Working with Groups That Have Done it All Before

Sitka Center for Art and Ecology is a small non-profit that operates classes and a residency program on the Oregon coast. It’s located in an ecologically sensitive and important biodiverse area. It’s a very special place.Sitka 277

I was lucky enough to be invited to a three week artist’s residency. As part of the program, each resident does a community service project. Mine was working with the staff of five on team building.

What if they have already done VisualsSpeak?

The executive director, Jalene Case, has been a VisualsSpeak customer for years. Her team has played with the pictures before. As a matter of fact just a week before I arrived, the same team had done the two most common team building exercises. First they selected images and shared stories to describe what each of them brought to the team. Then they did the same with their visions for Sitka.

They had recently used images to deepen two conversations. That didn’t mean I couldn’t use images to deepen a different conversation.

What if they don’t have problems?

 This organization has the usual challenges of a small non-profit, but has a solid foundation. The team gets along and functions well. This was not a request to fix something broken. Rather it was a request to enhance performance, prevent problems, and reinforce what is good.

Without a problem to fix, it was even more important to get clear on what the desired outcomes were. The main challenge was that it is a small organization where each person had a lot on their plates and it was right before the busy season begins.  I had a conversation ahead of time with the leader, then opened the day with asking each person what would have to happen over the day for each of them to feel the day had not been a waste of time.

The main thing they wanted was to get to know each other better, especially regarding the person who had joined the staff six months before. They were hoping to feel they got something worthwhile for the investment of time. Not sure they totally believed that was possible. 

The Morning Session

Sitka 278Designing Deeper Exercises

I knew this was a team with the basics of good communication and trust. They wanted to know each other better. So I decided to have them focus on creating images about their whole lives, rather than just work. I gave them each an Exploring New Options deck to create two images, one of the present and one of what they want in the future.

Before they shared the stories, I talked about the core visual language each one of them displayed in the way they arranged the images. In general, the more structured images are the people who tend to be more structured and analytical in their thinking. The less structured images are those who tend to be more big picture thinkers.

To make this applicable, I talked about where each person seemed to fall, and asked if the rest of the team found that to be true. People recognized themselves and each other. Then we talked, given that understanding, about how they might best divide tasks and frame communication for each other. In other words how to leverage those differences.

Interacting with the Stories

When it came time to listen to the stories of each person, I took an active role. Rather than just allow the person to share the initial story, I asked deepening questions. I used cues in the arrangement, like what was in the center, to guide my inquiry. I asked how things might apply. I asked to hear more about dreams. I didn’t pry, rather offered ways they could share a bit more if they wanted to. They did.

People don’t always share everything right off. Often because they don’t think of it right away. It can be helpful to have a curious witness asking for clarification.

The Afternoon Session

 Using the Pictures to Frame a Conversation

 I started the afternoon using the ImageSet to get each person to make an image about “What Makes Sitka Sparkle?”. I knew “sparkle” was how they described the special quality they strive to create for the staff, board, residents, guests and visitors. We talked about the little touches, the magic of the physical place, the relationships that make it all possible.

Once they were grounded in what makes the place special, I told them we were going to pretend we got a message that we had four hours before a big wildfire would arrive. What would they do?

We spent the rest of the afternoon working on an emergency plan. Here is why:

  • It’s something they’ve worked on some, but it kept getting put off in the presence of more pressing duties
  • It gave us another context to look at how they worked together
  • It gave them something valuable at the end of the day


We were able to not only achieve everyone’s expectations, but exceed them. At the end of the day there were task lists, commitments,  promises to go home and talk about emergencies with family, and a better understanding of each other.

 Tips for Working With Groups Again

  • Bring new information to the table
  • Use different prompts or questions than before
  • Interact with participants to help draw them out
  • Make sure you are doing something of value to THEM

Deepening Strategic Visioning

deciding which image to use to describe vision priorities

In a recent visioning session, long-time client Valerie used the ImageSet to help bring focus to a group of nurses who were getting stuck.

The nurses were trying hard to get away from their stock answers and needed something to spark some creativity and renew focus.

