How honeybees lead themselves

Posted by jlubans on August 31, 2011  •  Leave comment (0)

A library friend, who knows about my interest in democratic work places, told me about a new book she had recently cataloged: Honeybee Democracy.
Thomas D. Seeley, a Cornell biologist, summarizes much of his own and others’ research – enticingly and engagingly presented - on the honeybee and how the bee manages to “achieve an incredibly harmony of labor without supervision.”

Dr. Seeley explores and explains the puzzling questions of how bee swarms, made up of around 10,000 individual bees, often exposed and dangling from the limb of a tree, choose a new, safe, nest in a timely way out of a dozen possibilities, presented to the swarm by scout bees. (Seeley emphasizes that there is no supreme bee. For the experiments the queen bee was sequestered from the decision-making.) The bees take in the information presented by each scout through a “waggle dance” about the site the scout has found and is promoting.
From the information in the several dances, the scouts narrow down the choices and locations – some bees favoring one site more than another, and then shifting alliances, until one site remains and becomes the collective decision. (How 10,000 bees get to the new home is another research topic in Seeley's book.)
The bees’ choice –according to Seeley’s metrics of what makes for a happy home - is usually the best spot - sheltered, a small doorway, the interior large enough to contain the swarm and its honey, all the while maintaining a high enough temperature to survive the coldest weather.
Anyone that has gone house hunting knows it is a complicated matter for humans, no less so for bees. And, while we might lose money or a marriage on a poor choice, the swarm faces extinction.

Of special interest to me was Chapter 10, “Swarm Smarts.” Seeley spells our how he applies his bee research results to chairing an academic department. Tongue in cheek, he calls these lessons:
“Five Habits of Highly Effective Groups.”

1. Compose the decision making group of individuals with shared interests and mutual respect. (If we discover our true, shared interests we probably will have achieved mutual respect. That said, I have taken part in discussions on how to re-invent, how to catch the second upward curve, wherein disparate interests were far afield and cliques were unwilling to surrender their “choices.” Invariably, this was the sticking point when it came time to divvy up resources in new ways. We’d finally compromise and not choose the best option. The bees have us (humans) beat!

2. Minimize the leader’s influence on the group’s thinking. As Seeley points out, there is no leader in the beehive. The queen has a genetic role, not a leadership role. We have numerous examples of how a workplace leader can stymie a group’s exploration of best options, and through fear or other intimidation, ram through the leader’s one solution. Seeley seems to be suggesting that in human situations the leader should be more of a facilitator than the decision maker. I’d agree. If you, the leader, have THE solution, then you’ll have to figure out a way to introduce it and allow it to compete with the other ideas, as suggested in steps 3 & 4. Bees illustrate the invaluable role of "effective followers" in reaching the best decisions.

3. Seek diverse solutions to the problem.

4. Aggregate the group’s knowledge through debate.
5. Use quorum responses for cohesion, accuracy and speed.
A quorum response is an antidote to endless debate. Once a threshold number is reached among bees for where to nest, that is a quorum and those bees that have yet to be persuaded, now stop advertising and sign on to the chosen nest. In faculty decisions, ones requiring a unanimous vote like for granting tenure, Seeley takes periodic anonymous straw polls (after each biologist has done his/her version of an information-sharing waggle dance, no doubt). He finds that once 80% of the professors agree with a decision, the 20% that is holding out concedes.

It would be fun to have a venue in which to talk some more about Dr. Seeley’s remarkable research. When I return this November to Latvia, with its ancient, wide and varied apiculture - similar in some ways to what I observe in Lithuania (don't tell the Latvians I said that), I just may bring this up when I do presentations in Riga and in Vilnius!

From Bees to Bradford

Posted by jlubans on February 25, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

“We encourage all Bradford residents to come and participate in this annual exercise of democracy.” That’s the message on the Vermont town (est. pop, 2716) of Bradford's web site.
I’ll be inside the auditorium of the depicted Bradford Academy building on March 6 as a guest observer courtesy of Larry Coffin, the town’s Moderator.
Why will I be there? Because the Bradford town meeting is mentioned as an outstanding example of the democratic-decision making process. It is an annual event led by a moderator and not an elected or appointed boss. I know about Bradford (and Larry) from mentions in two books:

Miller, Peter. The Smart Swarm: How Understanding Flocks, Schools, and Colonies Can Make Us Better at Communicating, Decision Making, and Getting Things Done.
New York: Penguin Group 2010 (Describes the Bradford town meeting process on pp. 86-91)
Seeley, Thomas D. Honeybee Democracy
. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 2010 (Seeley comments, on pages 221 & 223, about Larry Coffin’s 40 years of moderating Bradford’s Town Meetings.)
This year there will be a new moderator; Larry has said 40 years is enough, but he will remain one year more as the Parliamentarian who interprets Robert's Rules of Order when procedural questions come up. And, I’d guess he will be there to offer assistance and support as needed for the new Moderator.
Seeley says the effective democratic leader, based on what he has learned from his research on honeybees, is limited to the following:
1. States group’s object
2. Defines group’s decision-making process
3. Keeps group on track
4. Fosters a balanced discussion
5. Identifies when decision is reached
New England town meetings go back to 1663. That first meeting occurred in Dorchester, Massachusetts, near Boston.
Town meetings have their critics, including James Madison: "In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob."
Mr. Madison makes it sound somewhat like a pro wrestling match (I’d expect Passion’s costume (yes, there is a lady wrestler by that name) to beat Reason’s every time). Of course, long after Mr. Madison spoke of Athenian mobs (true to this day!) Civil War General Henry M. Robert’s Rules of Order have helped Reason keep her scepter.
I'll be posting my observations a few days after the meeting.

Leaders in Self-managing Teams: An Oxymoron?

Posted by jlubans on January 18, 2012  •  Leave comment (1)

One of the best parts of my Leading from the Middle workshop in Riga at the end of November 2011 was the student panel: three students from the management class I taught in the spring semester at the University of Latvia. They told the 25 workshop participants about what worked and what could have been better about their self-managing teams. Since the students spoke in Latvian I did not fully (hah!) understand their conclusions. One of the panelists, Aija Uzula, kindly sent me an English summary of her remarks:

“1. I spoke about my own experience of being led by a … supervisor … and then about changes that happened after she got sick for 6 months. During her absence our department changed a lot: everyone found her/his own place in work mechanism and we worked as team. Before that we only did what our supervisor ordered us to do. We learned how to work without anyone ordering us what to do, we had our own experience in ups and downs; it gave us courage to have our own opinion about things. We all tried to lead and to follow without anyone telling anyone else what to do. For me it was great experience, a school of life :)
“2. And, I explained about the projects we worked on in class…. For me the best one was Books2Eat, then interviewing women leaders and worst of all was the final project. I believe that a project is successful if team members are good in cooperation; also, (success) depends on team members' personal issues and characters. (Note: When Aija and I talked, she also mentioned the importance of knowing your teammates. If they are “strangers” then much more group dynamic work needs to be done before all can be comfortable interacting. She reminded me that the Books2Eat and leader interview teams were self-selected. I had appointed the final project’s teams!)
“3. Conclusion. It would be good to take (your) course for all workplace team members not only for one or two, as it was in my experience, so all could get important information and knowledge about how to lead and how to be led, how to follow etc.”

Given Aija’s assessment and from what I understood from the panel presentation, I have taken a second look at what each final project team said they would change and/or what should have gone better. (Each project team's full listing out of "goods" and "not-so-goods" appeared earlier as a blog entry here.)

Here are the “do better” items common to all three teams:
Unclear roles of team members;
Lack of agreement on project topic;
Need to improve group dynamics, including communication and facilitation (form, storm, norm, perform);
Lack of time;
Need for a leader to motivate, make decisions;
Complicated logistical matters; and,
Better teamwork was needed.

Perhaps obviously, each team would have benefited from someone taking on a leadership role. Why did this not happen. After all, they were self-managing; they could have elected a leader. Each group could have spelled out/distributed leader roles. One group might have wanted a boss-type leader. Another group, a leader to guide the group to a decision.

I have learned much from the panel’s feedback. If I were to repeat this assignment I would have the project teams work during class so I could observe and coach their dynamics. Better yet, I would make clear that self-management does not exclude a leader. That would make for an intriguing discussion, how could a self-managing team have a leader?

Thomas Seeley, author of Honeybee Democracy, tells us what the bees taught him about leading humans:

As head of a faculty department he:
1. States the group’s object
2. Defines the group’s decision-making process
3. Keeps the group on track
4. Fosters a balanced discussion
5. Identifies when a decision is reached

Next time, I am going to emphasize these roles so each team member better understands what a leader can and ought to do. And, I would also make use of self-appointed project teams!

