But there is something here, and it is based in part in the extraordinary depth of accelerated experience authors Drs Mario Moussa, Madeline Boyer, and Derek Newberry have been able to create for themselves as facilitators of the teamwork portion of the Wharton Executive Development Program (EDP).
The Wharton U-Penn EDP is a two-week executive education program for mid-senior leaders. It teaches familiar tracks in finance, marketing, strategy, M&A, but the signature of the program is an overarching business simulation that allows delegates to activate the material.
In teams of 6-8 they manage fictional companies in the medical device industry. Some are in manufacturing, others are service providers, and in addition to their own in-team decision-making they have to competitively interact with the other teams, as well as react to policy shifts and other external shocks.
While they are focused on business navigation they simultaneously act out interpersonal and team relationships under pressure.
To help navigate the process each team gets its own observer-coach, assigned one per team for the two-week period. Newbury and Boyer, both anthropology PhDs, are a part of this observer-coach staff. Moussa, who also teaches Influence & Persuasion on the course, oversees all the EDP teamwork processes and feedback.
Says Moussa, “We discovered early on, this is a standing, living laboratory of team performance. We have this tremendous opportunity each time (each EDP) to observe teams form, compete with each other, and then reflect and debrief.”
Due to the complexity of the simulation each unfolds differently. With about seven teams per EDP, and three EDPs a year, the authors have observed dozens of teams competing with each other, over hundreds of simulated years of business activity.
Gathering this much data over compressed time has allowed us to see patterns emerge really clearly, says Moussa. This is the research basis of the book.
Quoting the well-known management theorist Yogi Berra, Moussa says: “‘You can observe a lot just by watching.’ But most of the time we (team members) are not watching. We’re too focused on our goals. Win! Be Profitable! We’re not seeing what’s happening in our interactions with our colleagues."
To ameliorate this, an ethnographer-observer is embedded with each team, charged with what anthropologists call “deep hanging out” and reflecting team-interaction insights back to participants.
“In business situations, under pressure of delivering outcomes, people revert to type and teams inevitably deteriorate. When we’re under stress we revert to our habits,” says Newberry.
“The embedded observers get into the weeds with team. We help deal with the challenges and misalignments and unspoken disagreements that come up. We notice what they don’t notice. We are teaching them to become their own observers, to notice how they are interacting; how the group is interacting—teaching them how to reflect even as they trying to hit goals and complete tasks.”
“You hear from executives all the time: ‘I have the right strategy, why can’t I get my people to execute?! It comes down to collaboration skills. It’s hard to bring people along, hard to get people who have own interests and reference points aligned around a collective set of goals,” says Newberry.
At the end of each simulated year, the team reflects both on its financial results and team performance. These functions are intimately linked because team dynamics underpins improved business performance.
By way of proof: the Wharton EDP medical device simulation has been going since 2003, but the team-coaching component has been in place just the past three years. “Of the top-10 all-time business performances on the simulation, seven have of these have come since we started team reflections,” says Boyer.
Observing their living lab of team failure and success has led the authors to key principles for team improvement, although they would be the first to say you don’t get better teams by learning abstract principles. Only by practice and guided reflection.
With that caveat, the book offers a 3x3 framework. There are three foundations a team needs to get in place early—Goals, Roles, and Norms. And then three elements of ongoing reflection and change: Commit, Check, and Close, necessary to maintain peak performance.
Goals has to do with direction, getting congruence on where to go, what to do. Particularly, the authors suggest each team member has to have a personal, almost selfish “what’s-in-it-for-me” connection to the goal.
Roles is about getting clear about who is doing what specific activities and how these tasks overlap. In a real team there will be overlap of tasks. If there are just parallel activities, you have a “co-acting group” not a team.
Norms means agreement of codes of practice, ground rules in areas such as information-sharing, decision-making, and conflict-resolution.
The functions Commit, Check, and Close, point the team at buying into and continuing to do the ongoing team maintenance work needed.
Says Newberry, “No matter how good conversation are in beginning, no matter how energized, team will come apart. There are external, environmental challenges. Teams change personnel. One way or another over time they become misaligned.
“Much (other) team thinking is linear—‘Storming, Norming, Performing, etc.’ In our perspective the process of teaming is never done. This is why our framework is cyclical.”
“Truly top performers are committed to maintaining high levels of situational awareness, checking in on progress and tweaking their approach along the way,” says Boyer. Closing means closing gaps, practically addressing the inevitable cracks that appear in team functioning over time.
The authors suggest four processes to work through behavioral change in Closing: be specific; take small steps, alter the environment, and be a realistic optimist.
Getting this right means really calling out what is really going on, and creating the culture of having conversations that genuinely address problems.
Deep vs. Shallow
In this the authors reference the work of anthropologist Mica Pollock on deep vs. shallow conversations. Shallow conversations have the ring of the facile, like when team members agree to “communicate well” or “be clear about decision making” or “engage people.”
In contrast the authors say peak performance in teams and groups comes down to breaking down obstacles in real conversations, and really fixing stretched or broken relationships.
“You have to move from the shallows to the deep waters if you’re going to get the best out of a team.”