How To Insource Solutions From Your Team
Being a team manager is like being sandwiched between the boss and team members. Each of them has demands and expectations from you. Sometimes those demands pull in the opposite directions (e.g. CEO’s want more productivity at lower cost while employees want more pay for less work). The manager’s job is to find a common thread or at least find a balance between managing the team and the boss.
Sometimes, as a manager you need to rethink how things are done to make a breakthrough that makes everyone happy.
Figuring out how to solve problems and do things better is one of the manager’s main responsibilities and toughest challenges. Also, even when you figure out what needs to be done, there is the challenge of getting people to do it and care enough about the solution. Waving the carrot and stick of reward and punishment can only take you so far. The bigger the change is, the tougher it is to get people to adopt it.
I faced this challenge constantly as I was managing my team in a fast growing company. It was like playing chess at a hundred miles an hour. Then I had a lightbulb moment while reading a neat book called “Mavericks at work”. The book talks about how some companies experienced success by doing things differently… things like crowdsourcing for example. One company got the whole team on a full day event to address issues they faced.
Then it occurred to me to do the same with my team. Rather than seclude myself and stay late at the office figuring out how to solve major team problems and move the team forward, I decided to do it with the team. I realized I can leverage the previous experience from my teaching days of organizing people to work on solving problems in groups.
It was time to share the problem with the team and open the door for them to contribute to solving it.
It was time for internal crowdsourcing (insert dramatic music).
It worked wonders for me, my team, and the company. It helped us:
- Expose more options and evaluate them more thoroughly
- Pick a solution that made the most sense and had the most buy-in from the team
- Implement the solution much more effectively
- (beautiful bonus) shift people from complaining about problems to finding solutions and taking ownership
I don’t know about you, but that’s music to my ears… I loved it.
Method To The Madness:
On a monthly basis, I used to get the team together for the “Group Thinking” session focussed on solving a problem we had. Here is the process I used:
– Prepare: Write down the problem you want to tackle. Be concise and keep it to one or two paragraphs. Then add one to three specific issues you want them to tackle. This should all fit in a single page.
– Examples: You can cover many different issues with these sessions. One of the sessions we conducted were on implementation issues (address lower productivity during the first half of the month then the rush to catch up in the last week). We also addressed the big picture issue of “what next” for defining what products we should prioritize for the team to work on. There is a lot you can cover.
– Print out enough copies for the number of people you have in the team and some spare copies. Thinking about it ahead of time and writing it down will help organize your thoughts so you can communicate what’s important.
– Pick a Quiet Place and Time: For us, that was Fridays because it was the end of the day and we had less interaction with customers. Find a time that you have less going on so you and your team can focus with less distractions. Find a place that has less interruptions. If you do it in your team room or conference room, put up a sign at the door “Please Don’t Disturb. Team workshop in progress.”
– Block Off Other Commitments: I used to block off half the day for the whole team and another half for a small group (will get to that one soon young grass hopper). You might need more or less time, but I suggest you begin with half a day for starters. You have to accept that there will be some “downtime” from daily operations to get this done. Make sure you adjust people’s targets if necessary so they can commit their time to the event rather than see it as an obstacle or distraction from their work.
– Eliminate Distractions: make sure you have everyone’s undivided attention.
– Disable all computers, electronics, and phones. As for mobile phones, take them, turn them off, or put them on silent… including yours.
– If you have some people who have to address potential urgent cases (e.g. customer call, or other personal cases like pregnancies, etc), arrange for them to have easy access to the exit so they don’t interrupt the event if they have to step out.
– Announce the event ahead of time to everyone so they don’t commit to anything (e.g. meetings) during the allotted time. Don’t tell them ahead of time what the topic (or the format) will be. Just tell them you have a special team event that will take half the day and not to make any commitments.
– Present The Problem:
– Get everyone in one room (or conference call, preferably with video if you can). The important thing is for everyone to be able to hear you and each other.
Tip: Start on time… don’t let late people hold up the activity.