Bee Collaboration

Posted by jlubans on October 27, 2011  •  Leave comment (0)

The Honeybee Democracy will be part of my November 30, 2011 Leading from the Middle workshop in Riga.
The bee (“humanity’s greatest friend among the insects”) illustrates the concept of the “leaderless” organization and offers us several tips on how boss-less groups of humans can make good decisions.
The book explains how bees decide on the best location (from among dozens of choices) for a new home through: “identifying a diverse set of options, sharing freely the information about these options, and aggregating this information to choose the best option.”
Thomas D. Seeley, the biologist author, observes: “Remarkably, the scout bees do all these things without working under the guidance of a leader.” And, Seeley’s research demonstrates that the bees pick the optimal new home 4 times out of five, a success rate of 80%.
While each chapter makes for fascinating reading, the epilogue (pp. 233-236) condenses the bees’ process of leaderless decision-making.
What characterizes bee collaboration?
1. No dominating leader, one who can shut down discussion or censor any dissenting views. There are tradeoffs: no one to state the purpose of the discussion, nor someone to define the groups method of decision making no chairman to keep the group on track, nor a firm hand to foster a balanced discussion and bring the meeting to a conclusion with a decision made. It's all up to the group.
2. A strong incentive to make a good decision (survival!) While our mere mortal decisions may not be life or death, there are some decisions crying to be made. As I write this, the several month old Euro sovereign debt crisis with its queen bees at cross purposes - imagine Silvio Berlusconi et al. in bee costumes and you get the idea. Update: as of this afternoon, yet again, a "solution" is proposed: “It remains a deal long on intentions and short on detail....” Send in the bees!
3. One problem to solve. (For us humans, a reminder to keep to the task – to pursue the objective, and not be confused, distracted or off track about what needs doing.)
4. An agreed upon process (rules of procedure) for decision-making. Bees are genetically “hard wired” to do this. Humans are not. Absent a boss, team members need to enforce the agreed upon rules, and “to shape the process, not the product.”
5. An agreement among all about what the problem is (a new home) and the protocol to be used in making the decision for a new home.

Scout bees and team members: Responsibilities
Scout bees, those several dozen adventurers who explore the unknown and return to advise the swarm, suggest what each member of a human team ought to do. The scout bees:
1. Find multiple locations for new homes. (They have to find, explore, and analyze each possible new location, the new idea for a solution.
2. Share the news about what they find. (The scout has to know of what he or she “speaks” – each scout is prepared. There’s no holding back the information or not participating.)
3. Convince other scouts in open debate about why one option is better than the others. (The scouts offer-up excited announcements in dance. Their waggle dance is about the direction, distance and desirability of the new site; each dance advertises the findings - interested scouts will go to the actual site and report - the better sites get more visitors. All views are welcome and all views are respected. There is no suppression of dissenting views, nor is there pressure toward social conformity.)
4. Reach an unanimous choice of the one best site – no dog-in-the-manger bees allowed!

Friday Fable. Aesop's “The Lion, the Fox, and the Ass”*

Posted by jlubans on April 25, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Fox, yessing Lion.
“THE LION, the Fox and the Ass entered into an agreement to assist each other in the chase. Having secured a large booty, the Lion on their return from the forest asked the Ass to allot his due portion to each of the three partners in the treaty. The Ass carefully divided the spoil into three equal shares and modestly requested the two others to make the first choice. The Lion, bursting out into a great rage, devoured the Ass. Then he requested the Fox to do him the favor to make a division. The Fox accumulated all that they had killed into one large heap and left to himself the smallest possible morsel. The Lion said, 'Who has taught you, my very excellent fellow, the art of division? You are perfect to a fraction.' He replied, 'I learned it from the Ass, by witnessing his fate.'”
“Happy is the man who learns from the misfortunes of others.”

The vegetarian ass is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
You may be wondering, what does this have to do with the work place? Like the fox, we observe what occurs to others. If someone speaks the truth to the boss, what happens? If the leader reacts harshly – like scapegoating the questioner – then those observing know they’re at risk, too. How many organizations lose healthy and constructive debate because of a fear among participants of negative reaction. How often does the seemingly unified view carry and result in poor decisions? There’s evidence that when like minded people agree to do something, they are likely to go with the extreme view, the worst possible decision; hence the need for a diverse perspectives. The only way to get that is through a clement organizational climate, one that encourages constructive dissent. That’s the only way, as honeybee researcher Tom Seeley puts it, to “aggregate the group’s knowledge through debate.” He’s been able to put his observations about bee behavior to good use as a department chair at Cornell.

