Have you ever lead a team in an uncertain and ambiguous environment, with team members who technically outrank you organizationally?
Welcome to my world.
Over the last few months, I’ve devoted a lot of time and energy into tactics and approaches to building and leading high performance teams to increase the likelihood of success. In the realm of human spaceflight where I live, we’re facing huge changes; the shuttle is to be retired later this year, and last year the follow-on human spaceflight endeavor went from certainty of purpose (return to the moon and go to Mars) into uncertainty and ambiguity (hand over routine access to low earth orbit to commercial firms, and focus NASA on “out there”, wherever that is).
That is the environment of today’s world in NASA’s human spaceflight realm; yet as I’ve said before, uncertainty and ambiguity is a poor excuse for sitting around and not taking action.
I’ve been tasked to lead a team to chart a course through this sea of uncertainty and put together a strategy on how we are to buy the goods and services we need to make human spaceflight operations successful. In part, this may entail supporting Government-owned operations analogous to what we’ve done in the recent past, such as for the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station; in part, this may entail the building of public-private partnerships with the emerging commercial space sector to help them succeed in providing routine access to low earth orbit. Whether it is one or the other, or both, it is hard stuff. Besides all the uncertainty that lingers, we’re talking about fundamental change, or at the very least an open mind to change.
With all of this, where are we to start?
I chose to start with a very fundamental element: the team charter. Yeah, I know, I’m dealing with a bunch of rocket scientists who deal with details, processes, equations, and numbers that can kill people. I’ll admit that I was somewhat reluctant inside to start the first week with the team on a conversation about a “soft subject” like a team charter. Yet I chose to overcome my uncertainty and build upon what I’ve done previously, and proposed we adopt a full-blown team charter. In my view, such a charter defines the purpose of the team, expected outcomes and success criteria, and rules of engagement for describing how the team will work together. By creating the charter with the team at the outset, it ought to build a shared understanding of why the team exists and what it is trying to accomplish.
Part 1: Purpose. Why is the team being created? What is our purpose?
For the team’s purpose, I stated why we were formed and the challenges we face. Whatever we propose as a strategy, we must consider how that strategy fits with larger question concerning our organization: Why does our organization exist? What are the organization’s guiding principles? What value does the organization offer to its key stakeholders? We had several excellent conversations around these items, and I captured the key responses as part of the purpose statement.
Part 2: Expected Outcomes. Together, we defined the product that results from the team working together and what constitutes success. To help guide the expected outcomes, we discussed “destination points” of the organization (where it is headed) and strategic priorities (areas of immediate focus for the organization).
Part 3: Rules of Engagement. Here, I built upon previous experiences with establishing “norms of behavior” and expanded it. I wanted the rules of engagement to be an agreement on how the team members will interact and collaborate, support each other, and give feedback. The part I added this time was a method for positive resolution of interpersonal conflicts; given the high organizational standing and strong personalities of the team members, I assumed that conflicts will arise naturally. Here are the rules of engagement we agreed to:
A. Norms of Behavior
- We will listen actively to all ideas
- Everyone’s opinion counts
- No interrupting while someone is talking
- One meeting at a time
- We will respect differences of opinions and viewpoints
- We will be supportive rather than judgmental
- We will give helpful feedback directly and openly
- When we have a difference of opinion, we will debate the facts and not the personalities
- All team members will offer their ideas and resources
- We agree to have fun!
- We will seek balance of discussion
- We will bring it to the table
- If you have talked 5-10 minutes with no breaks, we’re not having a discussion
- “Expedition behavior”: We will proactively offer help and jump in where help is needed
- Anyone can call a “timeout” for any reason in a respectful manner
- We will be respectful of our teammates’ time by being on time to all tagups
B. Resolution of Conflicts
- We recognize that conflict is expected as part of the normal process of working in teams
- We each are responsible for speaking our truth, listening to understand, and working towards a resolution
- We will acknowledge when there is a conflict
- Conflicts will be promptly discussed between parties in conflict
- We commit to being honest when seeking answers to the following questions
- What do I feel about this issue and where did that feeling come from?
- Are my feelings so strong that I’m not hearing what others say?
- Am I operating with the best interest for the team as my goal?
- Why do others think differently about this issue than do I?
- Is this issue really worth it?
- What is going to happen to my relationship with the other(s) if this conflict continues?
- We will agree on a time and place to attempt to resolve the issue using the following:
- Parties in conflict will meet directly and separately to seek resolution
- Will seek neutral third party peer to help resolve if unable to find resolution directly
- Will seek arbitration from team leader if unable to solve through mediation and agree to abide by leader’s decision
- We will not bring up past issues while working on current issues
After we engaged in the conversation about the team charter, the contributions and subsequent dialogue appeared to flow naturally. My initial reluctance to engage in such a topic with a bunch of rocket scientists quickly faded, and in the end we created a team charter that all of us own, together.
It was a great start to a fabulous week.
Text © Joe Williams 2011
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto