Break the Monkey Collecting Cycle

Used through Creative Commons

Photo from Missbrendatoyou

You’ve arrived early to work and are making great progress on that huge to do list.  At 8:30, one of your employees comes in with a problem. Fifteen minutes later, you’ve added 2 tasks to your to do list.  At 9:00 a second employee comes in and 15 minutes later, you’ve added another 2 tasks to your to do list.  At 10:00 a third employee comes in and 15 minutes later, you’ve added another 2 tasks to your to do list … and so on … and so on …

Sound familiar?  This is what William Oncken calls “taking on monkeys.” Taking on monkeys is work you take on that others should be doing and it’s a great metaphor to help managers understand where their time has gone and why their team is not functioning well. Why do managers take on monkeys?  Any number of reasons including:

  1. They are unsure about their subordinate’s abilities.
  2. They are unable to distinguish between helping subordinates and doing their work for them.
  3. They think it would take longer to get results from someone else than to do it themselves.
  4. They are unable to say “no”.
  5. They are control freaks.
  6. They are perfectionists.
  7. Others???  Just keep asking yourself why 5 times and you’ll get to the heart of the matter for you.

While familiar with all of these myself, I still struggle with #3 … just ask my husband and business partner Dave. I am definitely impatient and want everything done yesterday and done right (ok I might also struggle with #6).

So, what’s a manager to do?  Well, the main goal is to move through your day without collecting monkeys (and ideally getting rid of a few of your own monkeys!) and if you do accept a monkey, be deliberate about it and feed and care for it (in other words, if you take on a monkey then do that “to do”, don’t let it starve to death on your to do list.)  So the first thing you need to do is some soul searching about WHY you are collecting monkeys. If it’s any of the reasons above, get yourself a coach to wean you off a few bad habits.

If you’ve got subordinates who don’t have the skills or inclination to look after their own monkeys then Oncken suggests you need to help your subordinates move up the initiative scale. There are 5 levels on the scale as noted below:

5 Act on own; routine reporting (highest initiative)
4 Act, but advise at once
3 Recommend, then take resulting action
2 Ask what to do
1 Wait until told (lowest initiative)

There are two things a manager should do in relation to these levels. One is to not let their employees operate at levels 1 and 2 (and this is where getting your own control behavior tamed is so important … if you think that no one can do things as well as you, you are doomed to a life of longer and longer to do lists.) The second is to have your employee walk out of your office with their own monkey and absolute clarity about the level at which you expect them to operate.

So, help yourself and your team by breaking the monkey collecting cycle today.

This blog is based on the 5 of Spades, Delegate with Care, taken from our Teamwork Explorer. Written by Tammy.

Top 5 Tips for New Teams

Thanks to

Thanks to

While some teams stay together for years, others need to come together and deliver results quickly.  These top 5 tips are taken from our Teamwork cards.  Each of the following tips also has a full blog post to support it, should you need more detail.

  1. Ace of Hearts – Develop a Shared VisionThere is no one right way to develop a shared vision but sometimes approaching it indirectly can be easier for people. Have each member of your team answer the following questions. Once everyone has identified their responses, have a team discussion and see what emerges as a result. This can lead to a vision statement in a more concrete way than just asking people to describe their vision. Think back to a great team experience. Describe that experience. What was it about that experience that was so positive? How did it differ from other team experiences? How can this team create that kind of experience? What would we commit ourselves to? What values would we demonstrate?
  2. Jack of Spades – Play to your Strengths Everybody performs better when they play to their strengths. Make sure that individuals’ strengths are taken into account when roles are assigned and tasks allotted. One way to do this would be to have the team discuss what strengths would be needed to accomplish a role or task before it is allotted. Also check out Gallup’s Strengths Finder book for a more formal approach to discovering your strengths.
  3. Ace of Spades – AccountabilityKnowing who is responsible for what is vital to a team’s success. It’s very easy for these accountabilities to be too vague, especially when there are changes in team membership. Who is responsible for what is the most important thing to have documented at the end of any team meeting.
  4. Ace of Clubs – Deciding how to Make DecisionsOne of the most important things a team leader does is decide how best to make any particular decision. There are numerous decision making strategies such as democratic, consensus, and autocratic, but knowing which to use in any particular context is the real key to successful decision making on teams. Leaders should pay particular attention to the number of people involved and the magnitude of the impact of the decision when selecting a decision making strategy.
  5. Nine of Hearts – Be PresentPeople have become accustomed to being constantly connected to email no matter where they are. While some people can be effective multi-taskers, sometimes this pre-occupation with mobile devices can be a way to avoid unpleasant conversations and/or distract you from important activities and conversations. Monitor your “presence” and that of your team members, and use technology wisely. What message are you sending with your Blackberry use?

