Lessons From the Zoo

Sep 22, 2010 1 Comment by

Could your team use a good Gorilla?  How about a Fox or two?

Take Inventory: One of the first things I like to do when working with a team engaged in making a big change happen is to take stock of the group’s natural teaming skills and prevailing personalities. I don’t typically have everyone take a formal personality test, but rather I engage in a bit of dialogue to get a rough idea of what the team’s natural strengths and our collective gaps might be.  We’ll leverage those strengths and attempt to augment our gaps as the change project rolls along.

It took me only 5 minutes watching this guy to notice that he was the leader of his group. He looked a bit skeptical of me...

What to Look For: There are plenty of interpersonal needs to consider, but here’s a short list of useful skills which you may have in abundance on your team or you may be short of.  Consider how well each team member naturally displays a talent for:

  • Analysis: Do they enjoy breaking down a problem and patiently studying the root causes?  Can they brainstorm and test out potential solutions without getting stuck in the rut of only applying familiar solutions that have worked in the past?  One of my colleagues used to identify these team members as foxes for their cunning and highly-tuned senses.
  • Communication: How clearly do they communicate in written, verbal and non-verbal settings? Do they enjoy being in the front of the room or in the back?  Can they pass along huge piles of information in simple, easy-to-understand language?  Would you trust them to speak for the team when you’re not there?

    I took this picture @ Disney's Animal Kingdom of a crane eagerly communicating on behalf of his team.

  • Leadership/Followership: How willingly do they embrace accountability for their work and the work of the team? Do they take change when it’s appropriate? Do they have a knack of  making sure those around them have what they need to be successful? Do people seem to want them to be in charge?
  • Management: This is actually different than leadership… I like to reference the old saying that “you manage things and you lead people”.  Does this person follow through on their commitments diligently?  Are they good at tracking the progress of others and gauging when they need help? Do they deal in clear facts when reporting the status of their activities or do they “wear rose colored glasses?” and tell people only what they want to hear?
  • Empathy/Teamwork: Does the team member really listen to others when they’re sharing their stories and their needs?  Do they help quieter team members to do a better job of articulating their needs? How well do you think this team member could potentially mediate disputes between coworkers? Can they calm down a tense situation?

Show Your Hand:  Take a look at your rough inventory of team skills… Do you have solid coverage of all five areas or do you have glaring gaps?  Here are some examples of risks you’ll face if you have too much or too little of a given skill:

  • Analysis Paralysis: You will need steady problem-solvers to deal with unexpected issues during the project, but you cannot afford to watch the team grind in circles on a given problem while the clock runs out.  One way to help a team that’s overloaded with this skill is to set time limits for analysis and decisions. Another is to rotate ownership of problems so they don’t get backlogged in the hands of a few strong analytical personalities.

A colleague of mine used to label the best analytical thinkers as foxes in homage to their keen senses and clever cunning.

  • Too Many Chefs in the Kitchen: Conflict may arise over who’s in charge if several team members consider themselves the de facto leader. It can help to define clear leadership roles where necessary and also indicate which decision-making processes will be operated by consensus, which by directive authority, etc. (see my post “Decisions, Decisions” for more)
  • Beware the Gaggle: Every team can benefit from task management and it will become apparent very early if you don’t have it. One quick way a Sponsor or Project Manager can remedy this situation is to jump in manage activities for themselves… if they have the bandwidth. A better long-term answer is to invest additional time in grooming individuals to drive and track parts of the project. They’ll gradually grow into the role without risking the entire initiative.
  • Party-ville or Death March?: The Empathy/Teamwork skill is a tricky balance. Most team members will prefer an environment that’s cordial, friendly and empathetic – but a team loaded with only “people people” might need to be reminded from time to time to get the work done!  Some projects (especially those with a strong technology flavor) get staffed with highly-skilled analysts who don’t ask for much empathy – or give it.  The downside with a work-work work team is that it can lead to humans feeling unappreciated. Watch so the team doesn’t  drift into overly quiet periods where critical communication drops off.

    My dog Kirby loves everyone... and I haven't met anyone who doesn't like him. Every team could use at least a few great "people people" who keep everyone's spirits up through the long haul.

  • Communication Gaps: Choose carefully who will speak for the team and the expectations of your initiative. If you have too many communicators, the message gets garbled – too few and the message never gets across.  A good way to address a surplus here is to split up the work of messaging, but have one Communication Coordinator to make sure things stay consistent.  A few ways to fill a gap in this area include drafting a skilled part-time person from outside the team, having the Project Manager or Sponsor do this work or grooming someone from the team until they feel comfortable in the role.


Questions for Chatter

  1. Have you been on a team that had a surplus of skills in one area and a huge gap in another?
  2. What happens if you consistently ask people to work “outside their comfort zone?”

Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Team Dynamics

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!

One Response to “Lessons From the Zoo”

  1. HR says:

    Thanks for the insights!

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