Teams are the engine room of performance, so why not make it the same for learning?
In world sport, 2016 was a special year. Leicester City defied cashed-up rivals to win the UK’s Premier League from nowhere. In Australia, the Western Bulldogs and Cronulla Sharks broke 50 year premiership droughts to create fairy-tale finishes for their fans. In baseball, the Chicago Cubs ended a 98-year wait for the World Series. In a year that will be defined by political upheaval and the loss of so many artistic giants, sport managed to show how special the realised potential of a united group of people is.
So in this way, I think about how we in Learning & Development can help our people better. I know what is missing. It is a glue, a bond. Something real, something tangible: the ties that bind. Something that elevates us all above our own selfishness, takes us out of our own heads, makes us produce results that surpass what we can on our own. Something that uniquely brings out our differences to be weaved into utility. Something that lets you feel growth and see it in others, real-time. Something that builds a cocoon of safety to go personally further than you have before. Something that pulls you out of bed in the morning, even when times are hard. Something where you will be asked a question that will shift perspectives, and will hold you to account. Something that enables you to learn from others, others to learn from you, and to initiate & embed positive change. Something where the goal collectively achieved is so much sweeter than getting there on your own. Something called Team.
What am I proposing?
I’m developing the basis of a simple framework to harness the power of teams to help us all learn, and to turn that learning into performance. It goes like this:
- Assess: Capability planning to be mostly team, rather than individually, focused
- Plan: Having a Team Development Plan (TDP) and time for the team to learn together included in operational planning
- Run: Facilitated sessions that are mostly leader-led, largely centred around solving business needs
- Share: Feeding of team-generated insights and solutions back into the organisation
This framework is not envisaged to replace individually-focused development, but rather to help establish a local culture of development that gives tacit permission for people to push on even further for themselves.
What problems am I looking to help solve?
- The prevalence in organisations of people de-prioritising their own development
- The issue of scalability in delivering facilitated learning
- The increasingly difficult ask of people to adapt to rapid change
- The onerous (and dry) task of maintaining content currency and relevancy
- The big gap between organisational learning and measurable performance
What does success look like?
- A simple approach that is unobtrusive enough to be used by people
- Where learning effectiveness is mostly measured by team engagement and performance
- A platform for people to feel good to further their own development from
Why does this idea makes sense to me?
- My time as a leader of teams. Helping people develop & progress their careers, and the feeling of a communal bond, were my greatest joys as a leader. Looking back, I didn’t harness those nearly enough; I didn’t quite know how, and they weren’t the measures of success I was judged on.
- My time as a facilitator. In my 10,000 hours facilitating groups, I’ve learnt that with an environment of psychological safety and trust, you can access the diversity and collective intelligence needed to solve problems. That is a dynamic worth replicating as much as possible.
- My time running development planning workshops for teams. Across more than 2000 people in these sessions, the most commonly identified barriers to self-development were a lack of confidence, lack of a firm goal and day-to-day work getting in the way. The most commonly generated solutions in those workshops – by the teams themselves, unprompted by me – were team-based.
- An academic paper from 2004. By two Macquarie University staff, it combines relevant research to articulate the potential of teams to learn and perform together. In particular, the “facilitation enabler” the paper cites describes what teams are already set up to exploit.
- The need for glue in a learning ecosystem. Despite drawing on what we know from academic research, a learning ecosystem needs to essentially be invisible to the people within it; it can’t be primary architecture of an organisation. We know learning mostly needs to happen in how we all work. We know that change is hard and takes a long time. So, more than anything, existing pattern behaviours need to be harnessed to deliver the flow of knowledge, learning, development and performance. Teams give quite predictable pattern behaviours, so teams can glue a learning ecosystem together.
What is my biggest anxiety about it?
- Initially de-prioritising individual development. The approach to supporting development planning seems to be quite universally geared to the “cult of the individual”. I know it makes sense on the surface: teams, communities and organisations are made up of individual people with their own motivations. HR/L&D’s efforts have been largely based on solid principles like strengths, positive psychology and goal-setting approaches that can be supported by coaching. But, ask a room of people in any sizeable organisation how many have active Individual Development Plans (IDPs), and you’ll get tumbleweeds rolling down the main street. So, my anxiety here is on initially shunning an IDP in favour of a TDP. Am I missing some deal-breaker reason to not pursue this idea further?
How does each stage work in more detail?
- Assess: This essentially involves assessing capability of the team, whether that be technical or behavioural, and mapping it. Ideally aligned to a capability framework of some sort and an opportunity to assess the benchmarked data later on, it takes a lot of the people leader’s guess-work out of understanding a team, particularly if the leader is new. This stage also gives a logical timing and relevance for more character/personality-based assessments, like Facet5 or VIA strengths.