*Source: AESOP'S FABLES By Aesop Translated by George Fyler Townsend (probably from this edition): “Three hundred and fifty Aesop's fables”. Chicago, Belford, Clarke & Co., 1886.
Available at Gutenberg.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

“…of the people, by the people, for the people …." (Revised March 20, 2012)

Posted by jlubans on March 18, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

(NEW: See a video excerpt from the March 6 Bradford town meeting).
On the way from North Carolina to Bradford, Vermont, for its March 6, 2012 town meting, my wife and I detoured to Gettysburg, a sacred place in America’s history. Standing near where President Lincoln spoke, his words, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth" evoked new meaning. I was about to witness in Bradford some part of what Lincoln meant by “of the people, by the people, for the people” – self-government.

A large sign on the door to the Bradford Academy urged people to vote – It is Super Tuesday.
20120318-frontdoor.jpeg Caption: Entry to the Bradford Academy building. Its attractively renovated auditorium hosted the town meeting.

Larry Coffin, the about-to-retire Moderator, introduced my wife and me to the assemblage, about 150 people, mentioning by way of explanation, that the Bradford town meeting has now been described in two books, “both about bees”, and that I was there to do some research on organizational dynamics.
This, the 239th meeting, started promptly at 9AM. As has been the custom for many years, all rose for the Salute to the flag, hands over hearts. Quoting from last year’s minutes: “(The Moderator) asked for a moment of silence in memory of those in our community who passed away last year and in honor of those who serve our Community, State and Nation by placing themselves in harm’s way and to acknowledge the exercise in Democracy we are about to undertake. The Girl Scouts led the Pledge of Allegiance.”

In Larry’s 40th year as Moderator (1971 – 2012), he passed the gavel to a newly elected Moderator, Mark Johnson, a retired elementary school principal and until recently the manager of the Village Store.
The Moderator receives a stipend of $100 for the year, so this is more in the volunteer spirit than with making a profit. (I observed an ethos in this community of doing for oneself and others rather than expecting someone else to do it. One annual report cites a neighbor who takes in or puts up at a motel, at his own expense, the few homeless in Bradford).
The moderator is elected annually. Here is what Larry says about town meetings and the role of the Moderator:
“Town meetings remain one of the best examples of participatory democracy in the world. It is within the confines of public debate that voters get to thrash out, face to face, issues facing the town’s government.” The town meeting “operates under a combination of Roberts, Vermont state law and our own traditional rules of procedure. As moderator I have always felt it is my responsibility to help a voter who is unsure of the proper way to bring a motion before the assembly. If there are any decisions of the moderator that a voter wishes to appeal, the right to do so exists.“
I had been under the assumption that the moderator has no vote. To the contrary, I quote Larry again: "It is not correct to say that the moderator has no vote, for, as with most presiding officers, he may vote only when his vote makes a difference in a divison of the house (hand, or standing). In that case he can vote to break or make a tie. He can also vote in a ballot vote."

During breaks in the meeting, several people introduced themselves, curious about us flatlanders and obviously proud of their town and way of life. In response to my wife's question about whether the town meeting concept could work in a diverse community, say like Durham with its split black and white populations, a Bradford citizen observed: “Each town is different.”( In other words, the concept can work if people are willing to subordinate individual agendas to the greater good.) I noted a pithiness of speech time and again during the meeting as people offered comments, asked questions and made motions. The orotund would not fare well in Bradford.
Robert Miller (Larry's former student) and Chair of the Selectboard) recognized, with a plaque, Larry's historic years of service and contributions to “participatory democracy.” Mr. Miller told the assembly that Larry as moderator was just the way he was as a teacher: “fair and respectful”. (Larry taught Social Studies in Bradford for 42 years.)
Following several questions about the annual reports – questions that revealed a close reading and understanding of what may be missing or in error – the group moved on to the business of the day.
Election: Two candidates are running for a Selectman’s seat, Randy Moore and Bob Wing. Each candidate gave a brief statement on why he is interested in the job and his qualifications. Randy minced no words. Speaking from the back of the auditorium he indicated the selectmen in the front and said: “There isn’t anyone up there I can’t get along with!”
The election proceeded and all got in line. Each voter has a paper ballot, marks his or her choice of name on paper; checks in at registry desk and then drops paper slip in a ballot box.
20120318-middle line.jpeg Caption: Voters line up to cast their ballot for the selectman of their choice. The Ballot box is on the far right. Two monitors stand by the box. Behind, on the stage, is where the selectmen sit during the meeting.