Using the VisualsSpeak tools, Valerie asked the nurses to think visually by selecting one or two images to represent their priorities.  Adding the physical element of getting up and gathering around the table to look at and chose images is a fantastic way to add additional tactile elements to the exercise.

They got up, moved around, engaged with one another and really embraced the experience.  This process lead to a much more in-depth discussion about what the priorities they were focusing on meant to them individually and as a group.

This is a common response.  Research shows that when you can get individuals physically engaged in a process you up the potentiality of new and deeper outcomes.  The physical coupled with the visual helps to bring new insights and fresh ideas to established patterns.

The nurses were struggling to come up with new ideas and meaning, the ImageSet broke the struggle and enhanced the process.  The visioning session was a success for Valerie and for her clients!

If you’d like to learn more about the ImageSet >>> Click Here!


Building Great Teams One Image at a Time

What do pinterest, tumbler and facebook have in common with VisualsSpeak?

Images.  Visuals.  Pictures.

Over the last year, we’ve seen the popularity of visuals rise.  From Pinterest to infographics, images are everywhere.

The reason is simple.  Images are highly effective.

That’s what makes VisualsSpeak tools so powerful.

The ability to “paint a thousand words” in one image is one reason the human brain loves pictures.

One picture can convey years of meaning and memory.  When used in team-building efforts, images can be a powerful team-building tool.

Why Image Decks are So Powerful

Of course the primary reason the VisualsSpeak image decks are so powerful is that they are made up of images.  But, the decks aren’t just piles of images, the images themselves have been tested and vetted to make sure they get results.

In a team-building setting, images can cross all sorts of interpersonal communication boundaries between members of a group as well as shine light on all of the variations among group members.  But the images can also shed light on the similarities among a diversified group of team members.  Unveiling these often unnoticed similarities can create a more powerful group dynamic, creating a much healthier and more productive team.

Don’t Just Take Our Word For It

Here’s Lori Silverman’s story:

Lori Silverman is a builder. As a key leader of Portland State University’s Professional Development Center, Lori helps the university build new degree and certificate programs. And that means bringing teams, boards, and committees together. A lot.

So when it was time to put a new advisory panel together and set up a first meeting? Well, we’ll just let Lori tell you herself, in her own words:

“It was my first meeting with my advisory panel and on it’s way to a humdrum bother of a meeting for everyone until I decided to use VisualsSpeak. My biggest anxiety was giving up a full 90 minutes of a two hour meeting just to introduce

“In just 90 minutes I have the richest understanding of my new advisory panel’s ability to contribute, special attributes, natural leadership and group tendencies, willingness levels, commitment level, level of understanding of the program and most interesting to me – they have a genuine curiosity about each other – and a desire to work together in the future. Sometimes I have worked for months to glean that kind of knowledge on a team – and almost never got it.

“I have to admit that biting the bullet and committing 90 minutes of their first meeting to playing with images was risky – I didn’t know them well, and I felt like and they made me feel like I was asking a lot of them just to be there – but WOW. One of them had told me in advance that he would not be able to stay for the entire meeting – so when the meeting finished and I asked why he stayed – he said that he guessed it was a barometer for his interest in the meeting!

“I couldn’t have done that with my old agendas’ ‘Statement of Purpose, New Business, Yawn, yawn.’ Thanks to the team building tool, I think we have eliminated so much of the hidden agenda, anxiety, waste of time kinds of feelings on behalf of the group.”

You can learn more about the Team-Building tools here >>  Building Great Teams


Engaging Curiosity in a Group

When you’re working with a group, there are times when things just work well from the beginning — people are sharing and the dynamic is good. Then there are the other times.

If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation where people just aren’t opening up to each other, work at engaging their curiosity. When people get curious, they naturally lower some of their barriers and dynamics change.

Ask questions like, “Could you tell me more about that image?” Or ask them how they approached the process with questions like, “What caught your attention about these images that caused you to select them?”

The trick is to start with questions that aren’t personal, so participants don’t immediately shut down. From that point, often people will allow you to open the door to a deeper conversation.


