Expediting Team Development at MIT



My last post suggested that analyzing context is the first step in effective problem-solving and decision-making, especially when you face complex or ambiguous problems. Once you understand the context and are clear on the results you want, you are ready to design a process to achieve those results.  This post shows how a new process led to gains in team performance at MIT.

Essentials of Effective Teamwork

In his bestseller, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni uses a fable to highlight five elements essential for effective teamwork (attention to results, accountability, commitment, productive conflict, and trust). Lencioni’s fable features Kathryn, a gifted CEO who combines skills from her days as a schoolteacher with lessons learned from her basketball-coach husband. She takes the reins of a dysfunctional executive team. Within a year, she whips them into shape through a series of off-site, team-building retreats and other interventions while demonstrating self-awareness, assertiveness, and leadership skill.

No Time for Fables: MIT UPOP Challenges Teams to Produce Immediately 

Kathyrn’s feat is inspiring, yet daunting. What if you do not have the time, money, and patience to conduct off-site retreats, personality assessments, and trust-building exercises over the course of a year?

Housed in MIT’s School of Engineering, UPOP is a program that teaches MIT students teamwork, communication, and problem-solving skills.

Faculty, staff, and alumni volunteers in MIT’s Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP) have grappled with this challenge for the past 18 years. Housed in MIT’s School of Engineering, UPOP is a program that teachers MIT students teamwork, communication, and problem-solving skills. UPOP’s centerpiece is a weeklong workshop during which students form teams and tackle a complex project. The projects combine social, political, and technical considerations (e.g. determining how to provide water to a community after a devastating hurricane).

UPOP students first meet their teammates on Monday morning. By Thursday afternoon, they must complete their projects and present to a panel of judges. To accomplish so much so fast, each team has to gel quickly. 

CPRI (Context, Process, Results, and Implications) Thinking Leads to a Better Process

Knowing that teams evolve through a predictable sequence of stages (i.e. forming, storming, norming, and performing), we have experimented with different activities and sequencing. 

In this context, the goal has been to develop a robust process that generates results quickly while simultaneously producing trust, constructive conflict, commitment, and accountability.  Robust means that by simply following a carefully orchestrated sequence of steps, the process generates these outcomes without requiring a gifted leader like Kathryn. 

The implication we want students to draw is that they can analyze complex issues, problems, or even interpersonal situations, and then engineer a process to produce the results they want.

The Team Creativity Process:  Trust, Productive Conflict, Commitment, and Accountability by Design

To accomplish the goal, fellow alumnus, Richard Kremsdorf, MD, and I designed a unique process embedded in an experiential learning module called “Team Creativity.” It begins with each team choosing an issue it wants to tackle. Previously, team members have had a chance to meet each other (forming), struggle through a design/build exercise (storming), and develop guidelines for working together (norming).

After choosing an issue (e.g. disaster recovery), they gather information to help them frame the issue as a solvable problem. We advise them that the best solutions will address trade-offs and integrate the goals of the various stakeholders.

Having framed their problem, the teams use a structured brainstorming approach to generate solutions. They postpone evaluation to avoid stifling creativity. We harness the power of diversity in various ways, including by using a procedure that enables introverts and extroverts to contribute equally. Getting input from all team members and considering each person’s perspective builds trust.

Next, we separate ideas from the individuals who suggested them. This makes it easier for teams to evaluate each idea on its merits and to engage in constructive conflict without bad feelings.

During the evaluation phase, we introduce several tools. Teams cluster their ideas and identify key themes using “affinity diagramming. Later, they use “multi-voting” to select the best ideas. Giving everyone an equal vote fosters commitment to the outcome.

Finally, the teams produce action plans for conveying their proposed solutions in polished presentations. Team members hold each other accountable using an “accountability matrix” to specify who will do what, by when.

... they can analyze complex issues, problems, or even interpersonal situations, and then engineer a process to produce the results they want.

Results and Implications:  Stronger Teams and Better Performance in Solving Complex Problems

January 2019 marked the third year we have used the Team Creativity process at UPOP. Students frequently describe Team Creativity as the most valuable part of the team training. Outside observers are surprised to see how quickly groups of students become high-functioning teams and how well they perform on their projects. 

Meanwhile, the Team Creativity process is finding application outside UPOP. Several MIT alumni volunteers have used the methods to tackle business problems in their own companies. A working group at MIT adapted this approach to generate ideas for a new career development program. At last fall’s Inclusion by Design conference, attendees used the Team Creativity process to generate ideas for new products, better workplace design, and improved hiring and training methods. 

The CPRI framework has proven useful in developing the Team Creativity process, and in expediting team development, complex problem-solving, and decision-making at MIT. It also helps in managing ambiguity and complexity. It will be interesting to see what new applications arise.

Managing Ambiguity: How Effective Managers Use CPRI


My last post asserted that successful hedge fund managers have an exceptional ability to manage in an environment characterized by ambiguity and complexity. This ability emanates from their use of effective cognitive strategies (ways of thinking). I introduced the CPRI (Context, Process, Results, Implications) framework, and recommended screening hedge fund managers based on how well they address each of these four elements when describing decisions they have made.

This post will:

  • Illustrate ambiguity and complexity in a hedge fund environment

  • Demonstrate how an effective manager reduces ambiguity by first analyzing the context (C) before moving to effective action

Before proceeding, I would like to acknowledge the many readers who commented that the ability to deal constructively with ambiguity and complexity is just as crucial for managerial success outside the hedge fund industry.

Ambiguity and Complexity in a Hedge-Fund Environment

Transactions are at the core of business. They typically start with a request. Requests are ambiguous; they have both explicit and implicit components to them. 

Imagine a hedge fund serving institutional investors. Suppose a customer says, “I would like to invest another $100M with you.” The explicit request is both ambiguous and complex. There are countless ways the money could be invested (e.g. stocks, bonds, or other asset classes). Even if they had said, “I would like this invested in US equities,” there are nearly 3,000 listed on the NYSE alone. 

The implicit aspects of this request are also ambiguous. Does the customer want to:

  • Quickly make up for losses on another investment?

  • Avoid losses of a certain size?

  • Satisfy some other agenda?

Given this uncertainty, what’s the best way to proceed?

Reducing Ambiguity by Analyzing Context (C)

The CPRI framework suggests that the first step in an effective strategy for dealing with ambiguity is to clarify the context

To do this, managers can ask relevant contextual questions. The most powerful of these relate to goals.

Questions on which the manager might reflect include:

  • Who is this customer?

  • What are the customer’s goals, interests, underlying emotional concerns?

  • What are my firm’s values, mission, goals?

  • Are there other relevant stakeholders (e.g. regulatory agencies, other customers)?

Questions to ask the customer include:

  • Can you tell me more about what led to your decision to invest another $100M with us?

  • What does this represent as a fraction of your institution’s total portfolio?

  • How is the other portion invested?

  • What are you hoping to accomplish with this portion?

  • What is your time horizon?

  • If, at some point, your investment was down by 10%, what would happen?

By first clarifying the context, the manager produces information that reduces the ambiguity. The next step will be to use this information to guide development of an effective course of action (in this case, an investment strategy and the tactics for implementing it).

In the CPRI framework, developing and implementing a course of action is represented as Process (P). The process must produce results (R) that integrate the goals of all of the stakeholders identified by the manager during the analysis of the context (C).

Future posts will address designing processes (P), assessing results (R), and teasing out implications (I).

#hedgefund #leadership #leadershipdevelopment #coaching #peopleanalytics #hranalytics #recruiting #highpotential

Originally posted by Paul Edelman on LinkedIn on August 27, 2018.