Article 4: “To see what sum of money the town will vote for General Fund purposes for the year 2012, and to vote to determine the time and manner of collecting monies for General Fund and Town Highway purposes.” $854, 993.00 is approved for the General Fund. Discussion reveals frustration with the auditors because the size of the expected surplus remains nebulous; 2011’s audit is not complete. One voice calls out: “Fire ‘em!” “We did”, responds a selectman.
In the course of the meeting, each of the articles was read out and discussed, fielding pointed questions from various corners. Most questions get good answers; usually someone rises and explains, with specifics, why the money should be distributed to a service and what it does for Bradford. Voice votes pass most of the articles, The Ayes have it. Good humor prevails.
Article 9: Shall the town appropriate $5,000 for the Bradford Conservation Fund? got a different response. One person asked matter-of-factly, “Why are we giving this group money; they’ll use it to take property off our tax rolls!" Murmurs of assent. One or two spoke in defense of this appropriation. The voice vote was too close to call. Larry offered to count.
20120318-conservoteLarry.jpegCaption: Larry Coffin in the distant background in black sweater counts the hands.

65 Ayes, 69 Nays, the motion fails.

Larry told me that sometimes an item’s passage depends on who is asking. For example, one less than popular person had a good idea for a different way of voting – it made sense, but it did not pass. Larry attributed that failure to an abrasive personality.
Another case, a youngish progressive man got a well-regarded businessman to make a motion against nuclear waste being trucked, on the Interstate, past the town. That motion passed. Had the young man offered it, it might not.
To me, many of the questioners were well informed. Also, those speaking for or against a motion said their well-reasoned piece with brevity and sat down. Had someone spoken up for the Conservation Fund – showing that in the long run its work was positive for the tax base, it might have passed. The Conservation Commission which, holds the Conservation Fund, appears to be a well-organized group, so the lack of an articulate response may have been atypical.
Two agencies indicated they were late with their requests – had failed to follow the rules - and asked for their allocation from the floor. While there was general sympathy for the groups, getting them the money was not easy within the confines of the town meeting. And, there was some grumbling about a group's failing to follow the process when others had.
It is invariably best for a local citizen to explain – in the bee world, to perform a “waggle dance” - how a cooperative, multi-town service benefits Bradford. For example: Article 11: Shall the town appropriate $2,000 for the Oxbow Senior Independence Project, Adult Day Services?
Caption: Dianne Smarro, Bradford citizen, explains how the project benefits Bradford, clarifying that 30% of those participating are from Bradford.

Well-informed comments help get the Ayes.

The Bradford Moderator aligns well with Seeley’s description of a democratic leader. Notably, the Moderator facilitated discussion and sought to make sure the process was followed. Not once did the Moderator suggest how the vote should go!
Here is what Seeley learned from his bee research and applied to his chairing of a departmental faculty. He says the democratic leader is limited – for the best results - to the following:
1. States group’s object
2. Defines group’s decision-making process
3. Keeps group on track
4. Fosters a balanced discussion
5. Identifies when decision is reached
It would be good to debate the merits of Seeley’s democratic leader, the town meeting process and the traditional boss/leader (“We’re not going to vote on it!”). Which approach produces the best decisions? The democratic bees select the best place for a new nest 80% of the time. Can humans do better? I'd put my money on the participatory model, one that is open and safe for well informed participants to speak their minds.
Reflecting about Bradford, I wish I had tried voting more often in my work meetings – Seeley’s quorum response (with anonymous ballots) suggests an effective and safe way of voting for professional groups. A vote (hand, voice, or quorum) in work situations might actually be easier than looking for the ever-elusive consensus. That consensus, in my experience, usually turned out to be a poor compromise, everyone getting a little of what they want, but far from the best solution. Larry 's comments about voting are germane: "(T)he results of a secret ballot vote are sometimes different from one in which a voter has to declare preference in front of others. Voice votes in a large group such as (a town meeting) are not very accurate, unless clearly one sided...different voices, different volumes. that is why the moderator says "The ayes appear to have it" to allow for a request for a counted vote."
Of course, democratic decision-making takes preparation and interest by all participants in what is happening. You have to do the homework. Like the Bradford townspeople, each participant has to read and examine critically the annual reports and budgets. Sometimes when we are not in charge we leave the details, even the general pros and cons, to someone else; the more absolute the boss, the less informed the subordinates. That is not what I observed in Bradford. Surely, Mr. Lincoln would have approved!

