Hi, I’m Sari van Poelje. I’m the Director of Intact Academy, where I teach coaches and consultants to deal with problems at the individual level, or support and challenge people at the individual level through coaching, to do team coaching, to do organizational coaching, and later to become supervisors of coaches. There’s a whole gamut of programs you can follow. If you go to www.intactacademy.com you can check them out. The other thing I do is Agile Business Innovation. I help businesses innovate. That’s one of my passions. I’m currently doing some projects in Holland, my home country, in non profit organizations. I’ll talk about that another time.
We’re talking about team coaching. We talked about the definition of team coaching and the triple or quadruple focus you need. We talked about levels of what you actually look at – structure, dynamics, psychodynamics. Now, I just want to go through those levels one by one to give you some idea of what you are looking for. We’re only talking diagnostics now. We’ll talk about interventions later.
When we talk about the structure of teams, what are we looking at? If you want to have a healthy team, there’s two main rules. One is that all the levels are in sync with each. The other thing is what is happening within the levels. We’ll start with the structural level. I’ll give you an example; one of the things we look at is boundaries at the structural level.
Boundaries is something very specific. We talk about the external boundaries of a team, which make the difference between the outside and the inside. Who’s in the environment and who’s actually in the team. We talk about the major internal boundary, where there’s a distinction between the leaders and the members. It sounds technical, but it’s quite simple. When we talk about the healthy boundaries of a team, we want them to be permeable enough to hold the team. Closed enough to hold the team and open enough to let new impulses come in, new people come in, new ideas come in. This management of the openness and closeness of a boundary so that the team remains healthy, is a leadership responsibility, but all the members can influence.
If boundaries are completely closed, a team can almost become like a sect. People are closed in. They’re not willing to take new information or people in, and they’re functioning as if they’re a little bubble in the whole organization. Of course, when you’re under stress, boundaries usually close as a reflex to protect. The trick is to keep open, so that people also feel nurtured and renewed and regenerated by new ideas and by new people.
That’s true for the membership boundary, but it’s also true for the leadership boundary. Sometimes I find that leadership is completely encapsulated. If they’re isolated in an ivory tower and they’re doing their top down thing. People don’t like top down leadership, except in crisis. They want to be involved and participate. Truth be told, the problems nowadays are so complex that leaders can’t solve them on their own. They need everyone in that team to participate. One of the first things I look at on a structural level is how open or closed the boundaries are.
The second thing at the structural level is that we look at roles. Are the roles in a team clear? Sometimes I see mixed roles. Sometimes people have two roles or three roles at the same time. When are you wearing what hat? Sometimes roles are empty. There are vacancies and it creates a lot of dynamic in a team. Occasionally, we see that people are unclear about; Where does my role start and end? Where does your role start and end? Then you have a lot of intrigue in a team because the overlap isn’t clearly defined. I’ll call them the handover points.
For instance, Johnny is responsible for purchasing and Peter is responsible for production. Peter has to check if all the stuff is in the house. But Johnny has to make sure that it’s in house and actually handed it over to Peter. Sometimes those handover points aren’t clear. This results in intrigue between roles.
The third thing we look at the structural level is the hierarchy. It is interesting that some organizations are going back to self managing teams. They’ve taken out layers of management in the belief that it will make teams more agile. But no leadership role is difficult. I used to implement self managing teams in the 90s. We took it over from Volvo who started the idea. What people have to understand is that Volvo is in a Scandinavian context. Scandinavians are very good at self managing. It makes sense that for them, it worked. For us, in Holland, it’s a bit of a different story. People don’t usually agree with each other in Holland. I’m sure that’s true in other contexts as well.
I’ve gone away from self managing teams and I have started to embrace the psychoanalytic thinking that all of us grow up in a system (family) where there are leaders. It’s actually something we gravitate to naturally. It’s very difficult to do self managing teams without a role of leadership in there. I always say in a team, the members can do maximization, but the leader has to do optimization. What I mean by that is the members can think, “Oh, I want 100% this or a 100% that.”, but the leader is the one who weighs the interests of all parties involved and looks at the strategy. They can then make a decision on how to divide the resources.
Why am I saying this? Because I truly believe you need a hierarchy to have sanity in a team. You have to know that this is staff, this is leadership and these are the people who know what needs to happen at the work floor. They all have their different levels of decision making. It may be applicable to have holacracies like in IT teams, where all the experts work in projects with a rotating leadership.
The fourth thing and last thing I look at, at the structural level, is the processes and more specifically the decision making processes. If I want to see if a team is working well in terms of structure, that’s where I go first, even though I said it last now, because the unclarity of hierarchy, roles and boundaries usually results in bad decision making processes. The complaint could be: we go around and round, or we never take decisions, or we discuss things and things aren’t written down, so we don’t know what we decided. When I hear this, I immediately think, “boundaries, roles, hierarchy. Is that clear?”. I say it last now because in terms of intervention, it’s the thing that you do last. However, it’s one of the symptoms that I see first. Theoretically, if you have clarified the boundaries, hierarchy and roles, then almost automatically, the decision making process becomes much easier.
I have a client now whose main complaint when they called me in was, “we’re all experts and we’re the four founders of the team, but we never seem to get ahead. We don’t make clear decisions. We have different opinions. We want to respect everyone, and we’re friends. We want to stay friends”. I hear this quite a bit in the start-ups. They were going round and round and round on the roundabout and never going forwards. Then in the meantime, their competitors do go forward, so they actually missed their slot in the market. One of the things that I did was help them clarify the difference between ownership and management. Help them to see that they have different roles. How their different competencies could connect together and how the output of one, was the input of the other. As if by magic, their decision making process took off, and now they’re doing fine, they’ve caught up and have actually exceeded their competitors.
Often, the other symptom, when boundaries, hierarchy and roles aren’t clear, apart from decision making, are struggles around power. A team may start games around; Who’s the boss? Who’s dominant? Who’s submissive? Sometimes there are escalations to see who’s going to submit first. When you clarify boundaries, hierarchy and roles, not only does the decision making start getting better, but also the power division becomes more clear. Then it’s much easier to function in a team.
The question is; If you look at your team, how is the structure doing? How are you doing in terms of boundaries, hierarchy roles? Can you see problems in the decision making and in power struggles? If so, go back to, what can I do at the structural level?