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Leaders Manage the Team’s Conversations

Leadership is less about the qualities of the person at the top than we often think. Team leaders need not be heroic banner-carriers, nor clever manipulators, nor even creative visionaries.  To be effective, what leaders DO need to do is focus on the quality of the group’s conversations.

Dr. Fernando Flores has written: “Leadership is a phenomenon of the conversations of a team, not of an individual.  A team participates in a set of ongoing conversations among people who commit to share an explicitly declared mission and to coordinate actions to fulfill the mission.  The leader takes action to ensure that these conversations take place and that they are assessed by the team to be effective.  The leader is the person who is granted authority by the team to take care of these conversations in an ongoing manner.”

All initiatives result from a network of requester-to-performer conversations.  The quality of these conversations determines the success of the enterprise.  Leaders should pay close attention to who says what to whom.  What is the mood?  Which specific words are used?  What is the pattern of the dialog?

All collaboration begins in conversation, but results begin when one person makes a commitment.  People take action through language that follows a certain structure.  Collaborative action involves a certain pattern of responses.

Specific words, used consciously, articulate commitments, provoke true engagement, and invoke enhanced coordination.  Someone makes an assessment of the situation.  One person makes a specific request of someone else for a certain outcome.  A performer makes an agreement or promise to deliver on the request.  The requester acknowledges the delivery and expresses satisfaction.  Notice the different mood that is created between making a request and making an assignment.  Agreements are explicitly negotiated, and once made,  they have a much greater impact on personal behavior than directions or orders.

Words lead to behaviors.  Behaviors lead to practices. Improved practices lead to teams that excel.


Efficient Collaboration Requires Context and Structured Communication

Efficient collaboration requires context which email does not provide.  As noted by Simon Slade, CEO of AffiloramaSaleHoo and Doubledot Media: “Emails arrive chronologically, an inefficient and ineffective organization method. Project management systems allow updates to be made in an organized manner, by project, and employees can review recent posts when they’re ready to work on that project, rather than when their inbox dings, interrupting other work.”

The above observation begins to address the need for context, but it misses some other relevant points.  A more complete context would include more information than just the project name.  Due date would obviously be important, but additional contextual cues would include: who is responsible for the next task, who should the task be delivered to, where are we in the process of completing the task (i.e. are we in agreement about what the task entails, is the work in progress, has the task been delivered, has the task been accepted as complete), and who’s got the ball for the next action (i.e., am I getting back to someone else next, or am I waiting for someone else)?  Most project management systems do not include all these contextual parameters.

William Pearce, Co-founder of InboxVudu observes: “Email sucks because it’s too easy to miss them, and too difficult to remember to follow up if you don’t get a reply. During the working day, most business communication is best done over the phone, via team collaboration tools (which include instant messaging) or in person, and email makes it too easy to hide from these channels.”

The above statement recognizes several shortcomings of email as a collaboration tool.  Emails arrive haphazardly making them easy to miss.  Remembering to follow up is difficult.  Emails do not provide any structure to the work conversations.  Direct (i.e. immediate) communication via phone or instant messaging attempts to resolve issues with no hiding.  This instantaneous resolution of issues is obviously desirable, but rarely happens in practice as messages cannot always be responded to immediately.

So, combining the above observations about the need for context and structure, the ideal project management tool would have the following features:

—  Incoming updates would be structured, and they would provide context showing task, due date, where do we stand, and who’s got the ball.

—  Follow up would be immediately obvious in terms of who has responded and when, and who’s got the ball for the next action.

—  Asynchronous inputs could be captured in addition to direct (i.e. immediate) communication.

—  The entire task-related conversation would be captured in a thread tied to the task, not the person.

—  An archive of complete task-based conversations would be available for reference and review.

—  The system would be as quick and easy to use as email (i.e. no need for everyone on the team to learn a complex project management system).

If you would be interested in a project management solution that really supports full context and structured communication, check out CommitKeeper.