“The Amber Quantity”

Posted by jlubans on November 21, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley, will be one of the required readings in my Democratic Workplace class in early 2013 at the University of Latvia.
I think the students will find the book of interest because it is well written – even the research is clearly conveyed – and because honey (medus) and the honey bee (medus bite) are a part of Latvian daiy life. Evidence of the centuries-old apiculture tradition is that you cannot turn around in Riga’s large central market without bumping into honey vendors selling dozens of types of honey and beeswax products. Nor is honey limited to one of the five large halls (former Zeppelin hangars).

Caption 1. Inside the produce hall.
20121121-upclose produce.jpeg
Caption 2. More produce outside on a sunny winter’s day.

Each hall has a focus - one for meat, another for dairy, another for produce, but I can find honey in all five, and often in between the halls or outside in the open air. There are dozens of honey types all with special qualities for healing the lovelorn, boosting your immune system or rescuing one from insomnia.
When the class talks about Honeybee Democracy, I'd like to introduce this poem by Emily Dickinson:
Least Bee that brew—
A Honey's Weight
The Summer multiply—
Content Her smallest fraction help
The Amber Quantity—

English professor Marjorie Pryse, in her article” What Beekeeping Taught Me” explains some of what the poem means and what she hopes her students will come to understand:
“For Dickinson, the ‘least bee’ produces the ‘smallest fraction,’ but the honey she produces serves to ‘multiply’ the energy, light, warmth, color, and intensity of summer. Dickinson anthropomorphizes the bee, calling her ‘content’ to ‘help / the Amber Quantity.’”

For me, Dickinson’s “Amber Quantity” suggests the role of the individual in helping realize a collective good. Someone working on a democratic team brings, unstintingly, his or her unique talent to the group effort. The result, the outcome, the goal achieved - whatever it may be - is the merged effort of the individual and the other team members. And, like the honey bee, we can be “content” in our and the group’s achievement, the “Amber Quantity.” I don’t mean to imply there is anything mindlessly submissive about group effort; rather I refer to the joy of being an active and helping part of a group that achieves what it sets out to do.

PS. The next time you are in Sydney peruse Leading from the Middle at the University of New South Wales.


Posted by jlubans on April 17, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: You won’t believe what happens next when Kim Jong Un puts a bowl of M&Ms on the table!!!

Of late, I’ve been reading about meetings and groups; why they do or don’t do well. Take the humorously snide “Meet Is Murder” by Virginia Heffernan.
I read Heffernan side by side with the NYTime’s take on perfect teams at Google.
And, I’ve revisited my blog on how busy bees get it done.
Finally, the insights of the corporate sabotage manual resurfaced.
Here are two teams in meetings, according to the Google story:
Team A:
Composed of stars. Each in turn offers, at length, his or her expert opinion. Distractions are promptly reigned in. Starts and ends on time. No chitchat. At the end, people get up and leave.
Team B:
A mix of stars and regular employees. Discussion wanders. All listen and all interact with speakers. If the topic changes, the group follows. If Team A is efficient and tightly wound, Team B is inefficiently loosey-goosey. At meeting’s end people stay and gossip.
What’s your preference? There is evidence that suggests Team B is more productive than Team A. How can that be? How can a motley crew outdo the best and the brightest?
Why meet? There are the obvious reasons; to get together and exchange ideas and to take action. There’s an urgency about these initial meetings.
When that urgency dies out – and it almost always does - then meetings become formal and routine, sappers of time, dreaded by the productive and esteemed by the unproductive. Free food and drink, including color-coded M&Ms, do not bring back that initial sense of urgency, that quintessential reason to get something done. Nor does a bag of donuts or a slice of pizza establish trust between leader and followers.
Maybe some people do not need to meet; they just need to be left alone to do their job?
Meetings are work, hard work. The more we ignore the HOW of our meeting, the worse it gets.
I recall my meetings, one on one and in groups. At the start of my run with an organization the meetings went well. Then they split in two directions. It was like Team A and Team B above. Team B meetings continued in productive ways. Team A meetings became more and more formal and less and less got done.
When I took part in Team A type meetings, I had to accept some of the blame, at least half. I could have changed the tone of those meetings, but did not know enough on how to do that.
Team B meetings were a matter of personality and like-mindedness – we all agreed upon and wanted change and were willing to do more than our share. And, we trusted each other.
Team A avoided more. Team B confronted more.
Yes, I could have done something about the boring meetings, I could have asked myself: Why is this meeting so dull? Why is this person telling me things he/she thinks I want to hear? Why is this team not including me in idea generation? Why is this team not asking me for my ideas?
At one of my jobs, the little joke about Kim Jong Un’s bowl of M&Ms would apply. No, execution by anti-aircraft gun was not the likely outcome of a suppressed yawn, but there was some death of soul going on, much nodding and smile-making.
What would happen if Kim Jong Un told the assembly to put down their silly notebooks and pencils? In my case, it’s unlikely our alleged A team's going “at ease!” would transition us into a real B team.
At the end of her essay, Virginia Heffernan asks:
“What’s so bad about meetings, after all? At bottom, they are nothing but time with your fellows. Which suggests that hating meetings might be akin to hating traffic, families or parties — just another way to express our deep ambivalence about that hard fact of existence: other people.”

