Isolation to Connection: A Challenge For Any High Performing Team

Team productively connected and engaging with each other.
Team connecting productively with each other

I have always been a people watcher, and in the last half of my life have worked to improve my capacity to connect with others. I can easily play the hermit and go into isolation, be there for days without concern. I did a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, one of the most challenging things I have done in my life, but it was a physical challenge for me whereas many others reported silence, not talking and not connecting with others, as really difficult. I could have maintained the silence and my own space much longer. Yet, I do like people. It takes me time to engage with others. So I write this piece with a strong understanding of the enjoyment and importance, for some, of having and maintaining personal space.

For some time I have held a heightened awareness of the generally isolationist ways of people travelling to work on buses, ferries, or walking, and the different sense of what is going on for them. Of course, much of this is my fantasy of what is happening, albeit tempered by a lifetime of experience.

I am sitting near the front of the morning commuter bus, facing the back, and I notice the steely expressionless faces of my fellow passengers. Some stare ahead, eyes fixed, blank, hardly a movement. Others have ear pieces and are likely listening to something, eyes closed. One or two may catch my gaze as I look around the bus. Eyes may meet but there is rarely acknowledgement or warmth.

I am walking along the sidewalk as people pass me going the other way to catch the ferry. I greet with a friendly (in my world) “Hello” or “Gidday”. Many maintain their disconnection, their minds somewhere else, or at least refusing to be where I am. Some appear wary of, even annoyed at, the stranger intruding on their space. There are a few that respond, some even warmly.

I liked the movie “Patch Adams” from the moment I first watched it. One of my favourite parts is where Patch is performing a social experiment, finding novel and exuberant ways of inserting himself into the space of others, all with the intent of eliciting a smile and some warmth and connection. I am not attempting to emulate Patch. His experiment does highlight what is a fairly significant aspect of the human condition, the isolating and detached way we spend much of our time.

Imagine how different the world would be if connection and warmth were the norm. Trust would be the underpinning basis when meeting others. Warmth and generosity of soul would be abundant. Perhaps you have noticed that when you truly connect with someone else there is joy, satisfaction and a sense of fulfilment. It would be fantastic living in a world where such richness were more readily available.

Irrespective of your reaction to the above “wondering”, this isolationist phenomena has real impact on how we work and function in different social settings, including within teams. Whenever a group comes together there is a necessary process of “warming up” individually and as a group, to enable us to become available to ourselves and those around us. There is a necessary unpacking of the distrusts or intrusions we experience as we engage with others, unwrapping our protections. It is as this process is addressed that the real work of being together advances. In fact, the “real work” of the group often is about establishing and working in meaningful connection. Attending to the culture or way of being together as a group assists the capacity of the group to come together effectively. Common understanding of the way in which decisions are made, conflict will be resolved, specific responsibilities, all assist ongoing capacity of the group to come together as a team. The more fully the culture is addressed and consistently honoured, the easier it is for those within the team to arrive and engage, trust they will be safe and allow themselves to express themselves and contribute fully.

In my work as a group facilitator I know I must address the warm up of the group so the intended work can move forward. As a project manager I know my team will coalesce and function more effectively if they collectively understand and adopt a team culture that makes sense to them, and they see it lived and honoured. As a team coach, this is one of the areas I look for as part of ensuring a team is able to be high performing.

The challenge is to transform all these people on buses, ferries, private cars and however else they travel in isolation into connected, trusting and generous group participants and team members, ready and able to contribute fully. This includes ourselves. Are you up for that challenge?

Where to With Project Management?

Time to sip and reflect
Time to sip and reflect: where to with Project Management?

I invite you to take a moment to sit and reflect on where project management is heading. Project Management was established in the 1950’s as a discipline to address massive work that needed to be organised and managed, with scheduling techniques being the primary tool supporting the process. Subsequent decade’s saw quality management, risk management, stakeholder management and other practices, developed and incorporated into project management. Project management was lifted from being a discipline towards being recognised as a profession.

Traditional project management practices focus on delivering scope on time and within budget and fit within the sociological concept of Achievement Consciousness[1]. As part of normal human development, when we are around the age of 13 we enter a stage of consciousness where we become aware of competence, composed of achievement and relationship. Western boys tend to strongly focus on achievement. Western girls are a little more interested in relationships, but still strongly driven by the culture on achievement. Eastern boys and girls are more oriented to relationships. Sociological theory suggests that when we master the spectrum, fully incorporating achievement and relationship into our practices, a new level of consciousness and way of being opens up, Authentic Consciousness. The way in which we function at that level is wholly different to how we are under Competency Consciousness. Stakeholder Management is an achievement-oriented attempt to deal with relationships, but its purpose is more about achieving than the realism and authenticity of being in relationship.

At the moment there is a lot of energy around the implementation and use of Agile project management. Agile methods are a welcome and positive advancement in project management. Agile extends our mastery of Competency Consciousness towards real relationships, seeking to deliver early value using small activity increments, and staying connected with the ever-changing needs of stakeholders and the project environment. However, it is still achievement-oriented in nature, another way and hopefully better way of dealing with relationships in a project context.

Each new advance feels like a relief in terms of insight and addressing issues. However, I look forward to relationships being genuinely considered, and authenticity and honesty existing, in delivering projects, including:

  • Working openly and fully with contributing, receiving and affected stakeholders;
  • Within and between teams, with the culture, values and way of being with each other holding as much value as the outputs;
  • Communication between senior management and the project manager and team being a true two-way exchange driven by mutual respect and interest;
  • Effective partnering with suppliers and other external parties.

These qualities do exist within environments where an organisation recognises the value of full engagement and high trust, but they are the exception. Agile as a practice cannot work effectively unless there is a real shift in attitude and approach, and that is a small step towards what I see as the real change in approach that needs to take place. Agile does attend to relationships more fully than has generally been the case to date. It has limited efficacy in environments where management are in the old paradigm of delivering scope within strict time and cost boundaries. It works best at providing incremental value to stakeholders within small delivery cycles that respond to the dynamically changing environment. Nothing kills success quicker than applying old rules to new practices. Rigid control must change to allow a new way to emerge. All of this is part of opening to a new level of consciousness and genuinely engaging with a way of being that produces outstanding results. Authentic relationship is counter to the traditional command and control approach, requires change in attitudes and behaviours across organisations, and holds important keys to unlocking performance across teams and organisations.

Achievement orientation fosters competition. Collaboration tends to lead to creative problem solving and rich solutions. Both are important. High trust and engagement enables ideas to flow, innovation to emerge, and creativity to expand. Sitting with me, as I drink my coffee, is the question “How can we unleash and apply the full potential of everyone involved in creating solutions?”

[1] Wade, J. (1996). Changes of Mind: A Holonomic Theory of the Evolution of Consciousness. USA: State University of New York Press.