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We're all in this boat together

October 9, 2017


Guest Writer: Brian Laakso

A maelstrom of confusion and anxiety pressed in around me, absolute and impenetrable. How could this have happened? What did I do, or didn’t I do, that culminated in this predicament?  Now we will likely fall several weeks behind the project deadline and I’ll have to deliver the bad news to our project sponsor and stakeholders. Slowly my panic gave way to some common sense and the realization that I was not in this mess alone; I was part of a team. This was simply the latest road block to surface that the team would need to navigate their way through, just like previous road blocks.

    “Why don’t we have access to the data, and why am I just hearing about this today, a week before data validation and training?” I asked the team. They considered the question, but no one answered, so I needed to prod them a bit further.

“I’m not looking to place blame, only to establish root cause, in case I need to escalate this up for resolution. Tentatively, Nate spoke first.

    “Tom said he was running into security access hiccups.”

“You mean we’re not able to access the server this late into development?” I asked clarifyingly.

“Hiccup is his word, but yes that’s my understanding.” Nate shrugged.  

“Tom hasn’t been present at our project status meetings for the past couple weeks. Now he drops the ball and doesn’t tell anyone?” Jessica protested. There were nods of consensus from the rest of the team. They were right. Tom had let down the team and was not being held accountable. In order to move quickly towards resolving this road block, I needed to switch the meeting’s focus off the blame game, and onto achieving results.

“Guys, let’s take a step back. What are we really trying to solve here?” I asked.

“Getting the new metrics into the data warehouse.” Jessica stated with confidence.

“Yes, and we can’t do that without Tom so I will schedule a follow-up meeting and ensure Tom accepts. I’d like for all of us to meet before we head into Labor Day weekend. It’s critical that we agree on what is causing the security access errors and what is needed to resolve them. Please accept the invite and be present, in person, in the project War Room later today.” After a chorus of okays, the team pushed back from the table, picked up their laptops and coffee mugs and filed out of the room, leaving me alone to consider how best to approach Tom.

I recalled reading about the common team dysfunction of “inattention to results,” from Patrick Lencioni’s book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” In it he states, “An absence of accountability is an invitation to team members to shift their attention to areas other than collective results.” Given the current predicament, it appeared that statement accurately described our current predicament.

Up until this point, the project had been progressing well and the team was hitting planned milestones with good momentum. When Tom began declining project status meetings, I assumed all was going well. After all, he had earned my trust by delivering on previous commitments, so no news appeared to be the status quo, but now I knew that was not the case. Ronald Reagan was quoted with saying, status quo is Latin for “the mess we’re in.” That certainly fit our current situation and I needed to do something about it.

I was in the difficult situation of being the unofficial project lead, responsible for team performance, scope and schedule. Yet, I had no formal authority over my teammates.  So, how could I lead this team to results, when none of them reported to me? I reflected on a quote by the internationally recognized leadership expert, John C. Maxwell. He maintains that the true measure of leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less. I let that concept resonate in my head awhile. Eventually I decided that even though I was a developing leader, the time had come for me to roll up my sleeves and use influence to get the job done.  

I drafted the follow-up meeting request, but did not send it because first, I needed to talk with Tom. I got up and walked over to his desk. I was glad to see he was there.

“Hi Tom, could you give me a couple minutes of your time?” I encouraged. “I need to talk with you about the data access issue?”

“Okay, how about in ten?”

“That works. I’ll meet you in the Beacon conference room in ten minutes.”  I stood, waiting for his commitment confirmation for an awkward few seconds.

“Yeah okay, see you then.” Tom agreed.

Ten minutes passed and Tom walked into the conference room right on time and shut the door behind him.

    “I know why you want to talk.” Tom confessed. “You’re wondering why we still don’t have access to the data.” Tom continued to stand, somewhat tense.

    “Yes, but first thanks for making time to meet with me and being here at the agreed upon time.” I said intentionally complimenting Tom.

    “Uh, yeah, you’re welcome.” Tom said, acknowledging my effort to neutralize his defensiveness.

    “I think it’s important that the team meet before the end of the day, to sort out the blockers to the data access and collaborate on a plan to resolve them that will minimize any resulting delays to the project. Do you think we can achieve that goal?” I purposely phrased my question to convey a joint responsibility for the current condition and in doing so, evaded placing blame.