This blog post is inspired by Teamwork Explorer – an iPhone app. Along with this “winning hand” for a new team, the app features 12 other common team challenges and offers solutions for each.

No More Boring, Bad Meetings

Be honest … are you guilty of leading boring or bad meetings?  I know I have been even though I should know better.  Many years ago now, the brilliant (and much younger!) John Cleese dramatized his meeting sins in a now famous training video:

  1. failing to prepare himself
  2. failing to inform others of what a meeting was about
  3. failing to plan the agenda
  4. failing to control the discussion
  5. failing to record the decisions

This shortened YouTube version of the original 30 minute training video, Meetings, Bloody Meetings, is worth a watch.

A more recent and complementary take on this topic is Patrick Lencioni’s fable Death by Meeting.  Lencioni suggests that most meetings are bad because they lack drama, context and purpose.  Given that the majority of important work needs to get done in meetings, he suggests team leaders become more accountable and address it in the following ways:

  1. Take a lesson from the movies.  Hollywood movie makers know that they need to introduce some confict or high interest into the movie within the first 10 minutes. Likewise, leaders should put the most controversial or engaging topic at the beginning of their meetings.
  2. Schedule more meetings! Seems counterintuitive but Lencioni suggests that most leaders try to put every type of task or purpose into one meeting (probably to get away from spending too much time in meetings!) and in so doing, almost doom their meeting from the get go.  He suggests teams set up four types of meetings:
  • Daily Check-in – as its name implies a quick 5-10 mins “how are things going?” Avoid the temptation to spill over into the next two or this meeting won’t work!
  • Weekly Tactical – This meeting should be no longer than one hour, and deal with the discussion and resolution of issues that affect the team’s short term and tactical objectives.  The team should quickly decide which items should be discussed in this meeting and avoid the temptation to spill over into strategic issues.  For this to work, the team needs to be crystal clear on its priorities in order to spend its time on the right issues.
  • Monthly Strategic – This is the meeting for discussion of topics that will have a long term impact on the business. These meetings should be longer and include time for exploration, brainstorming and open dialogue. Limit discussion to a few topics and allow 1-2 hours for each topic.
  • Quarterly Off-site Review – As the name implies these meetings are for people to step away from the day to day business, take a time out and reflect upon the entire big picture – how the team is doing, morale, engagement, the company’s strategy, trends affecting the business and so on.  These reviews can last anywhere from half a day to two days.

In our work with many teams, we see a few patterns. One is the team that has a difficult time discussing strategy even when they are in a strategy meeting.  This can be because people on the team lack expertise or the tools to discuss strategy. Two is the type of team who, as Lencioni suggests, tries to accomplish every task at every meeting. Three is the team that doesn’t ever take time away for an off-site review or retreat because they don’t have time. Ironically, the less time they spend on these types of off-sites the more time they spend frittering their time away on the wrong kinds of things and/or getting into interpersonal conflict.

What strategies have you used to ensure folks look forward to meetings instead of dreading them?

This blog is based on the 9 of Spades, When to Meet and When to Work, taken from our Teamwork Explorer. Written by Tammy.

When to Meet, When to Work

Are Mobile Phones Derailing Difficult Conversations?

