Creating a Culture from Scratch

Obama’s Social Media Digital Dream Team came to CU’s ATLAS center and spoke on “How Technology, Social Networking and Analytics Helped Secure a Presidential Reelection.  Regardless of your politics, you have to admit what they did reshaped the engagement landscape.

The panel included:

  • Chris Gansen, Engineering Lead, Dashboard, @cgansen
  • Jason Kunesh, Director of User Experience and Product, @jdkunesh
  • Dylan Richard, Director of Engineering, @dylanr

The intense passion and brainpower were inspiring; I’d love to work with any of those guys. Here’re a few tweets to get a flavor of the conversation:

  •  Engineer recruiting pitch “this is going to be the worst job you’ve had” and “you have a chance to impact history”
  • Pitch to potential volunteers – “How wd you like to work for the President”?
  • When people are running w hair on fire – “slow is smooth, smooth is fast”
  • Can have tons of data but it’s nothing w/out a clear, concise way to tell the story.
  • Engineers learned most fm “making it fail” game day. How things actually failed was different than how we thought they wd fail.
  • Everyone is an expert at something you just need to find out what it is.

I was fascinated by the nothing-BIG SOMETHING-nothing quality of their experience.  Basically they started at zero and then cranked for 18 months. During that time they created 200 apps, among other things. Then, whoosh, it all spiraled down the drain the moment the election was over.

As you can imagine, this dynamic presents all sorts of interesting individual and team performance considerations.  Jason talked about establishing culture starting from scratch. He described an iterative process of sharing Story of Self to create that bond:

  • Meet with a colleague.
  • Share a personal Challenge, Choice and Outcome.
  • Notice what we have in common.
  • Now we have a Story of Us.
  • Find another colleague and repeat.

 Elegant. Simple. Profound.


(Also on my mind: DailyDebriefApp, created in conjunction with @spikex, is now available in iTunes. Check it out on Facebook )


The Other “A” Word

(No, I’m not talking about that again.)

“A” as in Accountability:

  1. Doing what you say you’re going to do, by when you say you’re going to do it.
  2. Constructively following up with a colleague who didn’t do what they said they were going to do, by when they said they were going to do it.

Some organizations seamlessly weave accountability into the fabric of their culture.  Others fear and avoid it.  They don’t want to make a colleague look bad, spark a conflict, or invite embarrassing accountability turnaround.   If individual accountability is high for all involved, then good things still get done on time.   A couple of weak links, though, can lead to missed deadlines, grumbling behind people’s backs, and lost opportunities.   You know what I’m talking about.

One team of really smart, committed software as service professionals would get very quiet any time our conversation steered toward accountability.  Lots of big eyes looking all over to escape eye contact with me.  I think one person even stopped breathing for a bit.

Naturally, their determined avoidance meant we were going there!

The team wasn’t sure how to create more accountability, or be brave enough to hold each other accountable.  They were, however, very astute in describing their current relationship with accountability:

  •  It’s squishy, hard to interpret and inconsistent.
  • Thinking about holding others accountable is stressful.
  • Without it, we’re a bunch of individuals without cohesiveness.  It’s easy to stay in our own little area.
  • We don’t tend to assign work to people who don’t meet goals, but we don’t tell them that.
  • We’re great at pulling things together at the last minute and enjoy the buzz and collegiality of that pressure.

This last comment jiggled them out of their stuck place.  In the early days, it was exhilarating for a bunch of single twenty-somethings to crank through an all-nighter and just barely meet a client deadline.  Now, years (and spouses and babies) later, it’s not so much fun.  Regular sleep has also become more delicious than 2am pizza.

Through this lens, accountability wasn’t such a bad guy after all.  It could be the key to:

  • Freeing up time to do things outside of work.
  • Getting behind objectives that point toward success.  (Without accountability, objectives are just something we’re supposed to do, but no one really pays attention to them.)
  • Securing timely access to resources and information.
  • Providing genuine recognition; accountability flags it when people do what they were supposed to do.
  • Having more fun by getting into a flow of accomplishment and knowing others are too.
  • Being acknowledged for something of which we’re proud, versus our capacity for martyrdom (i.e. lack of sleep).