- Plan: This essentially means finding the learning goals common to everyone in the team, then channelling a lot of the available resources, time and attention to achieving these goals. At a practical level, this involves a team capability assessment, team capability matrix and styled into a team development plan. Inevitably, the bulk of what the team set themselves to learn together is related to improving the team’s performance. The rigour of locking in time in advance for the team to learn/work together is critical here to ensuring learning actually happens.
- Run: Learning together involves short facilitated sessions where problems are explored, context is shared, meaning created and solutions perhaps generated. Progress is celebrated together. Whether the problems are intrinsic to the dynamics within the team, related to the part of the process chain the team is in or focused on improving the customer experience, the team tackles them together. This means using methodology appropriate to the situation (Agile, Lean, Change Management tools, Human Centric Design approaches, etc) and harnessing the collective intelligence.
- Share: When the team has worked together and solved a problem or generated a fresh insight, that is something of greater value to the rest of the organisation (and possibly beyond the organisation). So, that content needs to be shared by the team with the organisation; it effectively becomes a potential new source of truth, peer-reviewed already to some extent by the way the team have worked and learnt together.
What is the role of Learning & Development at each stage?
- Assess: Consulting on, arranging, conducting and debriefing capability assessments. Providing templates for capability matrices, ideally lined up to a capability framework common to the organisation.
- Plan: Consulting on what types of learning activities will best address capability gaps and build on team strengths, within the practical boundaries of the team’s operational planning.
- Run: Provision of content, templates, sites, strategic alignment (and sometimes facilitators) for team facilitated sessions to occur. Provision of upskill for people leaders to properly facilitate sessions (incidentally, it is a great way for organisational trainers to spend down-time between courses).
- Share: Provision of a digital platform for team insights/solutions to be shared into; vetting and curation of these into usable, fresh learning content for the rest of the business. The accountable experts in the business decide if the content is valid, L&D decide how to curate it.
What happens after the first four steps?
- Teamwork is ‘how we do things around here’. The primary outcome of this approach on the team is a culture of “we learn together, we solve things together and we help people together”. In other words, a high-performing team that becomes a destination that people want to work in.
- Coaching is easier to perpetuate. The team workshops provide an ability for a people leader to add behavioural insights to the data collated in the capability assessments. This allows for a good basis for focused individual performance coaching of people; career coaching conversations can gradually occur organically within that built up one-on-one trust.
- New work flows to the people that need it. Because the capability and motivation profile of the team is so well known by now, delegation of challenging work can be done by the people leader with purposeful confidence. Succession planning, targeted investment in key talent and more time to coach become by-products of this work delegation.
What is the role of the people leader?
- Leaders need to develop some facilitation skill, and use it. A fundamental change to get this happening is the ability of the leader of the team to facilitate to a basic level of competency. This means believing in the collective intelligence of the team, valuing & harnessing the diversity (in whatever forms) and looking to guide rather than control the processes the team undertakes in its learning & problem solving. Facilitation, as a developed skill, requires the individual to develop self-awareness, curiosity and active listening. Through actually facilitating a group, social intelligence gets built. If you facilitate the team you lead, you get to know them really well, really quickly.
- Leaders need to connect the team with relevant learning. For the team approach to development to work, L & D need to supply the people leader with data, resources, upskilling and consulting support. This gives the leader credibility with their team.
How adaptable can this be?
- Team size. Conceivably, this approach could work with a small team of 3 or 4 people. Teams in traditional hierarchical structures might extend up to 15-20 people. The dynamics would differ of course, but then again consider how difficult it is to describe a ‘typical team profile.’ The facilitated approach harnesses whatever diversity is there.
- Nature of the team. A traditional hierarchical team that stays intact more than a few months has that extra gift of time to bond further, and extract the benefits of understanding and trusting each other more. However, short-term project teams (such as those formed for Agile sprints) really need to learn about how to work with each other fast. The coaching/facilitation aspect is already there in the forms of the scrum coach/master, but not perhaps the initial team capability assessment or development plan.
- Nature of employee status. Casual or contractor employees can feel their personal development is less of a priority for the organisation they are working for than permanent employees. Also, mature-age employees, many who would have been in their roles a long time, can feel like there is not a need to develop themselves further. A team approach takes some of the focus away from such status differences by pulling everyone along at the same rate.
What is the effect on performance?
- Performance is the main point. By setting team development goals in parallel to team performance goals, a cohesion is developed. The purpose of that focused learning is clearly understood, and utility & success of the learning is ultimately measured and rewarded by how the team performs.
