Thursday, March 3, 2016

Wincing at Work Teams 

… This morning, before I even grabbed a coffee, I read two lengthy New York Times business articles—one on work-teams, one on work-meetings.” I winced, I grimaced. Partly because the journalist writing the “meetings” article was a fellow I don’t like: He talks like a sophisticated snob, and he gets stuff wrong, most glaringly, in his article, when he claims my favorite American web essayist, Paul Graham, is British. (Paul immigrated here when he was a boy) Mainly though, I was pained at what I read: “Everyone” hates meetings; “everyone” in the business world doesn’t consciously know how to have a good team “culture.”

They don’t understand, explains the NY Times. From what I have read elsewhere on the web, it would seem hoping for good teams and meetings to happen via everyone’s unconscious autopilot won’t work. Too many grownup businessmen lack common sense. Hence outside facilitators have been to known start a group session by setting up a flip chart and asking the grownups to list meeting behaviors that are “appropriate.”

Researcher findings, reported by the NY Times: For the mammoth company Google, which has many teams whose work can be compared, the most productive teams had workers who each talked an equal amount (averaged out) and a culture of psychological safety… I can’t resist saying, “Duh!” And as for new exciting meeting techniques, where the new things include having everyone do a “check in” to state his or her well-being at the start… I’ll try not to say “duh,” but I will note that meetings of feminists did that way back in the early 70’s.

In fairness, Google is staffed by computer nerds. And speaking of feminists, let’s face it: If a nerd won’t believe in equal rights for women—Gamer-gate scandal, anyone? —then he won’t believe in allowing equal dignity for every man and woman on his Google team, or at his meeting. Never mind whether this feels fair. As someone said in the NY Times article, some guys become computer engineers in order to avoid being aware of feelings, both their own and of others. Still, what’s the excuse for “everybody” being innocent in the business world of, say, marketing and sales, where one would think people would be highly aware? I don’t know, except to say, “Human nature is very prevalent.”

Human nature has to be coped with. Back near the beginning of feminism, near the years the TV business show Mad Men takes place, (The men have good meetings) a successful CEO, Robert Townsend, had strong opinions on how a business should run. In his book for business executives, Up The Organization, he said if your people “don’t get it,” (my words) if they waste time during their meetings, then you can help them learn by holding your meetings with everyone standing up: They’ll become efficient. Today in the computer world we would call such a trick a “hack.” Maybe Townsend was joking, but—I have a friend downtown in a software firm, he says they have their daily morning meetings that way.

For me, now in my late middle age, tricks and concepts of how to be highly functional at work are not “new exciting” novelties, but concepts old and worn. If while reading this morning’s Times I feel so pained and disgusted, it’s because I’m so old—and besides, I still haven’t had my morning coffee.

I’m spoiled because I’ve spent my working years surrounded by people who “get it,” as in the sort of workers who, back before we had the new positive word “gay,” would cope well on a team that included a homosexual. I’ve rubbed elbows with liberal arts graduates who once took a social work class, who know it is important to have a nice strong ego, yet who also take pride in managing their ego while on a team in order to get the work done. And yes, if an individual, unfortunately, acts oblivious to the effects of his ego, then these same workers know the word “confront.”

My own work-place philosophy is simple: people wish to have a team culture of fun and pride—like how a 1950’s respectable, conformist, “man in the grey flannel suit” on Madison Avenue feels glee in calling himself and his peers “Mad Men.” …The unhealthy opposite is to say, “This team is rubbish, I give up—every man for himself!”

At work, if I’m not here for fun and excellence, then what am I doing here?

In my life, having been spoiled—blessed—with excellent coaches, I have observed the best: In ice hockey, a good team player may need to sacrifice by lowering his number of goals per season in order to strengthen the team; in basketball, a player “busting a gut” playing good defense is maybe not as gratified, not as noticeable as he would be when swishing hoops, but still, that player may learn to have silent pride in doing the right thing.

To me, being a good coach or manager means being alert to what’s appropriate. If the letter “I” is for indulgence, then as the saying goes, “There is no I in Team.” Indulging my ego would be like running around scoring while my team loses. Which, as evident in today’s New York Times articles, happens all too often.

I’m fortunate, I know. Born in the 1950’s, during my mid-20’s I was privileged to take a for-credit college course in “meetings”; I learned that before I was even born there were proven technologies for effective meetings. My textbook drew from the University of Chicago 1940’s human training laboratory work of Professor Herbert Thelen …such a long time ago.

I’m no business consultant, yet here’s my humble advice: First, check yourself. Are you willing to be functional? Next, if your colleagues who “hate meetings,” have never seen a functional meeting, then, I ask rhetorically, how can they role model? All of us, not just Google engineers, have trouble with abstract thought. And so you may have to create a shared experience they can all see, even if it feels embarrassing, such as showing training films or bringing in an instructor, actors or scripts—maybe I’m joking, but hey, U.S. Army soldiers humbly hold scripts in their hands to practice how to do radio traffic, as if the G.I.s were having a meeting in radio space. (By the way, comedian and patriot John Cleese offers training films on both business and meetings)

Here’s the connection between work-teams and work-meetings: Spending enough time and energy for your team to learn to achieve good team-meetings, fair and functional, could pay off by carrying over into producing functional work-teams… When it comes to team building, I’m sure this effort would be just as practical as sending everyone off to play paintball.

Sean Crawford

~From Hacker News, on February 25, 2016 I found the two stories at The first story was called What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. The second was called Meet is Murder.

~I might have read the two articles further, to document and footnote to lengthen this essay, but alas, the old promise of reading newspapers on the web for free has not proven true: The NYT has a quota for web clicks.

~Come to think of it, if you work here in Alberta, and if you ask me to observe one of your meetings for you, then I will say yes…