    “Yeah, I think if we have all the key players in the room, we can figure this out.” Tom said as he sat down, appearing to be more relaxed and composed.

    “I know you’re currently working on more than one project and you’re really busy, so when could you make time to meet and how long do you think we’ll need?” I tailored my questions to show empathy, and to secure his commitment by allowing him to choose the time.

    “I’m pretty confident we can knock it out in an hour. My only free hour today is from 4:00 – 5:00.”  Tom said, after consulting his calendar.  I checked my meeting draft to see if the key team members were available then.     

“Looks like everyone’s available, so 4:00 – 5:00 it is.” I thought of one last question for Tom.

“What if we can’t figure it out in an hour?” I asked.

    “If we can’t all align on a strategy, by five o'clock today, then we should stay as late as it takes.” Tom proposed. I was glad to hear him volunteer to stay later. Since Tom did not report to me, I couldn’t impose a deadline or any restrictions on him. The best way to get his commitment, was to get him to propose the option and deadline himself. That way, he’s a willing participant in the assignment.

    “I’m certain the team will go along with you on that.” I assured. “I’m sending out the meeting invite now. I’m not including a dial-in number because I think it’ll be more productive if we meet as a team, face to face.

“Okay I’ll be there.” Tom guaranteed.

Next came the hard, but necessary duty of explaining to Tom how his avoidance of communicating the access errors and lack of commitment was resulting in a breakdown in team results and that his reputation and trustworthiness were on the line. I shared with Tom the importance of trust, openness to conflict, commitment and accountability amongst our team to enable us to drive project results. A lack of trust seemed to be the reason behind Tom’s absence from the project status meetings. He confessed that he was uncomfortable telling the team about his struggle to complete setting up access to the server. He chose avoidance instead of trusting the team to assist with his problem.

“I need to know if you will be willing to cooperate with the team in the future if these types of obstacles arise.” I asked firmly.

“I was uncomfortable with letting the team down, but I’ll be more upfront going forward.” Tom said reassuringly.

To end, I emphasized that not having access yet to the server was not his fault alone, but was on the whole team. The team must have assumed that I was holding individual team members accountable, so they held back from keeping one another accountable. Consequently, each team member now could share in the responsibility if the project timeline needed to be pushed out.

    Four o-clock came and the team funneled into the project War Room as expected.

My aim for this meeting, was to motivate the team to a solution by creating a clear and compelling story around the imminent risk to the success of the team and project. I needed to influence this cross functional, team of individuals, who did not report to me, to arrive at a plan of action, that everyone could commit to and finish before we went home. I knew that asking thought-provoking questions was an effective way to influence people. It was also a good way to encourage participation and fostered clarity and buy-in, so that was the strategy I would use.

    “Thanks, everyone for being here right at four o'clock. I know it’s Friday and you’re all anxious to begin the three-day weekend. So, let’s jump right in. Here’s the situation, per the project plan, we should be performing data validation and training next week. However, we currently do not have access to the new data metrics, so the new format is not ready to test. What’s complicating the situation is that this is a very high-profile project that has a firm go-live deadline that is only four weeks away. The business has clearly expressed the need to use the enhanced data metrics to improve Q4 supply chain decisions. The consequences, to this team, if we can’t provide the new data metrics, will be a failure to deliver on our commitment which will likely result in a lack of confidence or trust in this team’s competencies.

    My position is that we can solve this road block and still deliver the new enhanced metrics on time. This team has the right skills, strengths and knowledge to develop a solution, or at the very least, a work around.” This declaration was my thesis, a high-level statement of what I believe to be true and what needs to be done. Next, to continue to gain influence, I had to deliver a barrage of probing questions.

“Tom, can you summarize what is causing the access errors?” Tom took the next couple of minutes to detail the root cause.

“I have to admit, I don’t fully understand everything you said there, but I don’t have to. That’s why you’re on the team, we count on you for knowing the nuts and bolts.” Hopefully that statement let Tom know that he was still a valued member of the team.

“Does anyone have an idea for how to solve, or work around the access issue?” I propositioned. Nate jumped in first.

