Leadership Skills: How to Go Fast in Teams by Starting Slow

businesswoman in front of her co-workers

A while ago, I had the honor of supporting several work groups engaged in mission-critical, exciting projects.

In each case, as part of preparing for these encounters, people inside the organizations told me something like this: “The people in this group have huge performance pressures and will want to get right into the issues. They won’t have much energy for ‘high level’ work.”

That’s code for “we don’t value creating a supportive team context; we just want to jump into the content.” To that I say “thanks for sharing.”

From years of experience, I’m reminded of a truism about team development each time I hear this:

“Go slow to go fast.” It means that the productivity curve for high-performance teams is flat at first and then very steep later.

This fundamental relationship paradox is easily recognized by people who follow the Leadership Gift.

When a new task relationship starts out too fast too soon without developing a supportive context, people with the Leadership Gift know that

  1. breakdowns will accrue and
  2. the content of the work is likely to progress very slowly

On the flip side, when a new group attends to the important contextual work of

  • shared task clarity,
  • understanding commitment levels,
  • shared operating norms and agreements, and
  • individual strengths,

then going fast can be predictably easy.

So how do you get a new group to start slow? Here are tips that have worked for me:

1. Set aside some large chunks of meeting time for the group to get oriented. These can be a series of half-meetings or even whole meetings.

2. Exhibit good meeting management by gathering, listing and honoring everyone’s outcomes for the meeting time. Then list everyone’s agenda items. Do this without editing for priority or time budget — that comes later when you agree to focus on the most important items with the time you have. When you put this practice to work, everyone is heard and everyone has a chance to witness each person’s priorities.

3. Promote the use of face-to-face time for important versus urgent group tasks. It suggests two things: first, if you are not aligned, individuals can be racing in the wrong direction and effectively canceling each others’ efforts. Second, if you are attending to truly important things, then the list of urgent items reduces rapidly.

4A. Assure your group that far more work will be done than they can imagine once you meet for a few meetings to get oriented. Tell them about the Partnerwerks’ Team Orientation Process™ for helping teams get the fastest true start possible. 

Alternatively, don’t promote any such tool as it could be seen as suspect (I’ll leave this decision to you).

4B. Allow yourself to “lead from alongside” in group meetings and simply ask questions from the Team Orientation Process like, “As a team, what is our collective task?” and “I’m not sure I understand why it’s better for you to invest energy on this team than to be in your office. So what’s in it for you to be on this team?” and “I have some expectations for how I’d like members of this group to behave. I bet you have some, too. I suggest we propose them and turn them into rules of engagement or operating agreements.”

How does this work?

Here’s a recent example of how this worked for me.

I launched a four-person team recently for a short-term project. We were in three different places.

We held three one-hour web meetings in the first two weeks. One hundred percent of the first meeting was devoted to our Team Orientation Process. About 60% of the second meeting was too. We also accomplished some planning and even took some action items. About 30% of the third meeting was still invested in the Team Orientation Process, and, we spent much more of the meeting accomplishing the work of the team. This team is highly aligned and energized, mutually supportive, and each member is making independent progress in the interest of the team.

Get Started With This Week’s 5-Minute Stretch

In which of your relationships are the individuals quite busy but the supportive context is missing so the group isn’t moving forward together?

Reflect on the following:

  • Do the participants share a common direction?
  • Do they perceive that they can win together?
  • Have they drafted operating norms that support them?
  • Do they share a clear and elevating goal that keeps them focused and energized?
  • Do they know and care about the resources each participant brings to the team?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then take responsibility for developing the context that will support you and others. That’s peer leadership. That’s effectiveness. That’s the Leadership Gift in action.

Leaders and coaches: Hone your integrative skills in the Leadership Gift Program. CEO’s desiring a culture of diverse unity may want to investigate the proven Managed Leadership Gift Adoption program.

Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide.

Break through problems, accelerate your growth, and skyrocket performance with The Leadership Gift Program.

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3 Responses to Leadership Skills: How to Go Fast in Teams by Starting Slow

  1. Jim Rice says:

    Thank you for this article. It is such a comforting validation to read of another’s emphasis on this crucial topic. A team is not just a pipeline of tasks! So few understand the importance of creating the supportive context for a well tuned team. High performance eludes many teams and managers, line managers and executive leadership alike. The time invested has ROI that I hope to measure and demonstrate to them, and the team. So many think this warm fuzzy human element is just a waste of precious time. To them I also say, Thanks for sharing.

    • christopher says:

      Thanks Jim. I LOVE your line: A team is not just a pipeline of tasks! That deserves enshrinement.

      You have an interesting idea to measure the ROI of the investment in context-building orientation practices. While you can collect qualitative data and estimates from the team members, I’m guessing you would need a series of control groups to actually get metrics — and I’ve never been willing to sacrifice control groups to low performance for the sake of ROI metrics.

  2. Jim Rice says:

    I’m with you Chris on the ROI metrics of context-building orientation practices. It’s not very practical to prove quantitatively. But, as you indicate, qualitative feedback, such as engagement, communication, collaboration, morale, motivation, satisfaction and the like, alone should present a great case. As would the quality of the results, as unto a fine symphonic orchestra versus [just] a fair string section.

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