Going Hypothetical: A Powerful Way to Surface Emotional Concerns Before They Derail Your Change Effort


My last post began with a premise, an assertion, and a suggested question to ask those affected by the change:


All change, even change that leads to improved business performance, represents displacement and threat to those affected.


Hidden emotional concerns are the root cause of most failed change efforts.

Suggested Question:

What emotional concerns does this proposed change raise for you, or others who will be affected?

This question is more likely to produce useful information than a less specific question like, "How do you feel about the proposed change?"

Astute readers have asked:

What if the emotional concerns are outside of awareness, or the individuals choose not to articulate them for other reasons?

In this case, you can try entering the domain of the hypothetical. To go hypothetical, say to those affected by the change:

Imagine the proposed change has been successfully implemented. How will things be different?

Their answers will heighten awareness of the emotional concerns that could otherwise sabotage the change effort.

For example, suppose you and your team have been asked to implement a new survey/feedback process. You ask the project sponsor how things will be different after the change. Suppose his/her list of post-change differences includes the statement, "I could end up with more feedback than I can handle."

You can follow up by asking:

"How will you feel then?"

Whether they are aware or not, project sponsors harbor a variety of emotional concerns. These can include fears like those of being exposed, embarrassed, or overburdened. Whether the sponsor communicates his/her concerns explicitly or implicitly, all parties to the conversation will gain insight. Then, you will all be in a better position to play your respective roles in a collaborative endeavor.

In contemplating this approach, you may worry that calling attention to emotional concerns could lead to the project sponsor terminating the effort. If you sense the sponsor heading in that direction, you can use your skills to reconnect him or her with the stated goals that initially prompted the change (in this case, developing a survey/feedback process).

By developing a good understanding of the emotional concerns associated with the various stakeholders in your next change effort, you will be better able to address their concerns and ensure success. Depending on the context and the particular concerns, there are many ways to do this. 

Originally posted by Paul Edelman on LinkedIn on July 30, 2018.

Wear Your Red Hat to Implement Change More Effectively

red hat.png

All change, even change that leads to improved business performance, represents displacement and threat to those affected. This is the key reason most efforts to produce change fail. Cultivating awareness of the emotional experiences associated with change is crucial to making change successfully.

In the training program on Team Creativity that Dr. Richard Kremsdorf and I developed for MIT's Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP), we incorporate Edward DeBono's Six Hat framework into a structured process for analyzing problems and generating creative solutions. The six colored hats symbolize different ways of thinking, or moves that participants can make, in the context of team interaction.

One of the "hats" is the red hat. "Red-hat thinking" or "red-hat moves" have to do with feelings or emotions. At the appropriate point in the process, we ask team members to "put on their red hats" and discuss how they feel about the various proposed solutions to a problem. Invariably, this part of the process is problematic. Team members have trouble differentiating their intellectual reactions from their emotional ones. For example, a team member might say, "I feel that this solution will be the most economical." This is after we have already asked them to state their thoughts about the positive aspects of the solution (the yellow-hat step).

Recently, the cause of this difficulty dawned on me. MIT students (like many of us who earn a living using the part of our bodies above the neck) are selected for their intellectual prowess. They tend to be less skilled (and therefore less comfortable) in accessing their feelings. Asking them how they feel about a proposed solution is too vague. A more specific (and more effective) question is, "what emotional concerns does this solution raise for you or the others who will be affected?"

With the benefit of a more specific prompt, and a little coaching, they are much more likely to become aware of the kinds of feelings that undermine successful efforts to implement change. Eventually, they will grow to be the kinds of team members and leaders who can say, "This solution is likely to scare the individuals whose jobs it may threaten." Or "This solution is likely to embarrass the people who developed our current method." Armed with this awareness, they are much more likely to anticipate the resistance they are likely to encounter and devise effective steps to mitigate it.

The lessons from the MIT UPOP Team Creativity training generalize to many other situations. For example, this sort of questioning can be useful in executive and team coaching.

Originally posted by Paul Edelman on LinkedIn on July 27, 2018.