The 90% Preparation Principle

Forgive me for I have fibbed. At the end of the last post when I said I didn’t know how to build team chemistry. The post was plenty long and I needed to pull the plug.

One of the secrets to building team chemistry is the 90% prep principle. Any residential painter worth her weight will tell you painting is 90% prep. Come on, there’s some female house painters out there aren’t there? The 90% prep principle is why, when our crib needs painting, I write a check. Inadequate patience. But I digress.

The best elementary teachers apply the 90% prep principle at start of the school year. They figure, “Even if it takes around 10 days to build a sense of community and teach the rules and procedures, we’ll accomplish far more than we otherwise would over the remaining 170 days.” Visit a local elementary school at the beginning of the year and you’ll likely see some expert teachers calmly saying to their students, “Nope. Try again.” And then watch the students return to their seats and line up table-by-table for recess or lunch a second, third, and maybe fourth time. Equal parts firmness and kindness.

In the same spirit, the best leaders take time when their teams are first formed to build community and establish decision-making norms. Community building, of course, can take many forms, but the common thread is team members getting to know one another better. Horizontals embrace community building activities more than Verts. Very early on, agreed upon expectations and decision making processes are made explicit.

Savvy leaders know that maintaining team chemistry requires ongoing community building activities, whether shared meals, celebrations, or retreats. They also know decision-making norms need to be revisited on occasion. They know their team’s success depends upon members genuinely respecting one another.

Families, athletic teams, theater troupes, church councils, school faculty, government agencies, and multinational corporations that consciously build community and spell out decision-making norms enjoy greater espirit de corps, and experience far less in-fighting, complaining, and malaise. Consequently, they’re more productive.

There’s an alternative that lots of teams revert to, ignore community building and decision making norms and hope and pray the common work is engrossing enough that people get along just well enough, just long enough to finish the work. Like running on a balance beam on fire. Run fast enough and you might just get to the end without getting burned or falling off.

And now my friends I bring teamwork week to an end with some self-disclosure. I’m most often a Horizontal; however, not when travel planning with the GalPal. How can I put this so that she keeps taking trips with me? Her travel decision making process is a tad bit drawn out for even me. When having to decide on destinations, dates, modes of transpo, departure-arrival-return times, etc., I transform into a Vertical. When it comes to group decision-making, we’re all probably switch hitters of sorts.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Why is Team Chemistry So Elusive?

Why do so many married couples divorce? Why are so many homeowners’ associations riddled with conflict? Why do so many parents involved in youth sports organizations butt heads with one another? And why is group decision-making so problematic for school faculty and other workplace teams?

Because everyone of us brings imperfect interpersonal skills to our teams. Multiply my social shortcomings and quirks with yours and the next women’s and the next guy’s and it doesn’t take long to understand why positive team chemistry and enlightened group decision making is so elusive. Every team of two or more are dysfunctional in different ways and to varying degrees.

Also, every team has an uneven mix of what I refer to as “Vertical” and “Horizontal” members. Verticals have little patience for processing others’ feelings, talking through differences of opinion, and consensual decision-making. They’re often quite comfortable with someone above them making unilateral decisions. In contrast, Horizontals prefer consensual decision making and the sometimes extended discussions they require. They’re sensitive to other members feelings and often distrust superiors to make unilateral decisions.

When a couple, community group, or workplace suffers challenges that result in hurt feelings, Verticals emphasize focusing on the present and “just getting back to work”. Before returning to work, Horizontals feel compelled to work through what went wrong and attend to team members’ hurt feelings. Trying to negotiate these different orientations becomes another challenge in and of itself.

So every team member is screwed up in his/her own way. And eventually, crises put extraordinary pressure on the team’s decision-making processes. Then some team members want to talk things through, others don’t, and those different perspectives add fuel to the fire. Is it any wonder that lot’s of couple’s divorce, the CIA and the FBI don’t get along, and some work environments turn toxic?

And there’s more. Many teams—whether couples, community organizations, or workplaces—aren’t nearly thoughtful or intentional enough about fostering understanding of one another’s unique contributions to the team effort and the mutual respect that engenders. Instead, a mutual sense of being misunderstood and under-appreciated spreads.

Add to that the fact that teams rarely, if ever, build in time to talk openly and honestly about decision-making processes. Which the Verticals are cool with, but not the Horizontals. For the Horizontals, when there’s little to no opportunity to reflect on decision making processes and surface the occasional hurt feelings, meeting fatigue sets in.

These multi-faceted challenges often overwhelm teams’ collective interpersonal skills. Which results in more resentment. Team members succumb to passive-aggressive behavior, not talking in meetings but complaining bitterly out of them, and walk around with invisible backpacks on, into which they repeatedly stuff hurtful exchanges from the near and distant past. Eventually, in the interest of self-preservation, they retreat to their own corner, cubicle, classroom, office. Making team chemistry even more elusive.

And now I should probably do what all bloggers are supposed to do if they want to grow their readership—help readers. Instead of bullshitting you though, I’m going to be honest. On this Sunday evening, my insights into team chemistry and decision-making dysfunction greatly exceeds my feel for promising fixes.

But I know for a fact that some of you are team leaders who know more about building and maintaing team chemistry than I do. And some of you are members of healthy teams who can offer helpful suggestions on how to maintain team chemistry—whether a couple, a small organization, or a ginormous company. Your turn.