Building trust in a merger

Stephanie Carroll loves change. She thrives on it. But as one of the best organizational development and change facilitators around, she knows that not everybody does. When companies call her in to help, she brings all of her experience — and a big bag of tools. One of those tools? VisualsSpeak.

Recently, Stephanie was working with two organizations that had just become one. At least in theory. Unfortunately, their leadership team was still fragmented–there was no trust on the team. They needed help.

So Carroll, knowing that using images helps people express their ideas more genuinely and in a safe way, brought out her VisualsSpeak ImageSet. She used the tool to help the team members share their personal values and their leadership values.In the rich conversation that followed, team members gained deeper understanding into their new colleagues. Carroll helped them highlight commonalities and uniqueness, and it set a tone of sharing and candid conversations for the rest of the work.

Great work, Stephanie! Thanks for sharing this effective use of the VisualsSpeak tools!


When Teams Make Things Harder

Last week, Rosabeth Moss Kanter posted a piece on the Harvard Business Review site about some changes at Cisco. These changes say a lot about how team structures can work — and can fail. But it also says something about the Cisco culture itself.

A couple of years ago, networking giant Cisco decided to revamp its structure. The idea was to jettison the previous hierarchical structure and replace it with about five dozen different committees. These committees would be cross-functional, nimble, and enable faster decision making.

Initially, the approach seemed to work well. Case in point: one of the new committees, focused on sports and entertainment, got a big win with a contract in a New York stadium.

All Good Things…

But comes word last week that Cisco is dumping the approach. It just wasn’t working well, because the additional teams became an additional level of decision making and approvals, not a replacement one. And therein lies the rub.

It is much easier to create new organizational structures than to kill them. We see this all the time. Take, for instance, the nonprofit sector. There are many organizations that were founded to address some specific world problem — and they did it! They were successful. So did they fold up the tent and go home? Nope. They just adjusted their mission and moved on to the next thing.

This happens within organizations, too. Some route for approval becomes “The Way To Do It,” and even when new approaches are brought in, they get layered atop The Way. So it becomes additive.

It’s The Implementation, Silly!

If only ITIS were a snappy acronym like KISS — maybe it would catch on more. But the underlying sentiment really is true. If you approach the implementation of a new process as “we did it that way, now we’re doing it this way, period,” then the likelihood of success is remarkably low.

Instead, a better approach is to say, “the current way isn’t working as well as it could. What does the Right Way need to be able to do?” From there, you can have a facilitated discussion (Might we suggest some tools for that?) about a new process, involving the key stakeholders. Involved in the design and execution of the new process, people are more likely to be willing to give up the old.

A Bright Spot For Cisco

But I don’t mean to pick on Cisco. In fact, this whole three-year episode speaks very highly of the company in a couple of ways. In the short-term, neither one really helps on a balance sheet or a stock price, but both should be heartening for investors and customers.

First, there’s the fact that Cisco recognized an issue to begin with and tried this new (and pretty innovative, at least at this scale) approach. That’s corporate self-awareness, and it’s often rare in a corporation Cisco’s size. Related to that, Cisco looked around pretty quickly and decided it wasn’t working, so they decided to change again. They saw some failure and moved to address it, instead of trying to ride it out and hoping it would just get better. It rarely does.

Additionally, Cisco made all of this public. Discussion of both the move to the committees a couple of years ago, as well as discussion of the problems and the new moves both took place on public investor calls with the CEO. That’s pretty unusual transparency, and another feather in Cisco’s cap.

So the next time you are looking at making changes within your team or organization, give some thought to Cisco’s difficulties — and remember the ITIS principle.


Culture, Bad Events, and Good People

Quake Aftermath in TokyoIn bringing out the peak performance in a team, culture is everything. Well, maybe not everything, but it’s pretty darn important.

Sometimes, that culture comes from the team itself, and often it’s heavily influenced by the team’s leaders. But events over the past week or two have also highlighted the importance of national cultures, too.

The horrific events in Japan — starting with the natural disasters and continuing through the more man-made environmental aftermath — have also shown the resilience of the people. And it has also given a glimpse into some of their cultural mores.

