Maintaining Teamwork

“Teamwork: Simply stated, it is less me and more we.”






Towards the end of last week I participated in a conversation involving my old team that led me to do some reflection.  The conversation involved teamwork on the team – or rather a perceived lack of it – and a need to intervene.  Without the intervention, the team risked fracturing.

As I look forward to leading a different team on a new assignment, I examined the situation with the old team and identified actions I will take with the new team.

With regards to maintaining teamwork, I see the role of the leader to be threefold:  1) Leading the team to create a set of norms or rules of behavior; 2) Facilitating team conversations to achieve maximum effectiveness; and 3) Intervening when necessary to redirect undesired behaviors that risk fracturing the team.

As I wrote earlier in the year (see Groups versus Teams), a team creates a set of norms or rules of behavior that defines the agreement on how the team members will interact with each other.  While a group may be run by a chairperson, a team runs itself by norms created by the members.  In reflecting back on this year, we did establish team norms in one of our earlier meetings.  Yet with the passage of time, familiarity, and perhaps laziness, the team and I allowed the norms to erode. I even had to hunt around to find a copy of the norms we made.  Therefore, I identified the following key lesson learned: Norms out of sight are norms out of mind.  What I will do differently with the next team:  Post the norms where everyone can see them.  Periodically revisit to reinforce and refine as part of the act of facilitation, which I cover next.

In the same earlier post, I wrote about another characteristic that distinguishes a team from a group: team members aren’t out to gain personal victory, but to arrive at the best solution for the good of the whole. When team members have differences of opinion, they tend to have a dialogue about the ideas rather than argue points of view.  When conversations become unbalanced, the role of the leader is to rebalance through facilitation.  Besides guiding the team to the established norms, the leader can rebalance conversations and ask questions that redirect and refocus the team.  The key action for the future: Watch team interactions very carefully for signs of imbalanced conversations and facilitate immediately.

Finally, the earlier post addressed that team members cooperate to plan and coordinate roles.  Their work lives are linked together, and they depend on each other.  When a team member is perceived not to pull his weight or to cooperate, the role of the leader is to intervene.  Intervention takes three steps: Step 1, identification: “I’ve noticed that…” and state facts.  Step 2, impact: “I’m concerned that…” and state the impact.  Step 3, next steps: “I expect…” or “I decided that…” and state the expectations or decision.  Intervention was the action taken late last week with the team.

In looking through all of the above, I came to a realization.  One is not sufficient.  A leader needs all three in his/her toolkit.  This is a valuable lesson learned, and relearned, for maintaining teamwork that I will carry forward to my next assignment.

Maintaining Teamwork


“Plus ça change,
Plus c’est la même chose,
The more that things change,
The more they stay the same.”
–Rush “Circumstances” from “Hemispheres” (1978)

At the time of this writing I’ve been reading the final report from the Augustine Committee and reflecting on the near-term future of human spaceflight.  Like many of my colleagues, I’m curious about the guidance and policy decisions forthcoming from the Obama administration and Congress.  As I gaze into my crystal ball, I believe there is one thing we can count on:


With respect to change, one fundamental question comes to my mind: how does one implement effective change across a broad and diverse agency such as NASA?  Over the years, I’ve encountered various change approaches.  Part of me wonders if the various approaches I’ve learned through “book learning” can be translated into actual success when implementing change in the public sector.  Here, I’m talking about approaches such as Kotter’s Eight Steps, another one that matches the change process to the change challenge, and many others.

Recently, I read about a study conducted by Booz-Allen-Hamilton on “What It Takes to Change Government,” posted on  The report cites ten characteristics public sector leaders had in common who successfully enacted change, and furthermore offers that these characteristics are missing from other leaders who failed to enact successful change.  Of the ten characteristics identified in the report, two in particular caught my eye and will be the topic of this post:

1) Fewer goals, greater success

Let’s start with goals.  What is the goal of NASA?  Over the years, there have been various mission statements, goal statements, and the like.  All of them strike me as having been crafted in smoky back rooms by political appointees catering to every special interest within NASA, and even outside.  As a result, none have stuck with me.  In fact, go to NASA’s website and see if you can find an overarching simple-to-understand goal statement.  You won’t find one.

Now, do an informal poll of space enthusiasts both within and outside NASA and ask, “What should NASA’s goal be?”  I bet from a majority you’ll get a simple answer: to establish a permanent and sustainable human presence off our planet.  The even more inspirational phraseology I like is “to become a multi-planet species.”  In either case, I see it as a matter of ensuring the survival of humanity.  Between humankind’s mismanagement of our home planet through overpopulation, pollution and global wars, and the potential for natural disasters, there are a number of ways that the human race could end.  How better to hedge our bets than by settling other places beyond Earth?

If NASA could rally around a simple goal, imagine the energy that would result from within and the support from outside NASA.

2) Focus on customers

Next, let’s talk about customers.  Who is NASA’s customer?  I offer that in the direct sense, NASA does not have a customer; NASA does not offer a product or service that is consumed directly (ask Dennis Tito).  Instead of customer, how about we consider “stakeholder”?  If so, that would include the U.S. government, the American public, the scientific and education communities, the industrial base and commercial business interests, and human civilization as a whole.  In addressing stakeholders, we are an arm of the President in that we enact executive policy; of Congress in that we are funded by and exist in many of the congressional districts; of the scientific and educational communities in that we expand the frontiers of knowledge and share that with future generations; and of the American public and human civilization as a whole (see my comment on goals).  This is a tall order, and in my opinion makes this aspect of change management quite a challenge.

When I look ahead to the greatest challenges facing NASA to embrace the change to come, I see the ultimate success rooted in our ability to clearly articulate the goal we’re working towards, and for the work to directly benefit a clear customer or stakeholder.  Failure to do so greatly increases the risk that any change will be unsuccessful, and we’ll be left where we’ve been since the end of Apollo, with no clear mandate and wondering about our future… in space, and as a civilization.