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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Thinking Differently: Transformation from Individual to a Group and to a Team

In today’s project centric, globally diverse, distributed and virtual team environment, the ability of the members in a team to collaborate together is an integral part of individual’s and team’s success. Bruce Tuckerman outlined the four major stages of a team’s development as individuals become group and evolves to be a team. While agile methodology may promote the need for the self-organized team within an engineering context in a product development setting, every other type of business units such as the technical operations, infrastructure, business development, sales and marketing benefit from effective team habits.

But, little do many recognize that what differentiates a team from a group. A set of individuals with a like mindset may be assembled to a form a group but if each individual has an agenda that is larger than the common goal of the group, then, the team still not established.  The group may be best represented by the Forming and Storming stages as espoused by Tuckerman where the team is still dependent on the leader to make the decisions for the team. As the group member’s polarity on priorities is aligned towards the common business, they morph as teams entering into the later stages of Norming and Performing.

Stephen Kohn, the president of Work & People Solutions of a management and training firm, along with his senior partner Vincent O’Connell consolidated their management and training experience to identify six key traits of an effective team (Kohn and O’Connell, 2007). One of these six habits includes the lateral thinking promoting how teams can innovate and invigorate by working towards common goals avoiding ineffective arguments. Often, the thinking process is associated with the systematic way of logical breakdown of ideas.

The Toyota’s 5-Why principle to get down the root problem is such an example of decision tree analysis. Perhaps emanating from the control systems theory of constraints model, this hierarchical analytical thinking approach is good but does it always generate creative ideas? For instance, how could the famous Schumpeter have predicted the “Creative Destruction” model that led to the demise of “brick-and-mortar” organizations opening up the new avenues of eCommerce and eBusiness during a period of industrial automation dominated by scientific management principles?

Lateral thinking is generative and involves asymmetric pattern processing which is not always done in sequential order, infers Edward de Bono who coined this approach in 1967 (“de Bono, n.d., de Bono, 1999). These principles are similar to how the Agile principles promote generative behaviors through the prescriptive processes. This lateral thinking paves its foundations through six “thought” domains, called six hats. In the first domain, the team is provided with all the information available for the team to on a “fact-finding” expedition, absorb, and brainstorm alternatives. This first domain is called the white hat thinking.

The next stage leads to eliciting the team’s emotional reaction to the alternatives and decisions. Focusing on immediate reactions without any bias, this second domain called the Red hat, attempts to unearth emotional relationships. In a balanced way, the two subsequent stages evaluate playing devil’s advocate looking at the downside to selecting a solution and looking at the optimistic side of benefits of choosing the solution. These domains are called Black hat and Yellow hat respectively.

The next stage explores invoking additional ideas that could offset the downside and enhance the benefits similar to an effective and proactive risk management approach. The techniques such as force field analysis are good tools to explore for teams besides brainstorming, Delphi and Wideband Delphi approaches as they evaluate the ideas for execution friendliness if bound by time constraints. This fifth domain of additional idea generation is the Green hat. The final hat, called Blue hat, puts on the tactical glasses to operationalize and institutionalize the idea by streamlining the processes necessary to execute.

Great, how does these relate in real life? Say, we are confronted with a scenario of quality defects in a production application come to us. Most of the “white hat” thinking would be to immediately soak ourselves in getting the details of what happened, when it occurred, how it was unearthed, etc. This would be the White Hat thinking. As the team gathers the information and evaluates the audit trail or transaction logs, the team may isolate the issue to a specific module or any systemic events. Instead of looking at the people side of the equation, effective team explores red-hat thinking evaluating alternatives and corrective action and seeks gut reactions. The focus is shifting from “What happened” to “Why it happened” and “How to prevent”. Effective teams would naturally morph into wearing the “Black hat” and “Yellow hat” in terms of the sense of urgency to fix to address customer concern, business impact, etc. While the symptom can be addressed this way, the team wears the “Green hat” to address the root cause of the problem with a better and permanent fix to avoid similar issues affecting other customers and finally take on the “Blue hat” to also streamline the processes by updating documents and manuals, communicating changes required, and providing training as necessary.

Isn’t it wonderful to realize the truth to the expression of “wearing multiple hats” to think differently? As you can see, the team’s ability to think laterally enhances the overall team’s ability gain trust as the organizations begin to see the team’s effectiveness in working towards the goal instead of pursuing individual agenda. As the team practices lateral thinking, the daily sprints become effective, additional meetings become redundant and unnecessary, and innovation is collaborative where together everyone achieves more (TEAM) (Temme, 1996). In these teams, the project manager becomes more of a mentor and coach keeping the team engaged to follow the processes towards desired results.

de Bono, E. (1999). Six Thinking Hats. New York: Little Brown
de Bono, E. (n.d.). Thinking Tools. Retrieved April 28, 2013, from
Kohn, S. & O’Connell, V.D. (2007). 6 habits of highly effective teams. Franklin Lakes, NJ: CareerPress
Temme, J. (1996). Team Power. Mission, KS: SkillPath Publications