How to Make Your Team Resilient

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ToL Podcast Posting Image 162 SteedResilience is the ability of a team to perform well — reliably, correctly, quickly — under extreme pressure.

What makes a team resilient, and how do you as a leader make your team resilient?

Ron Steed has studied this for years, and in the most demanding of environments — nuclear submarines.

On subs, team effectiveness means life or death.

If you’ve seen a team work well in normal times, only to collapse under pressure, then Steed’s insights should ring true for you, too. They certainly did for me.

How Teams Handle Pressure

Under pressure, average teams deal with increasing pressure in predictable ways:

  • Dropping low-priority (or uninspected) tasks
  • Ignoring competitors
  • Thinking shorter term

These really do make life easier… in the short term. In the long term they kill you.

How Resilient Teams Handle Pressure

Truly resilient teams have learned to handle increasing pressure differently:

  • Triaging tasks deliberately
  • Noticing competitors appropriately
  • Organizing tasks by time horizon and setting reminders about the long term
  • Understanding the mission deeply so short term goals can be evaluated against the mission.

You won’t get there in one leap.

Good leadership matters, in growing team resilience.

The leader gets the team through pressure while the team grows its ability to handle increasing pressure more and more independently.

Teams start in a “novice” phase where they work well only under moderate loads.

The leader ensures that the team first:

  • Masters the technical details of their jobs
  • Cross-trains with each other
  • Learns techniques of triage and managing complexity
  • Develops ways to track the work that reduce cognitive load (e.g. kanban boards, visual management, etc.)
  • Knows and internalizes the mission and how their role and task relate to the mission

The leader then starts to give the team more freedom to fail (in small ways) and let the team make its own decisions (including bad ones).

The leader now wrestles his ego — because it’s so fun to be the satisfying, heroic role of saving the team and making the decisions and ensuring there are no mistakes or failures — and the leader must keep steady through the inevitable dip in performance.

Leaders must value team learning more than they value perfect team performance.

The Standard Setting Event

As the leader is giving the team more space, she’s also alert to teachable moments — especially what Ron calls a “standard setting event.” One such is the error that’s below standard. The leader waits for one to happen, or be about to happen, then pauses the team, gathers them together, and they look at the event with their learning hats on. The leader says “we can’t ever have that happen again. How do we ensure that?”

The other opportunity is the moment of really excellent performance. Here too the leader can pause the action, gather the team, and say “we should do it like that every time. That’s excellent. How do we ensure that?”

Leaders who consistently point out examples of excellence — not merely to puff people up emotionally, but to provide education so everyone knows what “excellence” is — are leaders who get more and more excellence.

There are some cultures (like submarine crews, or medicine) that are very focused on the negative — avoiding errors — and they are forced to deal with ambiguity, time pressure, and a very appropriate desire to not make a mistake and kill anyone.

Resilient Teams and Stories

To handle complexities, teams learn to share “a story” of what’s going on — a shared narrative — yet they must be aware that “the story is a lie.” We have to be able to change the story to fit the data. Stories are a paradox — because they hold such explanatory power and help the team share an understanding, but stories are always over-simplifications.

Leader-dependent teams will be loyal to the leader’s story and will reject pesky data. Resilient teams must learn to honor the data and jettison old stories for new ones quickly.

Data vs. Information

When front line people only report data, they put the burden of assessment on the leader. This overloads the leader rapidly. To move to resilience, team members must embrace (and leaders must require) front line people to do the analysis, to turn the data into information.

One way to do that is, as leader, to say “Thank you for that data. What do you think it means?” This is now a mentoring opportunity.

There’s a lot more in the interview — listen and enjoy. 

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