- Learning becomes worth investing in. Rolled up to higher levels, having a big proportion of the learning happening in the organisation to be directly linked to the performance of the organisation helps justify the spend on learning initiatives.
What is the relevance of community?
- Learning Communities get a delivery arm. Communities in the organisation that are clustered around a skill, set of knowledge, cause or demographic, seek to share and embed what they believe in, know or are trying to change. In a big organisation, scale exists for diverse communities to reach a level of maturity where they can effectively fulfil those ambitions. Teams can avail of that scale, by providing an automatic audience for these communities that will mean a higher chance of learning being used, and problems being solved. The communities offer the deep expertise and enthusiasm, the teams offer the practical embedding.
- The Team identity can carry beyond the walls of the organisation. Communities outside the organisation can similarly be accessed by the teams within the organisation through skilled volunteering, especially to solve a problem.
What is the role of data?
- Performance consultancy links the data with where it can be granularly applied. At the stage of setting a team development plan, performance consultancy carried out by the L&D/HR area gets informed by data gathered in the team capability assessment (and other available HR and performance metrics). Rolled up, effectiveness of teams is more readily identifiable and easier to analyse than at an individual level.
What is the relevance of technology?
- Digital platforms need to house the data. HR more broadly needs to provide digital platforms that support team-based capability assessment, development planning and problem-solving activities. If people leaders are left to produce dinky spreadsheets, the approach falls down in organisational relevance. This is particularly important in enabling accessibility for geographically dispersed teams.
- Digital platforms need to allow team outcomes to be shared purposefully into the organisation. When the team comes up with an insight or solution that can benefit the organisation more widely, the platform needs to allow for that to be shared by the team in a way that contextually benefits others. Also, that insight/solution needs to be able to be peer-reviewed by the relevant wider population, then assessed by the accountable expert for that subject matter.
- Teams enable intimate buddying for digital literacy. Team development that harnesses the available technology allows supported upskill for people who struggle to be digitally literate. Lack of digital literacy is deeply embarrassing for some people; learning in the flow of work, while your colleagues are undertaking the same approach, allows for psychologically safe tutoring and supervised practice to occur.
What is the relevance of self-driven learning?
- Team development is a core enabler, but it is not everything. The team development approach doesn’t take up all the bandwidth for learning by individual people within the team. What it does do is make investing in learning accepted, supported and expected; a cultural priority. Peer-to-peer learning, group coaching and buddying can all happen more frequently. People can develop individually without being alone in that pursuit.
- Reflective practice can happen in a localised context, building utility. There is encouragement for sharing within the team of insights that people find in their own learning. Individual knowledge that is otherwise transient has a better chance of being retained if it is contextually discussed and/or practiced within the team.
- Ambition needn’t be spoken in hushed tones. A known aspiration to leave the team and do something different can become culturally OK. Individual dividends from team development include higher profile from shared insights, greater acumen and a sense of purposeful momentum in self-development. All of these attract personal opportunities and help people secure those. Combined with the team itself becoming one desirable for people to join, this means a healthy movement of talent through the team is more manageable.
What is the relevance of workflow?
- Personal flow can be increased. Through implementing a Team Development Plan that is largely based on what is needed to lift the performance of the team, the leader has an ability to individually coach from that basis. Everyone in the team will be at differing levels of mastery and will have different strengths; this gets used in the setting of work for the individual people to do. This allows for Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s concept of Flow to emerge: individually setting work that gives a good balance of enough challenge and enough alignment to personal strengths. For the high performers, this means stretch assignments as well.
- Work delegation is more purposeful. Among other benefits, this frees up capacity for the people leader to focus on their own development too, allowing them to role-model what they are asking of their team.
- Learning activity has a place and value. During the capacity planning, time gets locked in for learning and for problem solving. If the tangible value of both is known and able to be articulated, that locked-in time maintains its priority. The team is on the front-foot by investing in itself.
What is the relevance of managing change?
- People are invited to get in involved in the change. For context, here are some known aspects of change:
- a) The slowest person to adapt to a change dictates the pace of adoption for everyone.
- b) So much of necessary learning in organisations is needed to help change happen
- c) The pace of change seems to increase daily.
- d) Most of the leading through change is done locally by the leader of the team.
By involving people – particularly in facilitated sessions – the leader ensures change happens with the team, not to the team, bringing everyone along. This is where the team approach to development and problem-solving acts as a vehicle, that people become used to, to continuously embed change in the background.
- Team diagnostic tools to measure change coping styles can double as learning opportunities. Having leader-led (or change manager-led) activities available for the team to use, to diagnose where they are at emotionally and operationally in the context of an impending change, is also an opportunity for learning. This is in the sense of creation and perpetuation of feedback loops, bringing perspective to where everyone is at. People in the team gain insights into how to look out for and support each other.