I wish I could say “Ah ha!  Problem solved!” but big change takes practice.  What I can say is that their bravery in naming That Which Shall Not Be Discussed has broken a barrier, opening the way to practice.

What’s your team’s relationship with accountability?


Lessons from a Titanium Plate on Team Performance

I don’t often get to experience great teamwork and not so great teamwork in similar settings in the same day.   Recently a fractured wrist provided me with that “opportunity” for comparison.

Mt. Sanitas trail areaAfter falling during a trail run, my husband took me to our local emergency room in Boulder, which has always been fine.  The visit started okay – admitted and put into an examining room quickly so he left to take Dougal home.   It was downhill from there.  Since I work with team performance, it was interesting to evaluate my 4.5 hour visit against the Team Diagnostic™ parameters I use professionally.

At a high level, we consider Productivity (what the team is getting done) and Positivity (how it works together while getting things done).  Digging a little deeper, we look at the following elements of each.

Productivity: Team Leadership, Accountability, Decision Making, Proactivity, Goals and Strategies, Resources and Alignment

Positivity: Trust, Respect, Communication, Camaraderie, Constructive Interaction, Values Diversity and Optimism

For 2.5 hours there was only one doctor attending to 3 trauma patients, who (rightly so) trumped my wrist.  Eventually, a physician’s assistant would come on duty.  “My” nurse did a haphazard job of getting me comfortable, didn’t clean my abrasions or leave a call button when she disappeared (for a couple of hours).  I had to holler through a doorway for another ice bag.  45 minutes later the security guard brought it to me.  Getting the picture?  It gets worse.  X-rays confirmed a fractured wrist that needed to be set and might also require surgery, but there were no orthopedists on call.  What?  Since it was July 4th weekend, I was told to pop Percocet for the next 3 days and then scurry around Tuesday morning to try and get an appointment somewhere.  Did I mention we were leaving that Friday for Europe?

I give high marks (it’s all relative) for decision-making (triage process) and proactivity (ice-bearing security guard).  The “team” however gets low marks on accountability, resources, alignment, communication, constructive interaction and optimism.

We left the hospital frustrated and in pain.  My resourceful husband suggested we stick with our original weekend plan of heading to Vail since they have a top notch medical facility.  We bet they could scare up an orthopedist.

There is no way to talk about our experience without gushing.  Every single person was genuinely interested in my well-being, confident in their skills and appreciative of their colleagues.  They actually kept apologizing that they couldn’t operate sooner than 11:00pm – as if I was going anywhere.  Right before surgery (at midnight), my nurse, anesthesiologist, surgeon, and physician’s assistant had one final huddle around my bed, making sure we were completely comfortable with the process.

Like any exceptional team, I imagine these professionals have an eye on ways they’d like to improve.  From my perspective, however, I’m having a hard time identifying any element that’s a relative weakness.  Makes me wonder.  Do high performing teams reach a point of critical mass where the strength of their core competencies is enough to bouy the lesser aspects to a similar level of excellence?

Irish Gargoyle

Irish Gargoyle - Made it to Europe As Planned!


Total Sacrifice is Overrated

I hate The Giving Tree.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

Yes I realize, according to the dust jacket, that this is “a story of unforgettable perception”; a “tender story, touched with sadness, aglow with consolation.” Bleah.

In case it’s been awhile, let me refresh your memory:

Boy hangs out with Tree, eats apples, swings in branches, slides on trunk and rests in shade. Everyone’s whole and happy. Then Boy leaves and Tree is sad. Boy comes back when he needs something and Tree, delighted by these scraps of attention, literally offers up bits of herself until she is reduced to a stump. Book ends with Stump (formerly Tree) apologizing (!) for having nothing left to give, then offers herself as a place Boy can sit and rest.  “And the tree was happy.”

Dust jacket blurb highlights this continuous, one-sided sacrifice as the “serene acceptance of another’s capacity to love in return”. Sounds noble when put that way – hurray for Tree. But what about Boy?  What kind of parent, partner, child, friend, team member or employee would that kind of person be?