Case Study 2: MBA Project
Team ABBA had four members, an international team with a 50:50 male:female ratio. The client was a UK public sector organisation which had undergone several restructures and financial difficulties. One department considering commercialisation of a lucrative business unit via corporate spin off or similar . They wanted advice on how to structure the commercial vehicle plus an overview of the risks, rewards and challenges associated with this aspiration. Team ABBA explored a wide range of business considerations from tax planning to corporate finance, corporate governance to talent management.
Group formation was remarkably difficult. After this process was complete my view of the EMBA cohort changed, it reminded me that, sometimes, there are no friends in business.
My friend Anna approached me, Anna had had a serendipitous meeting with a contact which lead to an introduction to the potential client . Anna had spoken about a project with another member of the cohort, Bonnie, but Bonnie had decided to explore another opportunity. At the time I felt second best, this is a self confidence issue, in week one Management Praxis I identified building self confidence as my main reason for joining the programme. I was very keen to do the project, due to my own life experience I had a strong emotional connection to the client, in addition, I am constantly aware that my previous career was less than altruistic and the resultant guilt has a huge influence on my contemporary career choice. Transference , the confusion of past and present experience was a powerful presence during this stage of the project . I remember the trauma and embarrassment of not being picked for netball or country dancing ; forty years later I was still worried.
At lunch, Anna and I were joined by Slash and Patti, they were interested in joining the group. Slash had a number of potential projects to offer the team , one offering ‘all expenses paid’ to a top international location, not altruistic but lots of career potential. A discussion of the options began, I felt uncomfortable with some of the questions asked, from my perspective Slash and Patti’s motives seemed quite selfish and exploitative. Slash was talking and not listening, his aim was to control the team, meanwhile Patti listened, but her priority seemed to be personal financial benefit. On reflection this is Fundamental Attribution Error, my own perception had created a distance between myself and potential team members. In my personal desire to distance myself from power and money which has been such a large part of my life , I transferred unwanted feelings onto others, whilst being smugly convinced that I was concentrating on a ‘higher’ calling; I cringe at my superior attitude!
Time passed, at the next Cambridge weekend Anna and I were approached by Axel, a friend of Slash, Axel expressed an interest in joining the team and we invited him to discuss it over lunch. He had complimentary skills, listened carefully, was gracious, raised constructive questions and finally asked if he could join our team; I was happy. Later it transpired that Slash had already agreed that Axel would join the team and Axel had agreed to join the team only if he could be leader! Cultural distance and gender seems to be at the root of this negotiation dichotomy. Axel and Slash belong to a high power distance culture where the role of women can be subordinate. Axel’s approach suggests he appealed to Anna and myself for acceptance based largely on amenability rather than his skill set, whereas Anna and I were more interested in his skill set. After the weekend I prepared a skills matrix for the prospective team Anna, Slash, Axel, Patti and myself, only Anna showed an interest, I shared my skill set but none of the team members completed it. On reflection I undertook this exercise too early, I accepted that they had committed to the group and began the process of familiarisation . The nature of my work is such that I have to do this very quickly to be effective , but I have to understand that this is not always appropriate, it demonstrates a need for greater personal self reflection . There is another interpretation, it was a sign that some of the team were not committed to proceeding.
Summer came, Slash’s projects dissolved . When the international project turned out to be ‘no expenses paid’ we lost Patti immediately, a perfunctory WhatsApp saying she had never agreed to join our group and had other options. I was quite relieved, my abusive childhood has often resulted in exploitation due to my willingness to please and Patti had already begun to ask favours beyond the call of duty. I was happy because we still had a four man mixed skill set team and Anna’s project, my preferred option, was the best opportunity available. In the background all was not well. Anna was told by Benny that Slash and Axel had joined another team and that they had approached Benny and his friend Bjorn to join too; Slash and Axel did not discuss any of their extensive exploratory activities with Anna and myself for many weeks whilst continuing to participate in project preparation.
Finally, team Guns and Roses and ABBA went to dinner with other members of the cohort who belong to the same cultural group as Guns and Roses. One of the older, highly respected members of this cultural group, not a member of the team, mediated and Benny and Bjorn replaced Axel and Slash. Axel and Slash were angry as they had assumed Benny and Bjorn would choose their new project, however, Benny and Bjorn selected our project attracted by a combination of altruism and personal development potential. One of the cultural commonalities of all the participants is that much of the action happens over food, later this performed a very effective team bonding function.
