very difficult assignment. Even though I got to report the progress, I thought it was important that the person most responsible for the work received the recognition for the job well done. His senior leadership thanked me for the acknowledgement. I didn’t remember getting thanked very often for acknowledging another team’s individual member in the past. I got the subtle feeling that this sort of acknowledgement behavior may not have been the norm.

This small interchange got me to thinking again. This is always a dangerous process as I am never sure where it is going to lead me, but I thought anyway. I started remembering back in my career to try and pinpoint when and where I adopted and implemented the position that a leader should not take the credit for the successes and good performance of the team.

I can remember working for managers that did not seem to ascribe to this approach to team acknowledgement. We probably all have. It has been a while and I find myself searching my memories for how I felt about it. I would have to say my memories and feeling about it were mixed. I remember feeling proud that the work I had done was being recognized as noteworthy, but I also remember feeling at least a little bit slighted that the manager was individually receiving the accolades.

I can also remember the first time I was singled out and recognized by a leader for delivering an important work product for the organization. There was the same pride in the work, but also a little more pride associated with the specific acknowledgement.

Business is about competition. On the higher levels one business competes with another for available customers and revenue. Organizations within the business compete (and work in concert) with each of the other organizations within the business for funding and growth opportunities. To illustrate this organizational competition just take a look at the budgeting process and how the available funding and growth are allocated in the next year’s plan.

There is also competition within and amongst the various organizations on an individual level as well. There is usually a general desire by individuals within an organization to matriculate upwards in the organization to positions of greater responsibility, and compensation. This is not always the case as there are those that find a role and level that they are happy with and do not try to go farther, but in general this desire for upward progress in the organization is a given.

The competitive issue arises in that as you progress further and further up the organizational charts, the number of positions available to advance to becomes smaller and smaller. Individual contributors usually wish to become managers, who in turn want to be one of a fewer number of senior managers, who in turn want to be one of still fewer directors who in turn want to be one of even fewer vice presidents, and so on.

As an individual contributor we get the opportunity to be specifically acknowledged for the work we do. There probably isn’t anyone else doing the specific work the individual is doing so this is okay. Individuals who do good work seem to be the first ones to be recognized and promoted to the management levels. This begins and reinforces a process where the desire for individual recognition is seen as a key requirement for promotion and advancement.

The issue here is that as you are promoted and rise in the organization the amount of solution content that each individual manager adds to the delivered work product begins to change and decrease. The individual delivering a project has a great deal of input and relationship to the final work product. The director (two to three levels higher in the organization) of the individual delivering the project may be able to provide guidance and directional input on the project but probably limited to little specific content. It is still the individual that is delivering it.

I know I have, and I suspect that many others have worked for managers (a generic term to be applied to people at all relative levels of an organizational hierarchy) who never seemed to advance beyond the need for receiving that individual recognition. These are the type of individuals that seem to gladly accept the full recognition for the work delivered by the entire team. They are a team manager but they are still thinking and acting like an individual contributor.

There are and will always be instances of the type of management behavior being rewarded. It is not however a sign of leadership and at least in my experience seems to be a behavior which eventually catches up with the individual. Leaders eventually identify this type of behavior and react negatively to it.

Leaders understand that their role becomes more strategic and directional, the higher up in the organization they go. They may identify the issue, prioritize the project, and provide the funding and staf
fing to see to it that it can be completed, but they do not perform the work product themselves. They know others must do this, as they have other issues to identify, prioritize and act on. They also know that those who actually do perform the work product should be recognized when they succeed.

These are the types of leaders that are recognized by their teams as a leader to be valued because they know that they will be recognized and rewarded for their efforts. What may not be so widely known is that these are leaders are also valued by other leaders as being able to successfully assemble quality teams that identify and resolve the issues they are faced with. When a leader publicly recognizes the efforts and abilities of the individuals on the team who successfully delivered on their objectives, they are also tacitly pointing out that they as leaders put together that team and put them in the position to be successful.