– Present the issue. This should take five minutes. Keep it concise and present in clear language (no jargon, buzz words and fancy shmancy stuff… leave the creativity for solving the problem tiger). Give enough background for people to understand the problem and make it clear why it’s a problem and what the ideal situation should look like instead.
– Highlight what specifically you want them to solve. Big problems have many branches so focus on one to three items for the event. If you try to bite into a big problem, you will probably not get much done other than have a lot of scattered discussions. If you want to tackle a big problem, then you are better off cutting it into smaller parts and tackling them over a longer period of time (e.g. a multi-day get-away).
– Point out any boundaries and limitations that everyone must work within (e.g. budget restrictions, headcount, untouchable product, etc)
– Do NOT give them your solution or what you think is the right way to go. That will alter the outcome as some people will want to go with what you want. If you insist on limiting the discussions by presenting
– Allow time for questions from the group. Make sure everyone hears the question (repeat it out loud before answering if necessary).
– Break Up Into Teams (divide and conquer)
– Hand out the papers so each person has one
– Split people into small teams of four or five people (ideally not less than three per group or more than six per group if there is one person missing or extra).
Tip: Make sure you mix people up in these small groups. Have an even mix of junior and senior people, thinkers and doers, outspoken and reserved people, etc. People will want to work with those they are already comfortable with, but it’s better to get people to work with “new” partners. That way they are less likely to get distracted by “friend” talk and are more likely to discuss things further since they are new to each other.
– Give them 30 minutes to come up with options and a chosen solution for the issue. Inform them they will be presenting their findings afterwards and to designate a person per team. Stay around the teams in case they ask questions and need clarifications.
– Regroup & Share the Love
– Now break all the mini-teams up and regroup everyone back together into the bigger group.
– Let each team present their finding and decision to everyone. Give each team five minutes to present.
– Make sure each team presents without interruption from others. Some people will be very tempted to challenge or add to other teams’ presentations. Tell them “your chance will come soon” and stare into the distance.
– Designate someone to capture all the points from the teams. That ideally should be you on a white board. This will give you the chance to ask clarifying questions after each presentation. Write down the main points for each team. Look at this more of a data dump rather than a curating exercise.
Tip: intervene if a team member is rambling on or taking too long to get to the point. You are merely accelerating their pace to get the main points out of their work. You are not filtering the points you don’t like or skipping points that seem to you to be silly.
– Consolidate and summarize the points each team presented on a shared board/screen. This is where you clean up the information from all the teams.
– Combine the points repeated by more than one team
– Highlight the points that the teams stressed as important
– Organize the points in order of priority
– Make sense of the information by digesting it into easy to understand points or options
– Discuss each of the options with the group and expose the pros & cons of each. Capture this on the shared board for all to see. Fill in blanks in case the teams missed an important point. Just make sure you don’t push for your solution (otherwise you’re wasting everyone’s time if you will push your solution in the end), just fill in the information blanks.
– Make a group decision. After listing the options and weighing the pros and cons together, guide the group into deciding the best course of action.
– Follow Through Soldier
– Assemble an implementation task force: Most people will feel they are done when the team decides on an option, but you still need to implement. Pick out a small group of people with a mandate to lead the implementation. You should ideally pick people who have a track record of getting things done and following through (organizers fit well here). Make sure at least one of them is detail oriented.
– Have the implementation team present their work to the team at a designated time (a day or week later depending on how much details they have to go through).
– Set up monitoring mechanisms for the decision. Decide on some key metrics you will use to measure the implementation.
– Monitor and report back to the team the results of the implementation. So if you set out to improve the team’s productivity, then you will want to see how the productivity is changing over time after implementation. Use graphs to show progress over time.
Conducting internal crowdsourcing turned out to be one of the best ways to get better solutions, implementation, buy-in, and engagement from my team. Give it a shot and share your experience in the comments below.
Also, feel free to share this guide with a manager you think can benefit from leveraging internal crowdsourcing.