This series of events resulted in a lack of trust within the original team, a deep uncertainty about others, created by the lack of inclusion, influence and affection, which precipitated self orientated behaviour (Schein 1985) in myself. I am a ‘logical thinker’ (Schein 1985), I like process/rules, feel discomfort at inappropriate affection (Axel was far too friendly too quickly for my taste) and in a situation of uncertainty I feign disinterest and withdraw. Axel and Slash were angry, I appeared uncaring but the events of this period, however I had lost sleep due to transference experience, reliving aspects of my dysfunctional childhood, reflecting on how self orientated behaviour, in particular, feigning disinterest, had played a role in the collapse of my marriage.
Edmondson (2012) describes teaming as:
A network of interconnected individuals working in a temporary team on improvement , problem solving and innovation.’
This is a very good description of ultimate ABBA approach , it was a flat structure collaboration of specialists across diverse locations and functions. In order to achieve this the members of ABBA needed to get to know each other, the importance of this phase is identified by Kalzenbach and Simon (2005) . In the period before site consultancy team ABBA spent lots of time together by regular skype calls or WhatsApp exchanges sharing individual needs, expectations, ideas and logistics . Another useful ‘forming’ (Tuckman etal 1965) behaviour discussed by Kalzenbach and Simon is the coalescence of the team by seizing upon a few immediate performance orientated tasks and goals. On a hot day in early August Anna and I went on a fact finding mission to the client and we shared our notes on WhatsApp with Benny and Bjorn, in the same period we worked as a group on PID and project plan, as a result we got off to the fast and constructive start recommended by Kalzenbach and Simon .
I would argue that, as an international team with members from both a high and low power distance culture , the importance of team familiarisation was paramount. Brett etal (2006) discuss success factors to facilitate managing multi cultural teams. Here are some real life examples from team ABBA:
Acknowledge and work round gaps . As EMBA students we were all aware of individual roles and responsibilities outside of the TCP and the resultant potential obstacles to success. They team facilitated honest evaluation of logistical and resource challenges .
Define needs before project starts. Team ABBA shared extensively their needs, aspirations and expectations of the TCP and the group dynamic. This was important in narrowing what was originally a very broad brief. To ensure the PCP satisfied client needs and the personal development aspirations of Team ABBA, it was important to narrow the brief without losing technical diversity. The acknowledgment of individual needs helped me to understand differences in cultural norms and to make allowances so that I could work at my best . I felt safe to share some of my irrationality, for example I explained how I find lateness inexplicably infuriating. (Appendix 1 shows my interpretation of team ABBA task, individual and team needs based on Adair’s framework 1973).
Spend time talking . We spent time talking about subjects other than the project and enjoyed sharing meals together before and throughout the site visit. This helped to build psychological safety, which I think was vital for our team due to the nature of formation, our personal responsibilities and the volume of TCP work. As identified by Edmondson (2012) Psychological safety ensured clarity of thought and encouraged speaking up. It promoted innovation which encouraged the team, once on site to make considerable changes to the work programme rather than blunder on with the existing plan, this increased our change of success. It enabled the team to enter the learning zone (Appendix 3) and ultimately removed obstacles to achieve goals. In contrast to the formation phase, at no time did I feel a need to protect myself from team.
High power distance culture focus on defined knowledge areas of strength rather than status. Team ABBA was focused on collaboration rather than status, each member showed respect for each other’s specialist expertise and unique work experience.
This is in line with Hofstede(1980) suggestion for high power distance culture:
Focus on tasks through relationships
Spoken agreement based on trust
Fluid interchange between social and business
Spend time getting to know people
Throughout this process Anna, who has experience of both cultures, was vital in assisting me, a low power distance member to interpret words/actions of high power distance team members and was responsible to formulating an effective approach to project management.
When we arrived at the client team ABBA were already in the ‘learning zone’. This developed into double loop learning (Argyris, 1991) and I believe it is a key feature of why team ABBA found the project rewarding and the output was strong. Here are the key features as identified by Argyris:
Team ABBA was able to form productive relationship with client and reflect on /change its own practice in response to client needs.
All members of the team were interested in personal development and looked for continuous improvement in own performance.
There was regular frank and open discussion over food and during the week we developed a common language and shared jokes.