Photo thanks to the Next Web

Photo thanks to the Next Web

The idea that Blackberry usage can actually lower your IQ and curb creativity has been around for a few years now.   Linda Stone calls this continuous partial attention and suggests that people engage in it because they don’t want to miss anything.  I think the reverse is sometimes true – people will use their Blackberries TO MISS something.

I became aware of this a few years ago while working with an executive team. The team was comprised of executives from two different companies and they were going through a challenging merger.  Whenever certain topics would surface, the CEO would grab her notebook and write furiously. The CFO soon followed by becoming completely preoccupied with his Blackberry. After watching this for half a day, I commented on it and asked whether this pattern of behavior meant anything.  Turns out it did and the conversation that unfolded led to some great insights for the team and a request that the team “be present” with each other at meetings from then on.

What role do mobile devices play on your team?   Do team members engage in any other distractions (like writing in a notebook, thinking about tonight’s dinner, cracking a joke) when uncomfortable or unpleasant conversations come up?  What would it mean to “be present” on your team and how might that enhance your team effectiveness and creativity?

This blog is based on the 9 of Hearts, Be Present, taken from our Teamwork Explorer. Written by Tammy.

Be Present

It’s Time for the Adult to Take Over

Sandbox with thanks to lowlmagination

Sandbox with thanks to lowlmagination

“I feel like I’m playing in the sandbox with a bunch of misbehaving kids,” lamented Pat, a very successful CEO of a large company.  She was a collaborative leader who involved her executives in decision making, but the team was under stress and acting like a group of little kids in the sandbox.

“Perhaps it’s time for the adult to take over,” I suggested which led to a fascinating conversation about the challenges of being a collaborative leader.  I had learned this from IDEO, a very successful design company, whose innovation teams are very collaborative, creative and emergent, and also, at the right times, directed by a few of the “self appointed adults” to complete certain tasks to ensure that they don’t spin off into complete chaos.

You know it’s time for the team leader to be the “adult” and take over when:

  1. Problem solving processes have run their course and you need to move forward. Some teams can get into “ideaphoria” and resist closure because they are not confident about their ability to deliver.  The team leader needs to force closure on the team and help the team with its confidence.
  2. Timelines are critical and short and there is no time for collaboration. The team leader needs to provide the plan and delegate to get the task done.
  3. Some (or all) team members do not have the skills.  The team leader needs to provide direction and suggestions about how to tackle the problem at hand.
  4. The team is not functioning well as a team. Once again, the team leader needs to provide direction and suggestions or delegation of tasks to get things done.
  5. If a team is under extreme stress, the leader needs to help the team take a time out, regroup and get back on track.
  6. If there has been a major emergency or catastrophe that is likely to cause chaos, confusion, or strong emotions, the leader needs to step in and provide stability and direction for the team.

The key to switching between a collaborative and autocratic style is to let your team members know, ideally before, but certainly at the time, why you are using this particular style.  If you don’t, you risk breaking trust with team members. If you are on a team where there is no formal leader, have the conversation about who the “adults” will be in the above situations. It will save your team time and heartache.

What style do you use?  Are there times when you’ve used a more autocratic style?

This blog is based on the 10 of Clubs, Autocratic, taken from our Teamwork Explorer. Written by Tammy.

Autocratic Decision Making

What do Cartoon Thought Bubbles Have to do with Teams?

The Implications of Thought Bubbles

Thought Bubbles in Action on a Team

“I feel like Switzerland and I just want to bash their heads together.”  Sarah was exasperated with two members of her team and was telling me how tired she was of listening to their stories and how awkward team meetings were becoming.

“What would happen if you told them that? Perhaps not about bashing their heads together but about how you feel? How might that change things for you and your team?” It had never occurred to Sarah to do this and there was quite a long silence. By the end of our conversation she realized how her silence had been contributing to keeping the unhealthy dynamic between her two colleagues going. She also realized that there was some risk in actually letting them in on her “real” thoughts, but that the potential gains could outweigh the risks.

