Commitment_HeaderI do a lot of work with teams. Teams and working groups are an important part of my personal as well as my professional life. I work on project teams as part of my consulting and I participate on boards and commissions as part of my community service. For me, the quality of the team determines the quality of the result no matter the context. A strong team is a joy to be a part of; a weak team means misery. I have had cause of late to reflect on the characteristics of a strong team and how they enable success.

Six Characteristics of a Strong Team
There are six essential characteristics that I look for in a robust and successful team. While it is not reasonable to expect that all team members will have these attributes in equal measure, recognizing how individuals and their personalities align with these aspects makes assembling a high quality team more likely.

  • Diversity: There is nothing worse than being on a team where everyone thinks alike. The greater the diversity of background and viewpoint the healthier the team. Not only does diversity expand the available idea pool, it also increases the likelihood that some arcane aspect or lurking issue won’t be overlooked.
  • Skill: Having the appropriate skills on your team is a no-brainer. More important is having team members with the capacity to pick up new skills quickly. Situations arise frequently where unforeseen circumstances demand new or enhanced skills. This also has the benefit of creating cross-trained teams.
  • Flexibility: Flexibility allows a team to adapt to change, which is at the heart of every endeavor we undertake. Flexibility makes it possible for teams to harness their egos and consider alternative or conflicting perspectives. It enables a team to adapt templates to fit new and unique situations. It empowers teams to improve and mature.
  • Integrity: A good team has integrity on both the personal and group level. Personal integrity assures the team that each member will put forward his/her highest quality effort for the team and the project. The collective integrity is the team’s bond with the stakeholders.
  • Motivation: Hand in hand with integrity is motivation. The members of a strong team are motivated to do the best possible job, whatever it takes. This might mean long hours or extra effort, but the shared objectives of the team are paramount.
  • Respect: Respect builds trust both within the team and without. Respect for fellow team members fosters strong and trusting relationships. Similarly, respect for stakeholders fosters rapport between team and customer. Disrespect is a disease in any team.

In many ways, these characteristics are interrelated. There is overlap between them and the boundaries are indistinct. Nevertheless, all six are necessary for a team to be successful whether it is a project team, a civic commission, or a nonprofit board. There is, however, one essential element without which none of these characteristics really matter. That element is commitment. Team members must have skin in the game.

Commitment is the spark that ignites the six characteristics. It is the catalyst that brings the team together in action. Team members without commitment drag the team down. Team members without commitment can seldom be counted on when the going gets tough. Commitment is more than a mere promise. Commitment is doing. Commitment requires management.

Commitment requires management because very few of us – that is, very few who truly commit – commit to merely one interest or pursuit. Because of the deep commitment, they rapidly find themselves a commodity; someone sought after by teams and enterprises. All too soon if they are not careful, they become overcommitted.

I wish to differentiate commitment from a mere promise or agreement. Agreement without commitment is just the occupation of space (and not always even that). Commitment (or the lack of it) drives the quality of the actions we take.

  • Preparation: committed team members come to meetings prepared. They have read any pre-read materials and are ready for scheduled discussions.
  • Follow-through: committed team members complete their assigned tasks on time and follow through on action items they have taken.
  • Ownership: committed team members take ownership of their ideas. It is not enough to raise the problem or offer a solution during a meeting. The team member is not committed if he/she expects someone else to pick the idea up and run with it.
  • Respect: committed team members respect the time and effort of the others. By way of example, if there is important business to be transacted at a scheduled meeting and one of the team has a conflict, the committed team member calls this out in time to change the meeting to accommodate everyone’s availability.
  • Engagement: committed team members are engaged. They work continually to achieve the purpose and objectives of the team/board/commission. Their membership in that body is not passive.

Individuals with multiple commitments will invariably encounter conflicts that can affect their engagement in one or another commitment. Of course they will need to set priorities. But if it is the case that they cease to add value to one or more of their lower priority commitments, it is best that they should step down and help the group find a replacement who can meet the commitment. Otherwise, they should do what they must to remain engaged and involved.

Skin in the Game
Commitment, understandably, is difficult. Sometimes we don’t know how much work a commitment will require. We do not know how our personal priorities may change or need to change in the future. We certainly never know in advance what new challenges life may set in our path. At most, we must be ready to assess whether or not we have the bandwidth to truly commit each time we are faced with a new opportunity to make the world a better place. Sometimes it is difficult to say “No.”

I mentioned earlier about having “skin in the game.” Strictly speaking, the phrase refers to having a financial stake in an enterprise, which means that we have something to lose if the enterprise should fail. This represents an incentive to do everything possible to ensure success. It has also come to mean having a strong commitment in an endeavor even if a financial stake is not specifically involved. Personally, I do not like to see the original meaning of a good word or phrase diluted. So what is the “stake” in this usage if it is not monetary? It is personal integrity. One’s integrity is one’s gold. Personal integrity is our stake in commitment.

What are other characteristics of a strong team? How do you and your teams manage commitment?

Follow the People


Life reminded me recently how important it is as BI practitioners to keep the paradigm of program design at the forefront of our thinking and planning. Many of you know it: people before policy before procedure before technology.  The interesting thing is that the reminder came not from my professional life but my personal one.  Those of you who follow this blog already know how the line between those two sides blurs for me, and how one seems to be continually informing the other.

My readers also know how I like to spin a story in order to illustrate a point.  Consider this one.  Our family moved to a small community on the Olympic Peninsula in Western Washington last year and enrolled our daughter in a rather inspired alternative public school.  Late in the school year a small controversy involving a teacher mobilized nearly every parent in the school.  My wife became one of the spokespeople for the parents in our communication with the district leadership. Long story short, clear heads and a little bit of listening resolved the issue quickly.  In the aftermath, though, someone nominated my wife and me as co-presidents of the PTO for next year.  It is a small town; there is no getting out of it.