Team ABBA was 50% female which was very effective to client context. The client was an organisation in transition, staff morale was low and they were veterans of many consultancy projects . Their culture exhibited ‘the doom loop’ (Argyris) traits which was in sharp contrast to our own culture. I found it depressing to witness very capable people protecting their turf for fear of change and holding onto data to avoid objective testing. The outcome was that our project was not as effective as it could have been and has left me more cynical of the ‘caring ‘ profession.
I believe that the social sensitivity of team ABBA was heightened by the gender balance which enhanced project success against the odds by boosting collective intelligence and reducing the importance of status (Wooley and Malone, 2011).
Team ABBA was destined for success and fulfilled several criteria identified by Kalzenbach and Simon:
Complimentary skills mix. The primary and secondary traits of the team ABBA Belbin analysis covered 7of the 9 categories.
Specific goals and common purpose. Team ABBA had two endurance factors , a shared desire for personal/professional development and individual personal stories connecting them with the work of the client.
Individual and mutual accountability. This included listening and respect for each other’s opinion, clear rules of behaviour, open ended discussion and active problem solving .There was on focus on collective effort rather status, the team naturally measured its success by the collective product and that’s how team differs from a working group. The incorporation of reflection of process and outcome in the rhythm of the day built into our project plan was identified by Edmondson as vital for effective teaming.
Originally a productive loner (Argyris), I have improved over the years! I appreciate the importance of the TCP has part of the EMBA, it has given me a unique opportunity to experiment with productive reasoning through the experience business consulting beyond the boardroom and discuss issues in a safe environment without fear of damaging career prospects . A recommendation Getting Smart People to Learn (Argyris) the pre reading for induction week, at that time I didn’t appreciate the importance of this article; the TCP has changed that.
I need to expand my leadership repertoire . The coaching style, identified by Goleman (2000) worked with the flat structure of team ABBA: I wasn’t the leader. The iterative approach of ‘try this’ was effective in the inherent uncertainty of first time teaming, however, I am keen to explore opportunities in new industries and need other tools at my disposal. To expand leadership repertoire Goleman recommends a scientific, reflective appraisal, this is a personal challenge as I rarely give myself time to reflect . It is something I’m currently working on in counselling and business coaching. To start this process I used Argyris’ framework of emotional intelligence to produce a competency heat map. (Appendix 2 ) I intend to share this with some trusted colleagues to test my self knowledge.
One area of weakness I can start work on immediately is communication. The EMBA individual project is good practice ground trying to reach out to others for advice who I would normally avoid due to fear of rejection or incurring their displeasure . I know both my business coach and counsellor would be pleased with this departure from the norm and I am grateful to the TCP for reaffirming their recommendations and encouraging action . In addition I want to work on my self awareness and control, I am probably the only person who cried during their TCP presentation. I incorporated an image in the presentation that triggered a transference experience that I thought I had put to bed. It’s interesting times for me and thank you for making me reflect on the TCP, once its on paper I have to do something about it!
Individual and group needs analysis (Adair 1973)
2) Emotional Intelligence - Heat map ( Red= needs work)
(Goleman framework )
Emotional self awareness
Accurate self assessment
3) Psychological safety and the learning zone
Source :Psychological Safety and Accountability ( source : Edmondson, A.C. “The Competitive Imperative of Learning.” HBS Centennial Issues. HBR 86 , nos. 7/8 (2008) 60-67.
Argyris, C. (1991) Teaching smart people how to learn,Harvard Business Review, 69(3): pp. 99-10
Woolley, A & Malone, T (June 2011)What makes a team smarter? More women
Harvard Business Review
Brett, Behfar, Kern (2006) Managing Multicultural Teams Harvard Business Review. Nov 2006, Vol. 84 Issue 11, p84-91
Katzenbach, J.R. & Smith, D.K. (2005), The Discipline of Teams Business Review 83 (7/8): pp. 162- 171
Goleman, D., (2000), Leadership That Gets Results Harvard business review, 78(2), pp.78-9
Edmondson, A.C. ,(2012) Teaming: How Organisations Learn , Innovate and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, HBS Wiley and Sons. (San Francisco)
Tuckman, Bruce W., Naval Med. Res. Inst., Bethesda, Md, Developmental Sequence in Small Groups Psychological Bulletin, Vol 63(6), June, 1965. pp. 384-399.