Whenever my kids were facing a challenge, be it a school exam or a competition, we’d send them off with our favorite line from the movie An American Tail, about Fievel the mouse. “Release the secret weapon” we’d bellow (best said with a lazy “R”). In this animated show it was the mice against the cats, and at the show’s climax the mice turn the tide of battle by releasing the Giant Mouse of Minsk – a huge mechanical mouse that chased the cats down the pier and into the bay. This quote always brought a smile and a reminder to our kids that they were a secret weapon.
As a team coach, I continually work with organizational leadership using the same mantra “Release the secret weapon.” In this case, the secret weapon is an autonomous, self-directed team. A team that makes decisions, solves problems, anticipates corrective action, is agile and efficient. This is a team built on trust.Leadership trusts those closest to the problem and each team member wholly relies on their teammates and leaders, thus closing the circle of trust.
Yet, autonomous teams don’t spontaneously develop on their own. It takes intentional effort, by all involved, to create an environment free of fear where a self-directed team can flourish and be successful. To facilitate such a team transformation, I recommend the ACAAR model as the process for supporting leadership and team members:Awareness, Clarity, and Alignment before Actions leading to Results.
“Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.” ~Sun Tzu
Much has been written on how the essence of effective leadership is tied to the leader’s emotional intelligence. An emotional intelligence that includes the fundamental capabilities of self-awareness, social awareness, and I’ll add, situational awareness.In my experience, most leaders already have a well-developed emotional intelligence. The challenge, typically resides in developing team emotional intelligence.
Team situational awareness is often easily improved with a communication plan that encourages a flow of timely information amongst all parties. However, improving team self and social awareness requires a work environment where people feel safe challenging the status quo and being personally challenged. A clear tell on the strength of a team’s awareness can be heard in what is not being said.
“Awareness is the first step to action. They have to know something is going on to know to do something about it.” ~Derick Virgil
Clarity is primarily focused on answering the questions of what, who and how.
I often get the most quizzical looks when I ask what the team agreements are. So, I end up asking the question from several different perspectives: What are the agreements between leadership and the team? What are the internal team agreements? What are the team-to-team agreements? What are your customer agreements? (Note to the reader. What are your agreements?)
On the surface, an alignment check determines if the project falls within your company and team’s mission statement and performance goals. For example, what is the expected ROI? As we do a deeper alignment check, we evaluate how the project falls with in our business ethics and standards.On a personal level, what turns up when doing a gut check for both the team and leadership? Are we using our team’s strengths? Is there a team member who needs an opportunity for growth? What will be our team’s approach and plan, and are we likely to achieve the success objectives defined during our clarification phase?
Awareness, Clarity and Alignment before Action. By avoiding the urge to just start running, and instead spending the effort in the awareness, clarity and alignment phase, most leaders find the planning almost does itself. With deliveries defined, an understanding of what success looks like, and work agreements made, the planning is ready to begin.
Execution errors are likely to occur. No plan will be perfect. Your plan may overlook a needed hand off, and some tasks are going to have unforeseen difficulties. In spite of these shortcomings, how your team responds will drive their overall effectiveness.
Having team awareness of the business and team environment (knowing themselves, heaven and earth), clarity on their mission and objective, and team alignment of purpose and strength, primes the team to respond successfully to challenges without leadership direction. The team fully engages to implement the commander’s intent.
Monitoring results is simply good project management practice. Both leadership and the team need to know how well each are doing on the project. Are we being efficient? What is our estimate to completion with respect to cost, schedule, and performance? Are we meeting the contractual requirements? How are we showing compliance? Are our plans and adjustments keeping the project aligned with the established success criteria?
The measured business results are somewhat straightforward: budget, schedule and deliverables. On the hand, measuring the team intangibles is often overlooked.
Team dynamics, although difficult to measured, needs to be addressed. How are we doing as a group of people? Where are we in sync and where are we stressed? What’s working? What are you noticing? What are we not saying? When working with teams I’d like to share a secret for maintaining long term relationships: “When your right, apologize.” (pause and wait for the smiles) “Because it’s not about being right, it’s about the relationship.”In the end, all success flows from the relationships.
Summary The ACAAR model provides a structure for team discussions, growth and development. The process creates space and time for the details of the project and team dynamics to be worked out. Most importantly, the process provides an opportunity to foster relationships, to establish agreements among the participants, and for members to become aware of the team field – the team spirit – where each member is a contributor. As leaders we strive to get the multiplication effect of the many working to a common purpose. Awareness, Clarity, and Alignment before Action leading to Results, this is the process for launching an effective self-directed team. Are you ready? Release the Secret Weapon!
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