This line from Pema Chodron's The Places That Scare You set me to thinking about how much it applies to team work and projects.
Related Article: The Importance of Process Thinking
The commitment to continuous improvement and optimal performance requires that we confront the imperfections that get in the way. This is not so easy. One of the more difficult things in life is confronting our own imperfections. This individual trait is magnified in teams and in organizations in general. As a group becomes bonded and individuals identify with it, the resistance of its members to confront their group's dysfunction and their own responsibility for it increases.
Project performance reviews, held frequently during the life of a project, are the primary means to continuous improvement. Project performance reviews acknowledge and uncover positive accomplishments, and valued parts of the process and they confront the flaws in our performance and processes.
“Warrior-ship here does not refer to making war on others. Aggression is the source of our problems, not the solution. Here the word “warrior” ... literally means, “one who is brave.” 1
It takes a wise warrior to confront his or her own imperfections. It takes a team of warriors to step back to objectively and compassionately review their process and behavior. It takes more than a procedure for post project process reviews to create a team of warriors.
A warrior is a person who is seriously engaged in an activity or cause, particularly a struggle. The spiritual warrior is one who is dedicated to the cultivation of his or her own clarity and compassion, with the ultimate goal of being of service. A Samurai, Japanese warrior, commits to serve - the word Samurai literally means "those who serve."
It takes courage to struggle against the tendency to hide from critical confrontations. This tendency is often "invisible to the eye." it is deeply embedded in culture and psychology. To first acknowledge and then do something about the resistance to confrontation begins with oneself as an individual. If you can't face your own shortfalls how can you expect others to face theirs?
Can you simply be present with the uncomfortable emotional feelings that come up when confronted with your shortfalls - your dark side? Being present with the feelings means being non-reactive; not trying to throw them off by ignoring, making excuses, blaming others or disparaging yourself and your own competencies. None of these strategies enables you to objectively address the issue at hand - the perceived shortfall, imperfection or dysfunction.
Acknowledge the common difficulty in facing criticism, even if you are not personally afflicted by it. It enables you to be more understanding of where you and others may be coming from when criticism is avoided or met with defensiveness and aggression. This acknowledgement is an important step towards applying your courage and skill to confront the issues in your projects to enable continuous improvement.
Starting with individuals who are aware of the need for confronting the "dark side", bring this awareness to the group level. It takes a team to evaluate its performance and avoid repeating unskillful behavior.
In an enlightened environment, everyone is self-aware and motivated. The process of performance reviews is well integrated into the fabric of how work gets done. There is sensitivity to the needs of individuals at various stages in their ability to take criticism without becoming reactive.
It is my experience that enlightened environments are few and far between. More often we find teams and departments that avoid meaningful performance reviews.
Team awareness begins with communication and the recognition that
- Negative criticism is something positive - a means to the end of improvement
- It is normal to be averse to it and
- Whether averse to it or not, it is necessary to invite, accept and thrive on criticism.
It’s the Process Not the Person
Enlightened leadership stresses the understanding that most errors and omissions occur because of broken processes - fix the process and the dysfunction goes away. They move beyond blaming to enable real cause analysis - not who caused it but what caused it.
If individual performance caused a problem, then what in the process allowed that dysfunctional individual performance? Was it lack of training, inadequate tools and procedures, poor direction, impossible expectations, laziness, stupidity or a deep seated character disorder? Depending on the answer, the right way forward can be identified and applied.
Not everyone on the team will be ready for confrontation. There are organizations that do not hold process reviews because they are not ready on an enterprise level. Some of them monitor performance through metrics and adjust on the fly without confronting the root cause of chronic dysfunctional behavior. Others don't bother with the metrics. Some know it is the right thing to do but are afraid of what will happen if they change the culture to a process oriented, self-reflective one.
I am reminded of an organization in which senior executives regularly come up with ideas for new initiatives and require operational groups to jump on them to achieve a half understood goal with impossible time and cost expectations. In this organization, the operational groups, are criticized for not moving fast enough or dropping the ball in their operational activities. Without a critical analysis of the dynamic at play, the scenario will be repeated.
What does it take to get that organization ready to change? It takes either a serious failure or an aware warrior with sufficient clout to get the right peoples' attention.
I am also reminded of a program in which two functional teams responsible for closely related work streams found themselves in squabbles and finger pointing caused by a combination of silo thinking and less than full commitment to following mutually agreed upon change and project control procedures. Some team members were open to objective and critical process analysis while others were into adversarial finger pointing and blaming.
In this situation, at this level of the organization, the need is for someone in authority to set the ground rules for effective process review with the goal of improving collaboration. In situations like this patience, strength and compassion are needed to make the points that need to be made while not offending. Here the warrior must have the authority and respect of the team to set a healthy direction and the skill to work through the resistance that is likely to come from those who are not ready for healthy criticism and change.
In any event, it is necessary for the organization, the team and the individuals that make them up to recognize the importance of going beyond the habitual resistance to criticism to embracing it as a critical success factor. It is leadership’s responsibility to make sure that happens.
1 Chogyam Trungpa Trungpa, Chogyam, "True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art", Shambhala, November 11, 2008, ISBN 1-59030-588-4