In preparing for a follow-up meeting with the school district superintendent, a group of us were assembling the agenda.  What should have been a relatively easy task was uncomfortably difficult until I realized that we were jumping right to procedures without having established requisite relationships.  The program paradigm, which I had learned years ago, popped back into my head and helped us bend our thinking back toward establishing the people part of the program – the relationships – first. Time enough for procedures later.

And of course that got me to thinking.  It got me to thinking not only about how best to shape that meeting, but also about the criticality of people in shaping and managing BI programs and governance.  My first challenge was a semantic one, the definition of a program.  The concept is largely unknown in the education world and I needed to be able to articulate it for my colleagues.  It is also not always understood clearly in the business world.  Awhile back I blogged about BI programs, suggesting a definition for the concept.  I went back to the article and was hugely disappointed.  While the definition worked just fine for that one specific business technology discipline, it was too wrapped up in the jargon of business and technology to be useful anywhere else.   That was a big “Aha!” moment.  Our definitions for these important concepts need to be pan-applicable if they are to capture the key nuances that make them work.  So here is my latest draft of a definition for program, crafted for a public school PTO.  Not surprisingly, it works even better for a BI program.

 A program is a set of activities, projects, and initiatives undertaken by multiple stakeholder groups and constituencies to achieve and maintain a shared vision or need.

 This will not be my last revision of that definition, I suspect, but now it captures the starting point for the program paradigm nicely.   And the flow of the paradigm has a rigorous logic to it that can keep us from wandering astray in developing any sort of program.

  • People:  We must always put people first.  People are what work, business, income, school, life, and everything else is all about.  In establishing and maintaining a program of any kind, the stakeholder groups and the constituencies are at the center. What are their visions, desires, needs, and fears?  How do we establish alignment across these groups?  Even within a stakeholder group there is rarely alignment.  My public school situation is a perfect example.  There is not, nor will there ever be agreement across the parent stakeholders.  But by working together to understand the collective visions, desires, needs, and fears of this group we build trust, which is the foundation of relationships.  These relationships will enable us to come together in a shared vision that is three-dimensional, meaning that while we have achieved general alignment and buy-in, there is still broad variation in point of view behind it.  Diversity with alignment is essential to good policy making.
  • Policies:   Policies are the rules used to guide the stakeholders in their journey to establish and maintain these envisioned goals.  Good policies shape behaviors that result in desired outcomes. The body of policies defines the environment in which the identified end state will exist, and how it will be maintained.  Going back to the public school example, a good communication policy would enable the stakeholder groups (i.e., parents, teachers, and administrators) to have the information they require to be effective in their roles and not to be blindsided (resulting in loss of trust) by actions or decisions that affect other groups except in cases where legal or ethical circumstances prohibit.  Policies drive procedures.
  • Procedures:  Procedures are the specific processes we use to implement policies, achieve goals, and perform our work.  Procedures can be formal or informal, but they form the structure of what specifically is to be done, along with when and how.  The procedures driven by the communication policy would articulate the topics to be communicated, the people responsible for communicating them, the individuals to whom they should be communicated, and the appropriate media for doing so.
  • Technology:  Technology comes last because while it is potentially very powerful, it is only an enabler.   If the program has not attended to the requirements of the stakeholders, the policies are hardly likely to meet those requirements. Consequently, the supporting procedures are likely to be poor. Leveraging technology in such a situation only exacerbates the already spurious results.  Applying this to the school example, no amount of email is going to result in role effectiveness and optimal trust if the appropriate individuals are not sharing the appropriate information with the appropriate people at the appropriate time.  Instead, the resulting worm fight of email can spin out of control in minutes, returning quite the converse.

All too often in BI we are tempted to jump right into the technology.  Some of the time, I think this is because the technology is the fun part.  Mostly, though, it is because the value of the first three steps is not clearly understood.  There is often the perception that if I am not writing code, then I am not doing my job.  Certainly in building a detailed project plan or laying out a statement of work, the technology aspects are the last to come under fire.  “Do you really need all this time for requirements analysis?”  “Process design?  There’s nothing wrong with our processes.”  “What do we need data policies for?”  Sound familiar?

So, what is the answer?  The answer is to start at the beginning with the people.  Each new project, each new client, each new program is an opportunity to establish and nurture relationships.  Even with established clients, it is an ongoing process as roles change or as individual lives change.  As part of those relationships, we continue to establish their individual and collective importance by enlisting those relationships in nurturing others.  In other words, lead by example.  If I don’t have a good relationship with CFO Bob – one in which we have achieved some alignment on goals and vision – Bob is not likely to see the value in spending money for the two of us to establish relationships with CIO Gretta, even though Gretta’s active participation in the new BI program is critical.  Gretta is not necessarily going to jump onto Bob’s bandwagon just because she is paid to.  It is about her vision, desires, needs, and fears as well.  And at the end of the day, it is all about trust.

I have written quite a bit about trust both in this article and my last.  Trust does not mean blindness or inattention.  More than once in my life someone I trusted has shafted me unexpectedly, and I think most people have experienced this.  While trust is essential for successful working relationships, we must proceed with our eyes and ears open, and our intellects engaged.

Bottom line, following the people is really more fun even than coding.  What I learn every day from the people with whom I work is far more valuable and stimulating than what I learn from a block of code no matter how abstruse.  And while finding solutions for people problems is scarier, riskier, and more difficult than solving a technology puzzle, it is far more rewarding when we succeed.  But oh, look at the time.  I need to finish this code before end of day.

What are your top strategies for building trust in working relationships?  Do you actively develop and nurture relationships in both your professional and personal lives?