It’s pretty common for people not to reveal their true thoughts in team situations. Sometimes it relates to being conflict avoidant, sometimes to groupthink, sometimes to an overly “politically correct” culture on the team, and sometimes to fear of being vulnerable all of which are demonstrated in the cartoon above.  Whatever the case, if you find yourself going over situations long after they’re over and feeling unsettled, it may be time for you to examine the role that your “thought bubbles” are playing.  Here’s one of my own examples and how I dealt with it:

I’ve worked with many co-facilitators over the years to deliver various training programs and inevitably the program has some sort of evaluation form. Most times the form lists each person’s name and then asks for an individual rating of each person. This has always bothered me in that if we are working as a team and co-delivering a program, I think we should be rated as a team, not individuals. Inevitably, if rated individually, one member’s ratings will always be the lowest and one member’s ratings will always be the highest. It sets up a competitive and uncomfortable dynamic. So, I have been dealing with this for years and finally (sometimes I am a slow learner too!) I followed the 4 steps I recommend to others:

  1. What role have your thoughts and feelings in your thought bubble played in the situation unfolding as it has? Whenever the topic of evaluation comes up on a team, I get uncomfortable and a bit cranky and end up not participating meaningfully and saying things like “I hate evaluations … we get feedback along the way so what’s the point?” I end up having a conversation that doesn’t really capture my true thoughts and probably frustates my team members.
  2. What are the risks and opportunities of sharing your thought bubble? The risk is that someone might disagree with my suggestion to do a team rating and think that I am insecure about my own abilities, that the real reason I want a team rating is so I don’t end up at the bottom. The opportunity is that at least I can be more honest and authentic about why the topic of evaluation bothers me and perhaps even have my team agree with a team rating.
  3. What would need to change in order for you to share your thought bubble? I just need to be more confident about my own opinion, that I have given the matter some thought and that it’s not a suggestion I make lightly. The other thing that needs to change is to bring up the topic when we have time to more fully discuss it instead of at the last minute during a program.
  4. What’s a small step you can take to bring more of your thought bubble to team conversations? I can suggest that the next time we do a program that we add the evaluation form to our initial planning sessions.  I can also then preface my comments with “I’ve been thinking about this a lot and was wondering if we could …?

I’m pleased to report that I did indeed bring up this topic and that the outcome was positive. It allowed me to be more authentic and it allowed my team members to get to understand my perspective a bit better.

While this was a positive outcome, sometimes your reflections might lead you to conclude that it is simply too risky to share your thought bubble. If this is the case, then you need to find a way to let go of the issue and not let it continue to permeate your thoughts and, therefore, your presence and interaction on the team.  How to do THAT is another blog post …

This blog is based on the 10 of Diamonds, Sharing Thought Bubbles, taken from our Teamwork Explorer.

Sharing Thought Bubbles

Sharing Thought Bubbles

How your Team can Save Time and its Sanity

Thanks to Zach Klein through Creative Commons

Thanks to Zach Klein Creative Commons

I was becoming frustrated with our team.  Three days and dozens of emails later we were still no closer to solving the problem.  The problem you ask?  Finding a date for our next meeting! Egads, for a group of reasonably competent, smart people we certainly were limiting our effectiveness by using the wrong technology. In my own experience on teams and from coaching other teams, the two time wasters I see are using email to make decisions (including scheduling meetings!) AND, get ready … emailing Word documents and using track changes to collaboratively work on something.

We’ve learned a lot over the years from virtual team practitioners and writers. Our favorite writers are Duarte and Snyder whose book Mastering Virtual Teams is a must have for anyone who works on a team, whether virtually dispersed or not. It is full of hints, tips and strategies.  A few years ago, we adapted some of their ideas to produce a collaborative task identification tool. We suggest that teams talk about the types of tasks they face and the types of technology they can use. The chart below does not deliberately identify specific technology as technology changes too rapidly for that, but we hope the chart is a useful starting place for teams. After the chart, I’ve listed 6 ways you can save time on your team by using the right technology for the right task.

