Are You to Blame for your Team’s Productivity?

Maybe It's You…

If you manage any staff at all, then it's likely that you've at least had the thought once, right? That maybe the team you're working with isn't producing the kind of results you want because of something you're doing. Are you the weakest link? If you're anything like me, it keeps you up for a bit and then overwhelmed with what it might mean, you head to sleep, committing to a harder day of work tomorrow. But will hard work really get better productivity results from your team?

Maybe It's Them…

Stay with me as I describe some interesting research that Brian Wansink did about a decade ago. He's written a book about it, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, which you can pick up at Amazon. He discovered, among other things, that even if movie popcorn was really really bad – I'm talking really old and stale – people who were given larger buckets of it would eat more. Imagine two people who are given two different size buckets of really bad popcorn – in every way he did the study, the people with larger containers ate more of it – regardless of how bad it tasted. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that your team is performing poorly because they're eating all the time. But I'm suggesting that maybe their context is shaping their behavior. In fact, Wansink's research has been so thoroughly replicated that it's led to things like the 100 calorie snack packs you may have seen at the grocery store. Why? Because context can shift behavior.

Maybe It's Not Them…

You see, it's not just popcorn research that has me thinking this. There's a study that Peter Senge did, which he writes about in The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, where different people play the parts of a retail owner, a beer distributor and the beer micro-brewery. They run thru scenarios of ordering and every single time the game is played, regardless of the folks doing the exercise, they screw it up. Can't help it. It's the nature of the game and how the cause and effect are too far about. So when people can't see cause and effect, they make poor choices. But it's not because they want to. It's because they're playing parts in a larger system.

Maybe It's the Context…

Peter Senge writes about systems, systems thinking and feedback loops. Not something we need to get into here. An easier way to think about it is how Chip and Dan Heath have written about it in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. They define it as a context problem and suggest that when people are eating too much popcorn, regardless of the taste, you don't try to educate them on calories – you simply change the size of the container. They call this effort “shaping the path.” When you change the context, you can create greater chances for your team to perform better.

So it's not You, but You can Help…

Over the last two decades I've managed both small and large teams and regardless of the size I can tell you that managing high performance teams isn't easy. But there are three things I've learned that I have control over and it's helped me shape the context for their productivity:

  • Get the right people working on problems – only people who can really solve the problem should be tasked with solving it (there are other ways to help people learn & grow)
  • Get the right process in place to gather feedback on what's not working (if you don't know where to make error corrections, you'll just be good at making errors)
  • Pick the right problems to solve – not every problem is worth my attention

That last one is tricky, but worth spending a few seconds on. The world is filled with problems. Your day is filled with them – as is mine. And which ones you pick, and how you determine the ones you'll pick, will have more consequence on whether you solve it than just about anything else. It doesn't mean you won't have some things that you just have to solve – but even then there are ways to “shape the path” so that the problem is framed in a way that plays to your strengths.

When you pick the right challenges, assign the right people, and establish ways to get feedback in the right way, then you have shaped the context of their work to have the best chance high performance.

What's your take? How do you keep your teams performing at high levels?