Giving credit where credit is due is the sure sign of a leader. A leader knows they are in charge and ultimately responsible for the delivery and success of any project. That does not mean that they have the right to, or should assume all the credit for the delivery and success of the project. On the contrary. The leader that understands their role in the project, who focuses on and enables the success of the others on the team, and then makes sure that they are recognized and acknowledged for their success, is also usually the one that gets the most credit without ever having to ask for it.

Beware of the Tiger….Team

There are many corporate animals in the organization, but one that has the potential to do so much good, also has the capability to cause significant harm. That corporate “animal” is the Tiger Team. Tiger Teams normally evolve from some sort of issue that has lingered unresolved for a significant amount of time. When senior most management’s frustration with the current problem owners group’s inability to drive a resolution boils over, they will create the Tiger Team. This is when scarce resources will be thrown at the problem.


Every manager has a reasonable idea of who their best performers, problem solvers and go-to for solution people are. These are also usually some of their busiest people. When a problem reaches a certain age, or criticality, it is usually these people who are called on. They become members of the Tiger team, and begin work on the solution.


In many instances this will be the end. The team will form, the team will work, and the team will solve the problem and move on. Case closed.


However in some instances Tiger Team members can be drawn from one group to help solve the problems of a second group, and placed under the temporary management of someone from a third group. There are now at least three members of management (and possibly more) that feel they have at least some claim to that resources time and the prioritization of their work.


Unless reporting lines are very clearly drawn, and work is very clearly prioritized, some of the most highly regarded resources in the organization have now been put in a very difficult situation. How are they supposed to arbitrate between the demands of so many different members of senior management? If they were working close to or at capacity before, which work will be delayed based on the additional duties required by the Tiger Team? If left on their own to decide, whatever direction they choose will leave at least one and possibly more managers unhappy because their work requirements were not met.


The key elements of a successful Tiger Team are the understanding by all members of the entire organization what the work priorities, and the leadership priorities of the Tiger Team are with respect to the entire organization. If the work of the Tiger Team takes temporary precedence, then the leadership of the Tiger Time also needs to take temporary management precedence. This is sometimes a tricky situation when the resources in one group must be provided to help solve the issues of another group, and their current accompanying work deliverables must be temporarily de-prioritized.


Without the clear establishment of responsibilities and priorities, a Tiger Team has the potential to turn into an exercise in trying to herd cats, with about as much opportunity for success.

It’s Like Baseball

I have heard management compared to many things. I personally used to compare it to flying a plane – you need a firm but light grip on the controls. If you grab on too tight you’re in for a bumpy ride. I recently heard of comments about how a real manager does it.

Joe Torre, the very successful manager of the New York Yankees, and now the Los Angeles Dodgers, is reported to have described his traits for successful management. I think he got it right.

Joe said that the time to bear down and focus/work harder is when you are on a winning streak. If you win often, it’s easy to forget how hard it is to win. You start to neglect the little things that got you there. He said that it was when the club was winning that he took a more active and firmer leadership role in how the team conducted itself.

He also said that when the team was not doing as well, he would not necessarily let up; he just wouldn’t bear down as hard. He knew that when things were tough a good team will feel the pressure to improve their performance and apply themselves that much harder. They don’t like losing and are working to do better on their own. Joe would try and maintain an even keel, make sure the proper work would get done and trust his team.

Of course when you have a team of stars with a payroll approaching $200M a year (for 25 players) you should be able to trust them.

The point he made was that contrary to our natural tendency to apply additional pressure to the team when things aren’t going our way, he found it better to ease off just a little and focus on enabling the team to work their way back onto a winning streak. Additional meetings and his intervention and pressure didn’t seem to help as much as his more restrained approach.  He has won a lot of pennants and a handful of championships, so I have come to the conclusion that maybe he knows a good way to apply leadership.