“If security access is the root cause, then why don’t we just turn off security?”

“We’re not allowed to disengage security protocol, but that was a great example of thinking outside the box Nate.” Jessica joked.

“So, what makes this attempt to link to the data different than previous?” I inquired.

“We’re storing the data in the Cloud now, it’s a new company directive going forward for data warehousing.” Tom explained. “This is the very first attempt to link to the cloud and access data anywhere in the company.” I was not aware of that fact.  That raised the stakes on the team achieving results.

“Could we circumvent this new access point and use the previous, tried and true way to import the data?” Jessica asked.

“That’s not part of the directive, we’d be going backward.” Tom countered.

“Yes, but we’d be able to access the data, right? Remember we have a deadline we’re trying to achieve.” I reiterated. “You can continue to work on solving the access issue, but in the meantime, we would be able to deliver these new metrics on schedule.”

“Yeah, Tom nodded, I guess so.”

“Does anyone else have a different, plausible solution?” The team looked around at each other. No one had a better option.

“Okay, then reverting back to using the previous mechanism of storing the data will be our work around.” I said with satisfaction. “But you will continue to work on accessing the cloud.”

“Yeah, alright I’ll start setting that up.” Tom agreed.

“How long would you estimate that will take Tom?

“I can have that done in an hour.”

“Great news. What would the next steps be?”

“I’ll have to write the job to move the data over to the SQL server.” Nate explained.

“How long will that take?”

“I don’t know for sure, there’s several prerequisites that must be in place first, but I’d say no more than eight hours.”

“I’ll need to run some regression tests to ensure all the files loaded successfully and that we didn’t break anything else.” Jessica added.

“Good, how long do you think you’ll need to complete the regression tests?”

“If I can block out the time, then two days if I’m uninterrupted”

There was a lot of head nodding coming from everyone. It seemed we’d landed on a plan.

“Okay, does everybody agree to this plan? Do we have achievable tasks and timelines? Does everyone feel they can commit to this work around plan?” I added that last question for a more weighted effect. There was no hesitation. A unanimous “Yes” was voiced by everyone. It appeared that there was 100% buy-in and that each member was committed to the plan.

“Great, so how should we be held accountable?” I challenged. The team paused and contemplated that for a minute.

“We can list out each team member’s tasks with a completion time or date next to it. Then, each morning, if we have a 15-minute stand-up meeting, we can share progress and status of those tasks.” Nate proposed.

“I’ll agree to that.” Tom added.

“I think that’s a great idea Nate. It’s important that we continue to communicate effectively as a team. Knowing that every day, until we have the data, each member must call in and share their progress or blocker, is a perfect way to hold each person accountable. After all, we’re all in this boat together. We can either win as a team or sink as a team.” With that last declaration, we wrapped up the meeting. As the team departed, they each said their goodbyes and headed off to begin the three-day weekend. I was thrilled with how well that meeting went and the ultimate result. I stayed behind to write down my learnings. I listed out the things that went well and the influencing factor that produced the constructive result.

  1. If team members immediately and respectfully confront one another when problems arise it can create greater trust amongst the team. It also frees the project leader from being the sole person holding team members accountable.

  2. A good conversation strategy to use, when trying to hold a team member accountable who does not report to you, is to show empathy, or that you care and always try to be succinct and clear in your message. Remove emotion and the person from the problem.  Address instead, the situation or implication and use probing questions to influence them to change or align to the required conclusion.

  3. If you’re leading a team that does not report to you, ask what needs to be done and when it can be completed, instead of dictating tasks and deadlines. Relying on the team’s participation when forming or assigning tasks, will result in higher buy-in and commitment.

  4. Trust is the foundation for developing an effective team. Members should make themselves vulnerable, by admitting mistakes and asking for help. As the leader, it’s important to reveal vulnerability first yourself, if you expect the rest of the team to follow.

Whether you’re a manager, a member of a team, or an individual contributor, in today’s business environment you may find yourself in the role of having to influence or lead others. You may need to lead the implementation of an initiative across multiple functions, push a team for closure around issues, or hold others accountable for adherence to schedules and results. Applying the above four lessons will surely help in building trust and assist you in becoming a person of influence, enabling you to lead effectively.

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