It’s About Service

In an article in the New York Times last week, just days after the quake and tsunami and in the midst of rolling blackouts and radiation scares, Ken Belson (and colleagues) interviewed Shinya Tokiwa. Mr. Tokiwa is from Yokohama, about 20 miles from Tokyo.

The article was about unease and people, including locals, considering options for leaving the area. Tokiwa was quoted as saying, “I can’t go anywhere, because I have to work my hardest for my customers.”


A Team of Shinya Tokiwas

Surely some of that attitude is driven by many people’s innate response to difficult events: to rise to the occasion. Some of it is based on the way in which many Japanese see the world and their role in it.

But some of it is also surely nurtured and reinforced by the leadership and peers on the team. Which perhaps gives us all an opportunity for reflection on two points:

  • How might we react under similar circumstances?
  • Are we nurturing that kind of behavior on our own teams?

I suspect we can all be a bit more like Shinya Tokiwa.


Seeing the Water

FishIn organizations large and small (but especially large), process seems to be king. You want to get a new office chair? There’s a process. You want to hire someone? Process. You want to make a change to the web site? Process.

In many cases, there are good reasons why the process is there, and why you Really Should follow it. Lots of laws and regulations govern everything from procurement to hiring, so good processes take this into account and aim for minimizing burden and staying compliant with the law.

But in many organizations, for every reasonable and effective process, there’s at least one that is there for no apparent reason. Or maybe it had a reason ten years ago when it was put into place, but the world has since changed. In fact, everything has since changed. Except the process.

The problem can often be that people don’t pick up on it. Just as fish don’t see the water, people don’t see the weird processes that hamper their work around them. Instead, there can just be a sense that things are inefficient, or that actions take too long to happen, or that the group is just spinning its wheels. There are other possible causes of these feelings, but bad, outdated processes are a good place to start looking.

So how do you start? How do you see the water, to use our fish metaphor? There are a few good ways:

Enlist the new people. If you have new hires, or people who have been on the team for only days, weeks, or months, they’re the most likely to see what’s broken or odd. Invite them, in a nonthreatening way, to share their impressions about what seemed odd or cumbersome or unnecessary as they got up to speed. These are excellent places to begin the streamlining.

Shift your perspective. Try seeing the processes from another stakeholder’s perspective. For instance, if it’s a hiring process, what does the prospective applicant experience? If it’s related to procurement, how does it work for the supplier? Another great way to shift your perspective and break out from the normal way of seeing things is to incorporate the use of images. (We have some great tools for that.)

Codify and revisit processes regularly. Especially for large organizations, but applicable to all, make sure that your processes are written down somewhere central, and set up a schedule so that each one of the routines is revisited annually (or every 18 months, if there are a lot of them). Each time they come up, have a cross-organization group ask if it’s still necessary, if it can be streamlined, or if it can just be dispensed with altogether. Some organizations have a Policy and Process Committee, a standing group that meets every month or so to do just that. New policies and processes can’t be approved until this group says OK. It’s a good way to try to stem the bureaucracy.

Regardless of your approach, keep an eagle eye for what’s in your way. It may be team issues or resource constraints or any number of other things. But many times, it’s just a bad process trumping an efficient and effective outcome.


Building Teams in Constant Change

LinksSeveral months ago, one of our monthly, free conference calls (we call them Tuesday Topics) focused on team-building. We interviewed Christine Martell, lead developer of our Building Great Teams tools, about the issues around working with teams that are experiencing constant change. Here’s an excerpt:

Int: [T]here are teams you find yourself in that are just bombarded with transition to a degree that is greater than normal. You’re in a context of layoffs, or in some cases it can be tragic where a team member passes away on the job, those sorts of things. Or a team member gets promoted from within to lead the team, which can change the dynamics pretty appreciably.

How do you identify where the issues are around transition and change? Are there things to look for on a team that demonstrate they need some intervention there?

CM: Absolutely. There’s a change exhaustion that you see. People call it ‘flavor of the month,’ ‘change of the month.’ I think the most common way that’s demonstrated is that people dig their heels in. So you implement this whole change … and people just don’t do it.