- A change of leadership is smoother. When the leadership of the team changes, or the team is dissolved and new ones created in restructures or sprints, the consistent approach to how learning happened in teams is beneficial. People know what to expect of their new leader, they can prepare themselves and understand they’ll quickly get to know the people they are going to be working with.
How does this relate to the Macquarie University paper?
Essentially the proposed model is a way to help bring the discussed theoretical dynamics to life. In particular:
- In the ‘leader domain’, the writers propose integration of functional and facilitative leadership. For instance: “…creating psychological safety by reducing power-based barriers to speaking up attests to a functional leader’s capacity to create a non-threatening team environment” (page 8). This is enabled by properly facilitated team sessions.
- The writers propose that people learn through critical analysis. “Higher-level learning routines reflect the capacity of individuals, groups, and organisations to challenge, question, and repudiate decision-making assumptions that drive existing decisions” (page 9). Again, this is enabled by facilitated sessions, but is further validated by the organisation valuing such insights as a potential new ‘source of truth’. This is best manifested through vetting and curating insights; if the insights have come from a team, some of the vetting has already occurred.
- The writers propose that people don’t share as much of their perspective if a team doesn’t learn together. “…in the absence of a team learning process, the degree to which different members have distinct, unshared information about a particular situation, may mean that decision alternatives are closed quickly, team member views are self-censored, and persuasion and disagreements hold sway over more substantive issues” (page 10). Enshrining team learning into an operating rhythm ensures a baseline of divergent thinking is accessed.
- The writers propose that there is a place for team discussion and for team problem-solving. “Enabling domains refer to high-involvement group activities that help to mobilise high levels of participation in developing behavioural routines and improving group processes. What is of interest here is the actual techniques organisations use to implement and empower team activities. Two broad forms of enabling are discussed below: facilitation and exploration” (Page 11). The Assess-Plan-Run-Share model allows for reflective discussion as well as more process-oriented sessions.
- The writers propose facilitated sessions need to be continuous at team level as part of a learning ecosystem. “…Team routines need to be practiced and developed over time through high involvement activities….it is the capacity of the organisation to create the right learning environment where the enabling device acts as a propellant for renewed and improved team activity” (Pages 11/12). This demonstrates why such activities need early and aligned planning into an operating rhythm, with an enterprise relevancy and permission.
- The writers propose facilitated sessions engage people. “…Facilitation enablers allow learners to be confronted with different kinds of participation. Too often, learners lack the opportunity to explore, discover, and experiment with different kinds of stimuli” (Page 12). This link validates the use of employee engagement as a core learning effectiveness metric, where a team development approach is fully utilised.
- The writers draw a link between team development and curiosity. “Exploration enablers are related to finding new knowledge and challenging existing knowledge conventions inside the organisation” (Page 12). To promote innovation, curiosity needs to be validated and rewarded. Teams can provide the safe environment for that.
- The writers highlight the importance of communities in developing insights. “Communities of practice (Wenger & Snyder, 2000), for instance bridge the divide between strictly facilitation enablers on the one hand and exploration on the other by allowing people from different parts of the organization and externally to come together to share ideas” (Page 13). What is missing is how such insights get locally used; that is where teams are needed.
- The writers point out that the type of team session should match the specific objective. “The enabling device should match the type of knowledge to be gained” (Page 13). This is exactly where L&D needs to provide value by consulting directly to the people leader on the choice of session type.
- The writers articulate the need to trap team insights for effective organisational knowledge management. “Perhaps one of the most tangible benefits of higher-level learning is knowledge management. While it may be easier for firms to learn from failure, they should have a mechanism to retain what was done correctly as well as what was not” (Page 15). This is why a learning ecosystem needs to span collaboration, knowledge management as well as learning. Teams can deal with failure and success in a less ego-driven way than individuals; they can also frame the story in a way that is closer to the end customer or risk context.
- The writers place importance on context around content. “Developing new knowledge such as new innovations is not simply processing objective information. Rather, it is about tapping the tacit and often highly subjective insights, intuitions, and hunches of individual employees and making these available for testing” (Page 15). The testing is, within the Assess-Plan-Run-Share model, split between the rigour of facilitated team sessions, and the later vetting/curating by subject matter experts in the organisation and L&D.
So what happens next?
I’m fully aware that the way I’ve put this model forward is based on my experiences and one academic paper. My next step is to test it in a room of L&D professionals at the Learning Café Unconference in Sydney on 23 February 2017. I’ll post the outcomes in the weeks that follow.*
* 12 March: these outcomes have now been published here, in a new post caller ‘Rigour’.