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Brainstorming and Arm-wrestling

Posted by jlubans on May 30, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

Jonah Lehrer’s provocative article, “The brainstorming myth” in the New Yorker got me thinking about how some groups are bursting with innovation energy and others are entrenched like stumps.
Lehrer backs up his hypothesis with research studies that conclude that brainstorming – with its “no criticism” rule – does not work. He cites Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”
Certainly I have seen brainstorming fail, but that failure rarely had anything to do with Lehrer’s central point: “Brainstorming enshrined a no-judgments approach to holding a meeting.” What gets in the way is less the suspension of criticism and more a lack of good ideas or a pathological reluctance to share those ideas.
In one instance I challenged, in a public forum, a group of 20 peers – the year I chaired this group of directors of large higher education bureaucracies - to come up with a quick list of ideas on what we could do to increase the productivity of our 2500 staff members. To me it would be a fun and creative exercise and we just might come up with some promising stuff. That’s not how it worked out. The group, recruited from the best and the brightest of our profession, had few ideas – I do not recall our pursuing a single one. Perhaps they were not willing to take part because of me – a maverick with democratic notions – or they feared looking foolish to the audience in the meeting room. Regardless, the slim pickings made me wonder at the time how these directors developed new procedures and processes in their bailiwicks. I suspected most leaned toward top-down directives with minimal staff discussion.
So, while Lehrer triggered this memory of a brainstorming failure, I also recall brainstorming that got good results. Success probably happened because of other factors. For one thing, there was good camaraderie and people were invested. Participants felt connected to each other – trust was high – and each participant knew the topic. Like the self-managing Orpheus musicians in rehearsal, each well-informed participant could see the big picture and did not limit his or her thinking to the immediate horizon.
Personally, brainstorming, or something like it, works for me. Give me a problem and I can list out two or three dozen ways to fix it. While jotting down ideas, I am aware some are foolish. I don’t stop to debate with myself, I build on those ideas – they become useful to me as I look for a solution. I hurry on until I feel myself circling back to earlier ideas – a natural stopping point. Then, and this is a key point, I quickly separate the wheat from the chaff - out of a list of 30 I will probably keep five or six, something in the 20% range, for further exploration.
And, I have seen brainstorming result in excellent ideas in the Future Search process of exploring where an organization wants to be. Absent a corporate will, the process breaks down – in my experience – at the crunch question: what will we stop doing to gain resources for the new?
Still, Lehrer’s explorations give us much to consider. He heralds that the best group work results when we are “hurled together” (architecturally). “Human friction creates sparks.” The best office space is open with an environment that forces us to interact with each other serendipitously and frequently rather than doodling behind closed doors. Executive suites, non-profit and for-profit, are at the opposite of Lehrer’s optimum. If you want a collaborative team at the top, you need to facilitate frequent interaction. Apparently, Steve Jobs did so at Apple: “he had the building arranged around a central atrium, so that (the) diverse staff of artists, writers, and computer scientists would run into each other more often.” (I wish it were that simple!)
Caption: Herb Kelleher Arm Wrestles For Ad Slogan "Just Plane Smart". (He" lost" and won!)
When I interviewed Herb Kelleher (pictured), the iconoclastic leader of Southwest Airlines, I saw that there were no windows in corporate offices and that the Love Field headquarters building had hallways so wide you could drive a herd of cattle down them. The walls were decorated with hundreds of examples of corporate lore and here and there were stations for people to sit and interact in chance meetings.
The quintessentials for successful group work are an organizational culture that supports (celebrates) group work and that people trust each other. For more ideas, see my Chapter 10: It’s in the DNA: Infusing Organizational Values at Southwest in Leading from the Middle.
Our greatest friend among the insects, the honeybee, has something to say to us in this regard. On page 43 of the Smart Swarm book, the author paraphrases Seeley’s “must haves” for bees to choose the best location for a future home: “Seek a diversity of knowledge. Encourage a friendly competition of ideas. Use an effective mechanism to narrow your choices.”

