What is the Question?

This post introduces a recent essay on mobilizing teams and making decisions during difficult times.

When faced with ambiguity and uncertainty, we seek solid ground for making decisions. For novel and contentious issues, following our “gut” or simple frameworks may prove insufficient. What can we do to filter distraction and organize thinking in ways that move us forward? 

When uncertain, define an answerable question. Then answer it and take action.

In difficult situations, I often start by clearly defining the question. Good questions clarify our context, risks and options. Through shaping “positive” questions we build a process for developing new information and next steps. These questions help us distinguish the important, relevant and actionable from the unsubstantiated and uncontrollable, while balancing the desire for insight with the need for action.

Click here to read the essay.

Managers Manage Well, Even During Pandemics

In my roles as a business advisor and as a team leader, I have the opportunity to continually discuss and test ideas on managing and making decisions, especially in turbulent times. The intensity and urgency of these conversations increased with the arrival in 2020 of COVID-19 and another economic recession. Here I summarize observations shared more fully in a recent Forisk blog post.

Good managers manage well, even during a pandemic

A few times over the past several months I’ve gotten up in the morning, looked in the mirror and thought, “how do I help today (given that I don’t know what’s going to happen)?” I hear the same from clients. At the end of the day, good managers and colleagues do what they say they’re going to do and communicate in advance if complications arise. Just as they would during normal times. Along the way, they share information and updates which helps others support the problem solving and decision making. 

Leaders have more freedom to decide up front when less information exists

While counterintuitive, less information offers more flexibility. The onset of the COVID pandemic and the responses by corporate executives highlighted where decisions made in the “fog of war” actually helped or hurt. We have known from the first weeks what data we needed. Regardless the success or failure of getting this data, the forest industry, for example, demonstrated discipline. Conversations with managers and executives centered on (1) supporting employees and reinforcing safety; (2) “right-sizing” production to support and keep clients and customers; and (3) managing cash. The thinking was clear and focused on dealing with the current situation given limited information. 

Effective teams share common values

Leaders require a core set of beliefs and values against which to test ideas and make decisions, especially during uncertain times. Consider the context. With no data and little clarity about the future, how does one choose a course of action? With common values, clearly communicated over time with a team, decisions have, at a minimum, a source of validity and rigor.  

Leaders Plan and Communicate Expectations

In college at MIT, I played baseball for Coach Fran O’Brien. MIT hired Coach O’Brien in 1969. In the twenty seasons prior to Coach O’Brien’s arrival, MIT Baseball had one winning season. He inherited a Division-III, no scholarship, no recruiting team that expected to lose.

During my senior year in 1993, Coach led us to a record-setting, championship season that inspired many stories and my book Beaverball.

So how did Coach O’Brien prepare us to compete?  One lesson that we learned as baseball players that applies to all of us as leaders and managers is the need to plan and communicate. We can put the team – our organizations – in better situations to win, to succeed, every day.

Leaders plan for and expect success.

The greatest menace to success and leadership may be the willingness to make excuses or may be the failure to take responsibility for one’s actions or even a tendency to feel victimized.  Look, you’re going to get bad calls, bad bounces, bad weather.  But we can plan for and expect success by focusing on and planning for what we can control, communicating that plan, and moving forward.  

Think about it this way.  Can you plan for failure? Yes, absolutely.  Here’s a plan for failure:

  1. Stop returning your phone calls;
  2. Stop paying your bills;
  3. Smoke 12 packs of cigarettes per day; and 
  4. Drive with your eyes closed.

Here’s another plan for failure:  don’t have a plan.

So, if we can choose to fail, can we choose to succeed? Absolutely.  Therefore, success should not surprise us.

Coach O’Brien always had a plan, and that rubbed off on the team.  Before the season started, he scheduled every practice and every practice had a schedule of drills and every drill had small group assignments. Guys on the team did their own planning, too. House, our catcher, smoothed the dirt in front of and around home plate to reduce bad hops. Gass, our right fielder, preserved the shape of his glove by wrapping it in a towel between games.  

And consider what we observe from other great leaders out in the world and close to home. Three time Super Bowl Champion and former Head Coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Bill Walsh, was well known for his meticulous planning to build championship teams. Bill Belichick now as Head Coach of the New England Patriots, and from his early days as a Coordinator, shares this trait. My best teachers and coaches had lesson plans, game plans and practice plans, and they adjusted these plans as we struggled or improved, or as the situations changed.

Coach O’Brien expected to win. And he expected us to expect to win.  Success should not surprise you.  If it does, you may attribute it to luck or to mistakes made by your competitors.  Winning consistently is a byproduct of building teams focused on achieving goals, working the plan, communicating and reinforcing expectations, and getting after it. 

The Most Important Person on the Team

Who is the most important person on your team?  As much as we’re “all created equal,” we join and work with teams comprised of higher performers and lower performers. Some salespeople exceed quota; others struggle to keep up. In sports, most players, at any given time, watch from the bench. How do we reconcile “managing our stars” with “managing the team”?

Years ago, Ian “House” Somerville and I co-captained the MIT baseball team, an experience I wrote about in Beaverball: A (Winning) Season with the MIT Baseball Team.  As captains, we met regularly with Head Coach Fran O’Brien to discuss upcoming opponents and issues relevant to maintaining team chemistry. Before our spring trip to Florida, House and I recapped one particular lesson that Coach O’Brien emphasized to both of us. He said, “The most important person on the team – and to me – is the last man on the roster, the person sitting at the end of the bench. Why? Because if that man really believes that he will have every opportunity to earn playing time, then he will push everybody else on the roster above him, improving the team’s attitude and performance.”

Coach explained how even the best player on the team would feel competition at practice, keeping him sharp and on top of his game. Each person, at some point in the season, needed reminding that playing time and leadership were not rights or entitlements; they were privileges that one earned. The minute a job or leadership role becomes an entitlement, we have a morale problem, a performance problem, or both.

Did Coach believe that team success relied on lavishing attention on our newest, part-time intern? No. He simply highlighted the importance of reinforcing expectations. A manager holds everyone on the team to the same standards for key values such as hustle, integrity, and cheering your team. If the star third baseman dogs it on and off the field, the manager must hold him accountable.  As a player, and as a teammate, it’s incredibly motivating to see leadership in action, to see deed follow word.

Coach reinforced expectations with everyone on the team. He said, “running around is fine for getting into shape, but during practice and games we want focus.”  He explained how each person contributed to the team’s success.  For example, during practice drills, he would tell Eddie, our back-up catcher, “Gun those guys down! Make them work for that extra base, Eddie. Help us get better!”

The message isn’t complicated.  But it requires a commitment to communicate consistently.  As managers, it is our job to “hold the line” on the most important values and expectations, and to take the time required to clarify how each person adds value. In recognizing this lesson, not only do we serve the team, we help ourselves.