Collaborative Task Tool

Collaborative Task Tool, Calliope Learning adapted from Duarte and Snyder

Here are 6 of my favorite tools and they all offer free versions:

  1. Meeting Wizard – Stop the email craziness and use this tool to schedule your meetings!
  2. Rypple – Easily get feedback and hand out kudos using this very neat online survey type tool.
  3. Skype – I probably don’t need to mention this one but if you are a virtual team, skype is a must have for real time chats.
  4. Google Docs – is a simple and easily accessible way to share and co-edit documents.
  5. Yammer – is a Facebook type application but more geared towards productivity. You can set up your own private yammer group and use it to communicate and collaborate, share documents, etc. It also has smart phone versions so you can use it from your phone or computer.
  6. Mindmeister – is collaborative mindmapping software for the creative types out there.

I hope this has given your team some ideas! Have you found any cool tools to use?  I would love to hear about them!

Today’s blog comes from our Teamwork Explorer, 10 of Spades card. Posted by Tammy.

Use Appropriate Technology

Use Appropriate Technology

Motivate your team with 2 simple words and 5 strategies

Thanks to woodleywonderworks

Thanks to woodleywonderworks

Those readers who know me know that I have become a doting aunt to an adorable 4 year old niece and 2 year old nephew. Given that I have no children, hearing them say please and thank you (and in particular to me when I happen to find that perfect gift!) has been one of my greatest joys in the last few years. It seems to be the most common and universal lesson taught to children.

And it is the most common and universal lesson forgotten in the workplace. We adults start to take ourselves way too seriously, get overly preoccupied with our own stuff, and forget that many people are connected to OUR overall success and pleasure in life.  It’s no surprise that the most common and universal finding on employee engagement surveys is feeling unappreciated.

So here are 5 strategies to help you say thank you to your team and keep them engaged and motivated:

  1. Set a goal of saying thank you to at least 1 person a day. Be specific saying what it is they have done and the impact it’s had on you.
  2. At team meetings, monitor your “critical comments” vs your “thank you or appreciative comments”.  Get the balance right!
  3. Write your team’s vision/values on blank business cards. When someone on your team lives a particular value and/or really demonstrates the vision, write a note on the back of it saying thanks (and again be specific!).
  4. Use an electronic greeting card to say thanks if you are working on a virtual team. My favorite is Jacquie Lawson … for $12 a year I can send unlimited animated greeting cards that I can customize for any occasion.
  5. Pay attention to small wins during a long and complex project. Saying thanks to people throughout the project can keep people motivated, engaged and able to handle challenges that do arise.

What strategies have you used to say thank you and motivate your team? I’d love to hear them!

Today’s blog comes from our Teamwork Explorer, 10 of Hearts card.

Say Thanks

What your Team can Learn from JFK

Amid much controversy, The Kennedys is now showing in Canada (well, at least the 2 episodes that I have taped on my PVR!). The reviews have certainly been mixed but I simply cannot help myself. I love a good story and I have been especially intrigued by the Kennedys for many years. I watched the episode highlighting the Bay of Pigs on the weekend and was reminded of the work of Irving Janis on groupthink.  Groupthink is a phenomena he coined which describes the tendency of  some really cohesive teams to ignore alternative pespectives and courses of action. The symptoms of groupthink according to Janis are:

    1. Illusion of invulnerability – the team thinks that they can do no wrong or harm.
    2. Collective rationalization – the team discounts alternative views and doesn’t challenge their own assumptions.
    3. Belief in inherent morality – the team thinks they are the moral compass for everyone.
    4. Stereotyped views of out-groups – people or groups with different views are made to be the “enemy”.
    5. Direct pressure on dissenters – anyone who disagrees with the team is greatly pressured to conform.
    6. Self-censorship – people do not express contradictory views.
    7. Illusion of unanimity – silence is assumed to be unanimity.
    8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ — stronger team members will filter out contradictory views.

I am especially interested in groupthink because I have been guilty of it myself and relate to the above 8 symptoms.  As someone who values harmony and cohesiveness, I need to work hard at hearing alternative perspectives.  I work on many faculty teams to deliver intensive leadership development programs and in our desire to deliver a high quality learning experience, I think we sometimes filter out feedback that challenges our particular philosophy of leadership.

