There’s a lot written about great teams, and, understandably, much of it is focused on how they get it right. We read about aligning individual contribution, solution-focused communication, building a team-climate that encourages risk-taking, etc etc etc. All the positives that allow good teams to evolve into great teams. Over my career I’ve worked with a lot of great teams, across a broad range of sectors and geographies, and I want to suggest a further, little-recognised, attribute of a great team - how they deal, individually and collectively, with getting it wrong. It’s a bit of a cliche, but great teams really do view mistakes as opportunities to get better. Not in some overly-demonstrative way that advertises what an unusual occurrence this is, but in a way that efficiently deals with the mistake, then moves quickly to a positive focus on the learning that has become available through the mistake. It’s that rapid shift from focussing on the mistake to focussing on the learning that is so impressive in how a great team operates. Here’s the sequence that they accelerate through when one or more team members recognise a mistake:
Take a look at this sequence again. The highly inefficient and destructive phase of “attributing blame” doesn’t appear anywhere. Even during the last phase of ‘Learning from the mistake (positively)’ the word positively tells you what you need to know - there’s no room for the regressive steps involved in determining whose fault it is. That’s not to say that the source of the mistake isn’t identified. In order to learn we need to understand the causes of what went wrong, and if that’s about an individual’s actions then that needs to be recognised. However, the focus is on the future (i.e. the available learning) rather than the past (i.e. the attribution of blame).
The blame-game is endemic in organisations, so one of the things that impresses me most about great teams is the way that they have broken free of it’s negativity. So how have they done it?
A large part of it is about leadership, and we read a lot about leaders having the courage to encourage risk-taking in their teams. However, achieving a team culture which truly embraces this risk-taking depends on every one of the team-members accepting this as their team norm. If even one of those members still wants to play the blame-game then it restricts the rest of the team from making the leap towards learning. Clearly we need a way to demonstrate the benefits of focussing on the learning instead of the mistake, and to practice the post-mistake sequence of actions set out above.
The transition to thinking about mistakes as learning opportunities is about rehearsal.
Experiential learning tools offer a way of exploring mistakes, both individual and collective, and developing a practiced way to rapidly shift to a positive learning-focus.
In the RSVP Design portfolio Simmetrics has been a go-to exercise through which groups can be encouraged to explore their customary behaviours in mistake situations. In this fast-paced activity mistakes are inevitable, so we facilitate with a view to identifying both the behavioural responses, and also the quantitative pay-back of having a structured and rehearsed response to those mistakes.
Recently we’ve added a further tool that can be used to explore this area of learning. Performance Cubed builds on the learning developed in Simmetrics by giving participants a greater range of tactics they can deploy to respond to perceived mistakes, and also to respond to the chance factors introduced by other people working towards their own goals and objectives.
Escaping the blame-game isn’t easy, but neither is developing great teams. Finding the time and space to rehearse the skills and attitudes we need to become a great team is a good place to start on that journey.