Wanting to be great

Jim says:

“A want is a baby have. People need only join together in stating their goals, visualizing them, planning for them, and securing help from one another to achieve them. This is the heart and soul of teamwork.”

I saw this on a small scale recently – my team worked on an important bug in our software product for more than a year, not making any progress. We wanted to fix it, but we had other priorities too. Which meant that, practically speaking, it wasn’t going to get done, because it wasn’t our single priority.

We didn’t want to admit that to ourselves, though, and so we (and our customers) put up with this nagging pain for too long. Late last year, though, we finally decided we had had enough.

To fix it, a lot had to change. We had to admit to ourselves that we had a serious problem. And we had to expose this problem to our leaders to justify spending the time on it. We had to commit to having no other priorities until we fixed it. And we had to get external help. Fortunately, everyone was pragmatic and supportive! We did a whole release (Mifos 1.4) that was focused on fixing this bug. And of course – we fixed it! And in fairly short order, too. Kudos to SunGard India and Todd Farmer of MySQL for their help.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his office, with a picture of Mohandas K. Gandhi on the wall

I think to myself: what stopped us from doing that a year earlier? I think it comes down to not believing we could do it. Once we believed we could, working together we changed many things to make our want into a have.

I work for a not-for-profit company that is working to end poverty. But I still meet people working in this field who don’t believe we humans can actually end poverty! And I must say, if we don’t believe we can end poverty, we never will.

There are people who did believe we could make a kinder, more just world: Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas K. Gandhi believed all people deserved civil rights, and before them Thomas Clarkson and the Quakers believed that people should not be slaves. These beliefs were outlandish at the time. But each of these people believed their movements could be great. And they each sought help – and received it. And prevailed.

Start by wanting to be great.

Boot Camp

Some programmers are ten times more productive than average programmers. Similarly, some teams are vastly more productive than other teams. We’ve all been on low productivity teams in our life. In fact, judging by the popularity of certain satirizations of mediocrity these low-productivity teams are more the rule than the exception.Earthrise from the Moon, taken by Apollo 11 astronauts

But there are exceptional teams. These teams tackle projects others consider impossible, have success after success, and actually seem to have fun doing their work while leaving others in the dust. But what actually makes them different from other teams? How can we create teams like this? How do we keep them together, alive, and vibrant?

These are important questions to us all. If we could be more effective at solving our problems like poverty, global warming, and war, the world would be a much happier place!

It’s important on other levels too – do you want to get more satisfaction from your family, your job, or your school? Since we humans work in groups, knowing how to create great teams is part of getting the life you want.

What’s a great team like?

Can you say these things about your workplace?

  1. My projects effortlessly complete on schedule and in budget every time.
  2. Every team I’ve ever been on has shared vision.
  3. In meetings, we only ever do what will get results.
  4. No one here blames “management”, or anyone else, if they don’t get what they want.
  5. Everybody here shares their best ideas right away.
  6. Ideas are immediately unanimously approved, improved, or rejected by the team.
  7. Action on approved ideas begins immediately.
  8. Conflict is always resolved swiftly and productively.

(adapted from the list here)

And while we’re at it, let’s not just get a merely “better” team. Let’s go for great – a team that is 10x better than the average team. What does a team like that look like? Where can we go for best practices we can follow?

The Core Protocols

These are a set of best practices for intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships, designed by participants in Jim and Michele McCarthy’s teamwork laboratory called BootCamp. Two of the world’s foremost experts on teams, Jim and Michele have been running a series of simulations over the past 15 years for the purpose of asking the question, “what makes teams great?”

The Core Protocols are like recipes for good interactions – best practices that we can follow to help us get the most out of ourselves and our teams. They are hard to explain – how could following these commitments, recipes or “protocols” make my team great? Won’t they just lead to stilted, over-structured, and limited communication?

Despite being written down so clearly, practicing the Core is hard to explain in words. Like many things, there is a difference between reading about something and actually doing it. So there is a lot that I can’t convey here. But I can point to what it feels like.

Shadow Sun

In BootCamp, you immerse yourself in an environment where you use the Core Protocols all day, every day. The new skills you learn help you notice the barriers to greatness that exist in your mind, and practicing the Core with others helps you strip those barriers away. Together with your team you use your skills and your greatness to ship a product. The growth is exhilarating, awkward, and painful all at once. You feel what being part of a high-performance team is like. Because – you actually are part of a high-performance team.

Jim and Michele say:

The intense BootCamp experience includes all of the failures and triumphs that occur with normal team formation; the creation of a team-shared vision; and the design, implementation, and delivery of a product. The days in each BootCamp are packed with accelerated team dynamics; what usually takes a year or more is created in a few long days and nights of exceptionally deep engagement.

My team at Grameen Foundation wants to be one of those 10x teams, so we decided to hold a BootCamp recently, with the help of Jim and Michele McCarthy. It was an amazing and transformative experience. I highly recommend it. And the “booting” is continuing as I write this, because we’re taking that experience into our work as a team. It’s an experiment. I’ll say more about it on the pages of this blog.