Some remedies for groupthink include:

    1. The team leaders being aware of their power over the group and holding back on their preferences until other team members have spoken.
    2. The team assigning the role of critical evaluator or devil’s advocate to team members and/or bringing in expert, outside opinions to challenge the team.
    3. The team setting aside regular time to surface and assess their assumptions, as well as surface and consider alternative perspectives.

While the Bay of Pigs was devastating, some have suggested Kennedy learned from that mistake and avoided groupthink during the Cuban Missile Crisis by inviting outside experts to share their viewpoints,  dividing the group up into various sub-groups, and being deliberately absent from the meetings, so as to allow others open expression of viewpoints.

Has your team had a Bay of Pigs disaster?  Which remedies might work for your team?

This blog is based on the Jack of Clubs, Groupthink, taken from our Teamwork Explorer.


Written by Tammy

How to Stop Avoiding Difficult Conversations

While the old adage suggests that silence is golden, on teams it’s deadly.  That’s because in the absence of information and open communication, people make up stories about what is happening, whether positive or negative.  And once people start to make up a particular story about something, that story holds more power over their behavior than anything else happening on the team.

There are many reasons why people might avoid conversations, but in our experience the main reason is because they don’t know how, and they’re afraid that the conversation might escalate into conflict. We’ve worked with many tools over the years and next to the intention/impact tool we wrote about in February, this tool based on Sherod Miller’s work, provides a step by step process to preparing for and having a difficult conversation.

The First Step

So, instead of avoiding that difficult conversation or launching into it ill prepared, take a few moments to write down the answers to the following 5 questions:

  1. What have I seen or heard? Make sure you jot down the facts of the situation, those very objective details that are not debatable. If you find yourself having a hard time coming up with ‘just the facts’ then you know you have already made up a pretty compelling story about the situation and need to slow down, and identify just the facts.
  2. What do I think is going on? — This is the “story” part of the situation, the assumptions and beliefs you have about it, the meaning you have attributed to a particular situation. In our experience people are pretty good at identifying their story, but not so good at being open to the other person’s story.
  3. How am I feeling? Some people are really good at this step (and in fact can get stuck here or overwhelm others!) while others are uncomfortable identifying and/or expressing their emotions. The six basic emotions are anger, fear, sadness, surprise, happiness and disgust. Other emotions common to difficult situations are disappointment, frustration, betrayal, or anxiety. It is important to identify and name your emotion in order to deal with it in a helpful way.  In our experience, people who skip this step tend to “act out” their emotions and this then creates more confusion and unintended impact for others.
  4. What do I want? This is a simple question but it often stumps people. They are usually so preoccupied with their story and/or emotions that they get stuck there.  In our experience, often the main “want” is to feel heard.
  5. Am I open to another perspective? This is probably the hardest step of all.  If you really want open communication and a productive team, you need to be prepared to be wrong.  We often ask people “if the other person was 10% right what would that be?” If you can be open to even a 10% shift in your thinking, there’s a stronger possibility that your difficult conversation will turn out ok.

Hopefully writing down the answers to these questions has allowed you to develop some perspective about the situation and deal with your own emotions in a positive way.

The Second Step

Now, you are ready to have the conversation using the first 4 questions above to structure it. If you are completely new to having this sort of conversation, we would suggest you choose a very low risk situation to practice and let the person know you are trying out a new tool.  Here’s how to structure the conversation:

I ‘m trying a new approach to our teamwork (communication) and would like to chat about what happened at our last team meeting.  Would you have a few moments to do that? Assuming a yes, then identify your responses from question #1 above and ask the other person for theirs. Once you have agreed on the facts, you can proceed to your story (#2 above) and ask for theirs.  Move through all  4 questions above, asking the person for their perspective at each point.

In our experience most people who have a solid relationship going into the conversation are able to come to a better understanding and strengthened relationship with each other.  If the situation has been going on for some time, trust has been eroded and either party is not open to the 10% shift, you may need to call in a third party to help out with the conversation.

What tips do you have for difficult conversations?  We’d love to hear from you!