Posts From April, 2013

I Love This Book! The Culture Code

Build Your Project Team Culture

The Culture Code Reveals the Power of Safety

“When we talk about courage, we think it’s going against an enemy with a machine gun. The real courage is seeing the truth and speaking the truth to each other.”
         –Dave Cooper, Retired, Commander Master Chief, SEAL Team Six (From The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle)

Why is it so hard to see the truth and speak the truth to each other? Why does that demand courage? And, can any team reach their potential without this ability?

Safety: The Foundation of High Performance

Daniel Coyle, in his new book, The Culture Code, offers three necessary cultural elements of what he calls “highly successful groups.” These elements are safety, vulnerability, and purpose. After reading the first few chapters, I became convinced that safety should be the primary focus for every leader, especially project leaders

I’ve always thought of safety at the office and in my work group as physical safety. Coyle refocused my attention to that of emotional safety. Frankly, I am surprised I haven’t seen it before. I’ve been reading and writing about project team performance for about twenty years. I’ve always known that trust is crucial to creativity and innovation, but Coyle’s angle brought a fresh light on the foundational role of safety. His theme is that for teams to reach their potential, each member must feel safe enough emotionally to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is critical to giving and receiving authentic feedback, which is the only way a group will improve its performance. Feedback within the group is directed toward serving the purpose. Purpose becomes the North Star. That logic is tough to dispute.

Project teams are temporary, formed to accomplish something unique. These teams solve problems and make decisions every day. Versatile’s high-performance team checklist lists nine characteristics that enable a team to survive the “give and take” of creativity and problem solving while maintaining trust and keeping relationships intact. But I have to admit that emotional safety has always been assumed, rather than explicitly called out.

Coyle’s logic, that safety precedes trust and trust precedes authentic feedback and team learning, lays bare the importance of establishing emotional safety within our teams. The quote at the beginning of this article comes from a key story in the SEAL Team Commander’s evolution as a leader. In Cooper’s early career he advised a superior that a particular course of action was dangerous and should be avoided. That superior ignored his  advice and the result was exactly what Cooper had feared. Cooper took away from that experience a desire to be the kind of leader that invited opposing points of view and encouraged criticism from every member of his team.

The Primary Focus of Every Project Leader

Do you want your team to “see the truth and speak the truth to each other”? What could be more important? From creation of a business case and charter, through risk identification, scheduling, and daily problem-solving, your team is making decisions and working through conflicts.  Every day of every project is affected by team culture. Pick up Daniel Coyle’s Culture Code. He illustrates his theme with stories from a wide range of teams and follows up with specific actions for the reader. I predict his lessons will stick with you and reignite your focus on team culture.

CEOs Want a Future Proof Employee. Are You Ready?

Are you looking for a trend in essential job skills for the coming years? Then CEOs are one group to watch.  A recent IBM report cited strengths related to innovation – specifically creativity and collaboration – as critical for the ‘Future Proof Employee.’  IBM’s bi-annual CEO survey interviews over 1500 CEOs from around the world in a wide range of industries.  Year over year trends in this survey deserve respect.  So do the conclusions of Tony Wagner, an Innovation Education Fellow at Harvard. He’s just published a fifth book on this topic.

Whether your job is to develop your organization’s workforce, or you are just looking out for own job security, this matters to you.

New York Times columnist and bestselling business author Thomas Friedman (you probably remember his smash hit, The World is Flat) interviewed Tony Wagner for a recent column.  Like IBM, Wagner has also interviewed CEOs.  His goal is to learn how our education system can serve the needs of future employers.

Wagner’s conclusions are that academic knowledge will take a back seat to innovation skills. Friedman quotes him this way. “The capacity to innovate — the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life — and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge. As one executive told me, ‘We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can’t teach them how to think — to ask the right questions — and to take initiative.’”

That lines up pretty well with results of the 2010 and 2012 IBM CEO surveys.  The 2012 CEO Study recognizes the effect of a rapidly changing work environment under the heading of The Future Proof Employee.  To quote the study: “CEOs consistently highlight four personal characteristics most critical for employees’ future success: being collaborative, communicative, creative and flexible… The challenge has historically been a shortage of particular skills. But today, it’s virtually impossible for CEOs to find the future skills they will need — because they don’t yet exist.  Bombarded by change, most organizations simply cannot envision the functional capabilities needed two or three years from now.”

The 2010 CEO Study emphasizes creativity as well, but specifically for CEOs.  “Asked to prioritize the three most important leadership qualities in the new economic environment, creativity was the one they selected more than any other choice.“ Integrity and global thinking were second and third.

IBM also surveyed Chief HR Officers from 700 organizations. These CHRO’s must have been listening to their bosses, because a top priority for them is “cultivating creative leaders.”   Again, the driving force behind the need for creativity is a constantly changing business environment.  Their dilemma is that they aren’t sure how to do that. 

I’ll take some credit for calling out this trend over the past two years.  When the only constant is change, the ability to lead change that delivers value is the most enduring strength. 

But I will also disagree with the CEOs and CHROs on two points. 

First, these aren’t just the job skills of the future; they are the skill set for today.  The economic turbulence of the past five years has touched organizations in every sector of the economy – for profit or non-profit – including a new group: federal workers on furlough thanks to the sequester. Every organization has been forced to rely on creativity to navigate the Great Recession.

Second, we CAN build the strengths to create and collaborate and be flexible.  Thirty years ago the U.S. economy was learning something new about quality, continuous improvement, and a process orientation. Those lessons went deep into our organizations.  The principles of creativity, stakeholder engagement, and risk taking can also be taught and learned. That is exactly what we teach every day for our clients.

With all due respect, I would add another set of strengths to the Future Proof EmployeeExecution, the ability to quickly and effectively put a new idea into action so we achieve results as soon as possible. But of course I’m biased, because project management is the discipline of execution.

Of course there is also a danger to this discussion.  I happened to show Tony Wagner’s book, The Achievement Gap, to my seventeen year-old son.  Since he’s heading to college before long, I thought he might appreciate the insights on what really matters in the workplace.  His response? “It made me wonder why I am studying hard in my organic chemistry and English classes.” And what about the college degrees that were most likely to help land a job for the class of 2013? Still those that include the words ‘computer’ and ‘engineering.’  Let’s be realistic. Majoring in creativity, collaboration, and flexibility is not a recommendation.

What I think we can all agree on is the increasing need to develop the enduring strengths.  Tony Wagner, Thomas Friedman, and the 1500+ CEOs are telling us the same thing: The 21st Century workforce will face a steady need to solve new problems and adapt to new circumstances.  No industry will be immune.  Whether you want to be the ‘Future Proof Employee’ or be her employer, include the strengths to innovate in your development plans.