Mediocre Teams

Posted by jlubans on April 08, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

An obituary set me thinking about work teams I’ve known and why some thrived while some dithered.
The death notice was for Psychologist Susan Wheelan who studied work teams and extended Tuckman’s research on the evolutionary phases of teamwork, form, storm, norm, perform.
Feudin’, fussin’ and a-fightin’
In my experience,” storming” is the most problematic phase for any team. Wheelan offered ways to get through this fevered state into something healthful and productive.
Her guidance was pragmatic. She said in a 2000 interview: “When I go into a company I’m often asked, ’You’re not one of those touchy-feely types, are you?’”
“‘No,’ I say. ‘Here’s my data. This is how it works.’”
She knew well that all too many teams never get past the storming or trust building phase, forever stuck in a purgatory of pretending to be effective when all their work and effort show otherwise.
Yet, it seems few can break through the chronic impasse.
Unlike most of us who prefer to avoid conflict, Dr. Wheelan saw it as necessary for working through differences and establishing a climate in which members feel free to express disagreements.
Patience, she espoused, is a must.
Unless one is lucky, no team hits the road running. As I learned over several decades of team management - and Wheelan confirms - a team will need at least six months to become highly effective and then only if it can break through the storming phase.
Of course, if it never gets past storming, the team will be forever mediocre.
There is help out there for those of us who do not want to settle for mediocre. Several techniques offer ways for teams to get to good performance.
And, instead of pushing, I’d be more patient. Most important, I’d call more timeouts to check in with the team and how it is doing: What’s working? What’s not?
Quorum response.
Choose the right team players!
Red, Yellow or Green? Stop, Idle, or Go?
AAR, “After Action Review”.
Team Wellbeing Test
Our friend the honey bee suggests techniques for reaching agreement without wasting time: As I wrote, “a quorum response is an antidote to endless debate. Once a threshold number is reached among bees for where to nest, that is a quorum and those bees that have yet to be persuaded, now stop advertising and sign on to the chosen nest. In faculty decisions, ones requiring a unanimous vote like for granting tenure, Dr. Seeley - the bee researcher and a department head - takes periodic anonymous straw polls. He finds that once 80% of the professors agree with a decision, the others concede.”
When choosing team players, include women, experts, and expert generalists. All should share interests and provide mutual respect. Let no one individual dominate the team discussion and abide by explicit team norms. (What does it mean to be a team participant?)
Here are a few variations on ye olde Plus/Delta (a rapid listing of what’s working? and what is not?)
The plus/delta is helpful in my teaching; I do one early in each class and then one after the in-class final - the anonymouss "Slam/Dunk" version - to find useful information for the next semester.
Also, I ask each student project team to do a plus/delta and to hand it in to me. I've been impresses with the team's honesty and candour about team dynamics.
A team leader could do a rapid-fire plus/delta after every meeting to get at things unsaid and needing to be said.
In the plus/delta genre there’s the traffic light approach to taking team mood. Are members overly cautious, hesitant (yellow), fiercely opposed (red) or feeling groovy (green)? What are the underlying issues for those team members who choose yellow or red lights? How will you find out?
Then there’s the AAR, “After Action Review”, a process for group assessment of how things are going, what learnings there might be, and what is missing/needed.
The AAR – if guided well - may be better for novice teams seeking openness and honesty.
I once used my one page Team Well Being Test with a Nascar racing team’s three pit crews, each in competition with the other.
Here are several of the questions I asked each pit crew member to rate on a five point scale from weak to strong:
Inclusion (Am I in or am I out?)
Elbow room (I’m easy or I’m crowded)
Discussion (Is it free or is it guarded?)
Level of conflict (Is it low and tolerable or high?)
Handling of conflict (Do we work on it or avoid it?)
Support (Each to all or self only?)
Not a single member responded! They were not about to reveal personal and team weaknesses.
Two decades later the team remains mired in mediocrity and down to one pit crew and driver and seemingly satisfied with finishing anywhere from 15th-25th place in a 40 car field.
I’d venture they are still stuck in the “storming” phase of team development. The stock car team owner should have sent a SOS to Dr. Wheelan!

© Copyright John Lubans 2020