Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Times

When a project team is on task, and work is proceeding about as expected, the contributions of leaders are important, and little noticed. Maybe there's a brewing conflict that calls for an intervention, or a missing resource that must be replaced. Sometimes the team encounters unexpected difficulty, or requirements change, or budgets are reduced, or any of a number of other things might happen. In these cases, the leader must make or facilitate decisions about how to respond or how to revise the plan. Life can get exciting for a while, but these are not hard times. This is just Life in the Project Lane. We get through it somehow.

Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Times

MV Cougar Ace, a roll-on/roll-off car carrier vessel. On July 23, 2006, she was en route from Japan to Vancouver with a cargo of 4,812 vehicles. During an exchange of ballast water south of the Aleutian Islands, she lost stability and developed a 60-degree list to port. She was eventually righted and repaired, though one man, a naval architect, was killed in the effort. After initial announcements that her cargo would be sold as used cars, all her cargo was eventually scrapped. Hard times. Photo by Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

For projects, hard times are something else altogeth­er.

A team in hard times has three kinds of troubles. First, some team members become hopeless and disillusioned. If they don't exit the team or the organization, their work quality and productivity suffer. Second, multiple toxic conflicts erupt between and among team members, and between team members and people outside the team — customers, suppliers, or support or administrative staff. Finally, the team loses its ability to execute its mission. The plan it was following might be exposed as confused or mistaken; the project's budget or schedule might be cut; key people might be reassigned; or multiple unanticipated risk events can occur. The hits just keep on comin'.

The Web has millions of pages of advice for team leads about how to avoid hard times. But even if you do everything right, hard times sometimes arrive. What then?

In this program we survey three synergistic sets of strategies for leading teams in hard times. Using Baumeister's model of self-control, we outline approaches to dealing with hopelessness and disillusionment. To deal with toxic conflict, we show why it's important to distinguish between substantive conflict and relationship conflict. And because it's important to choose a conflict management style that suits the situation, we explore a model of conflict intervention styles due to Thomas and Kilmann, and show its connections to Baumeister's model. Finally, to deal with the stream of speed bumps, surprises, organizational fires, and unexpected risk events, we introduce Col. John Boyd's OODA model of aerial combat, and connect it to Baumeister's model and the Thomas/Kilmann model.

We show how these three models are synergistic, using General Morphological Analysis, a technique due to Fritz Zwicky. By applying these methods in combination, we can lead the team back from the brink, and guide it on its way back to Life in the Project Lane, where there is still trouble, but it's manageable.

Program structure and content

This program is available as a keynote, workshop, seminar, or breakout. The program format is far from the droning style of PowerPoint plus a few minutes of Q&A at the end. It is interactive in the sense that throughout the program we encourage questions, comments, and dialog with the presenter. When the occasion calls for it, we invite a few participants to the front of the room for a short demonstration.

In the longer formats, the program includes a "clinic" session in which we address situations posed by participants.

Participants receive an annotated bibliography of the scientific and business literature relevant to the program. They also receive a copy of the presenter's slide set, which contains numerous links to material on the Web relevant to the program.

Target audience

Team leaders, technical leaders, senior managers, and executives. Familiarity with team dynamics in abnormal situations is helpful, but not required.

Program duration

In Keynote format, 60-90 minutes. In Workshop or Seminar format, one-half day or one full day.

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