“I Like Solving Problems…”

I’ve had multiple conversations with people about what they want to do and this line keeps coming up. People, generally, like solving problems. Our preferences for types of problems differ but the spirit remains.

Why aren’t we tapping into more of that in our conversations with our teams?

95% of meetings I’ve attended looked like a guy watering a lawn. Grass = staff, water = information. Except the staff could have lived without the information most of the time. The exchange was entirely one direction.

Something, something, Harry Styles pun.

Ask your team for problems. Small ones. Weird ones. Elusive ones. Challenge the rest of the team to propose silly solutions in the following meeting. Solutions you’d probably never consider or aren’t even physically possible.

A former mentor and fellow author loved to say “Involvement breeds commitment” and I always liked that, though I think it just breeds engagement. That engagement can lead to commitment if the environment is right and the culture is true.

Recently, I asked my 10 & 11-year-olds for solutions to an old engineering textbook problem; a ping pong ball rolled into a tube in the center of a gym floor that was about the same size as the ball. How do you get the ball out with the items present in a gym?

My youngest says “Use a vacuum!” – Do you see a lot of vacuums in gyms?

“Stab it with something.” – Like what? And that would ruin the ball.

My oldest says “Pee in the tube, the ball will float out!” – We have a winner. It took him less than 30 seconds to find a quick solution whereas adults frequently struggle to think of a plan that doesn’t involve equipment and time.

Let’s tap the natural tendencies in all of us and become the scientists and artists we were as children, and still are today. Let’s acknowledge everyone has a burning desire to create and contribute to a better tomorrow.

Why do you do what you do?

When I work on a new spreadsheet build I’ll throw on a TED Talk or speech in the background. This week I reheard a classic by Simon Sinek – a primer for his book of the same name: “Start with Why.”

This may be the twelfth time I’ve heard it and I enjoy it as much as I did the first time nearly a decade ago. If you’ve been reading me for several years you’ll notice I’ve mentioned Sinek before in this blog; he’s a charismatic story teller and I like telling stories. I also tend to believe what he believes.

I think leaders eat last. I think a leader should take care of their team before anything else, especially the customer. I think trust is the most powerful force and we should be free with it to create more of it.

Not everyone believes those things and that’s ok. We only need to find the people that do believe what we believe and we can do amazing things. And I don’t mean “amazing” as in world-altering; I don’t need to pry up a mountain or convert all of Mongolia to veganism. I mean doing something remarkable that positively impacts people.

When you’re aiming for that – better, faster, stronger – in whatever you’re doing, and you hit it?! And it makes the lives of those you work with better? That’s it for me; that’s as good as it gets.

Right now we’re making our first hiring decisions and I couldn’t be more excited. I’m also spending a decent amount of mental RAM thinking about our mission.

What is our “Why” and how do we articulate that to effectively attract people that share that why?

Can I even create that before we’re a “we?” How many people do we need to have before we can decide on it?

How is our Why separate from my Why? What is my Why?

I’ve done this enough times to know that if you’re asking a lot of questions you’re doing well. The answers to those questions will form the bricks that pave the way to the future you’re trying to create. We’re going to need a vast number so the questions are going to need to keep coming quickly now.

What is my Why?

I like systems, elegant ones designed to last and to grow. I like beginning with the end in mind. I like having a great time with the people I work with. I notice those times come most frequently when we’re not battling monsters. I notice monsters are scarce when things work as or better than expected. To get there we have to solve or prevent problems. I like solving and preventing problems.

That doesn’t feel like a “Why” though, does it? It’s certainly not clean enough but it’ll have to do for a start.

Teams vs. Groups and the power of Trust

Rapper Sir Mix-a-lot, in his song “Posse on Broadway” said “I’ve got a def posse, you’ve got a bunch of dudes…” and that’s got me thinking about the distinction. Between a def posse and a bunch of dudes. Surely most people driving past Dick’s Hamburger Stand in Seattle on a Saturday night couldn’t tell the difference but Mix-a-lot could tell, and he had no problem calling it out. In the spirit of his 1988 hit, I’d like to do the same.

You’ve got a bunch of employees and we’ve got a Team. Admittedly, this doesn’t sound nearly as cool.

To get there properly I need to talk about some truths I hold sacred:

1. A leader is responsible to those in their charge. They exist to provide whatever the Team needs: advice, resources, knowledge, removal of obstacles, etc… that’s their hallowed duty. Anyone claiming to be a leader who does otherwise doesn’t understand the distinction between a leader and a boss.

2. A leader builds Trust through their actions. We are what we repeatedly do, not what we repeatedly say. Trust is essential to turn groups into Teams.

3. There is no more powerful force in business than a Team. Not every group of people in a company are a Team. Most aren’t. A group only turns into a Team with Trust.

4. There’s nothing faster or more effective than Trust. For Trust to take root people need to be honest and they need to speak the same language.

How do you know when a group has become a Team?

  • When no one utters the phrase “that’s not my job.”
  • When people go out of their way to anticipate the needs of their teammates and to solve problems that don’t affect them directly.
  • When staying late, coming in early, and doing work out of your comfort zone come without a second thought because you know anyone else would do it for you.
  • When people don’t waste energy watching their backs. They form a perfect circle facing the challenges of the day secure in the knowledge that the Team has their back – that the Team IS their back.
  • When no one wastes time pretending to be smarter, more talented, more capable – everyone enjoys the safety of shared honesty and self-awareness.  

Someone once referred to me being on their team (not someone I reported to) and I shuddered a little. This person didn’t care about me. They didn’t care about my actual Team. They didn’t seek to make our lives easier in any way, to share the load, or to be more effective. Nothing about our relationship indicated we were on the same team, let alone Team. We were in a group and groups are nothing. I’ve been in thousands of groups. I was in a group of people standing in line at the bank the other day and none of us would have mistaken our grouping for a team or Team.

If you want a def posse and not a bunch of dudes you have to:

  • Have Integrity. Mean what you say and say what you mean. Walk your talk. Live what you believe. People remember.
  • Be free with trust so you can establish Trust. Let others take advantage if they will, there’s no quicker way to get to capital “T” Trust than by giving it freely. If you require doctors notes for sick days you don’t trust people.
  • Be a servant to those in your charge. Jesus didn’t order people to work late, he washed feet. Remove obstacles, free up resources, solve problems, make their lives easier and your team will quickly reciprocate. You may be in charge but you’re responsible for those in your charge before anything else.

That’s it. That’s what I’ve got for you today. If you want advice on how to turn a group into a team into a Team, don’t hesitate to let me know; I’m always open to dialogue about what’s possible.