Because what they’ve learned is that if they wait, then the new flavor of the month is going to be there and they’re not going to have to do what is new and different. Because it’s hard to do things differently. That whole ‘change is hard’ thing is real. You have to change everything about how you behave, and it’s that whole thing about, “there’s a personal part and a collective part.” And it makes work very disruptive. It makes it stressful.

Int: So how do you address that? If you’re in a context where change is happening all the time in that way, how do you get past that and get people to be engaged with the work that’s going on today and not try to wait it out?

CM: I think that part of it is helping them feel a part of it. It’s asking them–we use a framework a lot of–“How am I going to contribute to this situation or this change?” And it really helps people start to get a toehold in how they can be part of it and how they can make it a positive force.

Because you know, when change is happening, there’s a lot of anticipation and a lot of spin that’s occurring at the water cooler in the hall, that if you can get on top of it, if you can bring a positive intervention in, using a kind of appreciative inquiry, you can get things going in the right direction, or a more positive direction, than allowing that spin to occur that can be so toxic.

Int: It seems like part of that may be a team leader or facilitator just surfacing that everyone’s aware that the change is going on, to acknowledge the fact that the change is happening, and this is an additional stressor for the team that they didn’t sign up for, but that this is life, this is how it’s going.

CM: Yeah. It’s getting everybody going in the same direction, and providing them a forum to have that conversation and to find those places where they can get on board.

Int: You talked about getting everyone in the same direction. That seems to tie into the team-building focus area that’s called “Understanding What The Team Is Doing Together.”

CM: Yeah. What I’d say about this area – this is the area that a lot of leaders try to start with. They say, “OK, we’ve got everyone in the room. This is what we need to do.” Then they try to get people onboard.

Well, that’s all well and good, there’s a time and place for that. But if you haven’t done all these other pieces, about building relationships, fostering trust, giving people conflict skills, it’s very, very difficult to get people going on. They’ll understand it on an intellectual level, but getting them to embody it and really walk it on a daily basis is another whole issue.

To hear the full interview, head to our audiocasts page. There, you will find free recordings of our past interviews. To sign up for future Tuesday Topics calls, “head to the Tuesday Topics page.


Getting Beyond the Bumper Sticker

Bumper StickerA week or so ago, yet another example of the year-end listage appeared. This one was Top 50 Leadership Blogs of 2010. Of course, loving lists and categorization just as much as the next person, I hopped on over to take a look.

Beyond some notable omissions (nothing from Harvard Business Review!?), it seemed fairly credible. So I started clicking. And looking. And that’s when the walls of my office started closing in on me and the vein in my neck began to pulsate wildly.

It was astounding to me how many of these blogs’ recent posts were short assemblages of platitudes or two-or-three-sentence “deep thoughts” that seemed like they should be in the vein of Jack Handey. One of the posts was five sentences in all, and one of them (the leading one) was “Team work makes the dream work.” Wow.

Now, I admire the sentiment, just as I also enjoy visualizing world peace — and whirled peas. Dog may be my co-pilot. I’ve been to Wall Drug. I don’t have a baby on board, nor do I have an honor student at the local middle school. You get the idea.

The problem is that I’m not sure where to direct my ire. To the bloggers who slap this stuff up, either cynically thinking people will adore it, or unfortunately thinking it’s profound? To the people who visit and bask in the faux-profundity? To a broader technology that displays information of high value and information of no value equally? Or am I just crazy, and should just be happy that, as in any marketplace of ideas, there are people who will “buy” the deeper ones and those who will “buy” the shallower ones?

I’m willing to entertain the idea that I’m crazy, but I’m sticking to my guns on this. Mostly because the more that a field is occupied by the bumper-sticker philosophers, the less it feels like a “real” discipline. If team-building becomes an area where everything is platitudes and anecdotes, then how is it different from astrology? It seems a great disservice to groups and organizations everywhere, as well as the many social scientists who are actively pursuing the field.

As with many such rants, I ultimately have little solution to offer. I have no interest in stifling speech, even speech which arguably adds nothing to the discussion. (I’m guilty of that, too, from time to time.) My hope is that smart speech crowds out the dumb, that insight crowds out the pablum. Given the relative volumes of each, though, I’m a bit pessimistic (for the moment).