Sunday, January 30, 2011

Day 4: After Action Review & X-Teams

Roger introduced the idea of after action reviews.  The purpose of an after action review is to gain insight into what was valuable and/or could be done differently.  In essence, the after action review serves as a "learning loop" that involves the collective.  With respect to the organizational learning theories of Argyris and Schon, I believe it would be considered the second learning loop, with the first learning loop being the direct information that you receive, like a thermostat provides information about the temperature. The second loop involves collective, critical inquiry into what was apparently learned.

Roger laid out a generic view of the conversation (or any process, really) of last week.  What we immediately see and experience is the content and process (on the right). But these occur inside of a context which is created by a number of invisible forces:

He asserted that these forces, the mental models, assumptions, values and beliefs are usually hidden beneath the context.  The clues to their existence are paradox, emotional content, ambiguity and conflict in the process and its content. 

For me, it looks a little more like this, where everything that happens is occurring inside an invisible sea of mental models, assumptions, values, and beliefs and therefore deeply influenced by them.
This is a Venn diagram; the circles inside can be thought of as wholly-owned subsidiaries of the domain in which it sits.

Roger asked Lynne and Nina permission to do an after action review of their "Food" teaming session (see last week's post for description), stating that there is a risk of "personalization."  The intent of the after action review is to collectively learn from the experience.  I've experienced after action reviews of meetings that I've run.  I was aware that the "personalization" part happens so subtly; it can feel a great deal like a public flogging.  I have a rather high tolerance for humiliation,  having been convinced at one time in my life that I was a living, breathing, abomination before God. I told a dear friend of mine that nothing seems quite so embarrassing after that, but I must admit that I was privately concerned in the moment of how this process might feel to everyone.

We proceeded. People had various accounts of "what happened?" (content), which prompted Rakesh to request a description of what took place. That resulted in another set of various accounts of the "process."  It went something like this:
  • Nina and Lynne invited us to help ourselves to food and drink that they had brought;
  • Lynne described the process that we would go through and included a story of her experience with the process (Roger asserted that Lynne modeled what she had intended us to do in her account of her powerful experience);
  • Lynne said we would go around the room and each person would tell a story lasting roughly 4 minutes;
  • The stories were to be about a powerful experience each had with food, there were no story criteria beyond that;
  • There was to be no "cross talk," which referred to questions or comments on peoples' stories;
  • After everyone had spoken, we would debrief on the process.
Roger asserted that, in his experience, it is not useful in an after action review to try to directly address mental models, that one has to enter them at the point of "process," asking "What worked? What didn't work? What do you wish you had more of? What do you want to conserve about the process? What do you want to amplify about the process?"

As people began to speak, conflict arose in peoples' responses to the questions above. Adrienne liked the formal structure of how we would speak because it dissolved a hierarchy; those who were verbally skilled would not be privileged in the conversation.  Liz then implied that she wished she didn't have to speak, that when the topic was introduced, she felt that we were collectively in a process that would expose people in a way that they might not want. Pete learned a lot about the role of food in creating community (I'm sorry, Pete, I am paraphrasing, because my notes are fuzzy here).  Adrienne said the process did not occur to her as being about community.  Pete disagreed with Adrienne's characterization about what he had said. Adrienne further clarified her disagreement with Pete's disagreement. Trevor said something completely orthogonal which I can't recall because I was struct by the orthogonality of it. I believe that peoples' attempts to answer the questions about what did and didn't work in the process had Roger's intended result, which was conflicting views. These conflicting views are the entry point to inquire about peoples' mental models, assumptions, values, beliefs and so on. Another way of saying this is that these invisible dimensions within an organization are only made visible by the conflict; that conflict then becomes the material substance with which we can work to reveal the invisible.

Roger pointed out that our own stories about what had happened last week were an attempt to create a cohesive whole around something that may not have been one.

Roger interrupted us at various stages.  In response to Liz, he said noticed that last week's process did not allow people the choice of participating. We were told what would happen rather than allowed to opt out. This is where Lynne personalized it and apologized.  Roger named the personalization and reminded us that the intent is nothing around blame, but to learn. We learned that future incarnations of the process could incorporate choice, so that people could choose to enter in or not. 

People revealed that they had difficulty recalling others' stories.  ( I apologize, but I honestly can't recall if people actually revealed that aloud or if I was in an on-going conversation in my head in which I was repeatedly saying that to myself. )  Roger said that one of the consequences of setting up the process of "everyone will speak" was that while people were supposed to be listening to others' stories, they were actually internally strategizing about what they were going to say, editing, making decisions about their own story and so on. This assertion was explicitly verified by a couple of brave souls.

Drew remarked at his surprise at the emotional depth of peoples' responses. Liz claimed she was completely unsurprised at the emotional depth of peoples' responses. Someone else asserted that the process seemed to create a kind of group bonding because of the depth of disclosure that it enabled. Presumably, this bonding would enhance the ability of a team to function. Luanne pointed out that her ability to disclose a story that was so personal to her was not the process, but highly conditioned by those in the room and the fact that we built a sense of trust last quarter and spring. I revealed that I found myself responding to people by feeling closer to some and more distant to others. I confessed that I was engaging in an unhelpful habit that actually set me up to expect certain things of others, based on their stories and then later feel betrayed when they did not live up to what I imagined their storied implied about them.  

As I write this, I realize that what I was doing was my secret test of "trust." In a previous meeting, Roger asserted that he didn't believe that "trust" was a helpful or even necessary ingredient for highly-functioning teams, despite the common belief that it is. He said that the way we know we can trust people is that we secretly set up tests (in our minds) and assess peoples' apparent performance on these tests, then put them in categories of either trustworthy or not trustworthy. This process is all hidden and in our minds because by telling people the criteria of our hidden "trust" test, we would ruin the results of the test: If people knew what was on the test, they might in fact study for the test and pass, when in fact part of the trust test is whether they would pass the test if they didn't know they were being tested.

Roger then reminded us of the leadership model, which can also be considered a model of team functioning, I suppose.  He said that one usually prioritizes one of the following three: Affect (emotion), Power (force) or Meaning (purpose).  I am now extrapolating, but I believe he was implying that balanced and effective teams probably need all three dimensions.  A team that pays attention only to Power is likely to get a lot "done," but there could be large negative emotional fallout or what is "done" could be without meaning.

Roger said that for him, last week's process did a lot to surface Affect. In some cases it was deemed positive and "helpful" in peoples' minds, in others, it was negative. But in terms of team functioning, the process did not contribute to Power or Meaning. In the absence of meaning, the stories could even be more or less superficial or even a kind of wounding to individuals in the room. One of the things that would be good to add to the process, Roger suggested, would be a kind of closure at the end to ensure that people have not been opened up and exposed in a way that they would carry around with them as they left the room.  [Roger, could you comment on this?  I'm not sure I'm getting this right]. 

An Introduction to X-Teams
In the remainder of the time, I introduced the concept of X-teams. This descriptive model of high-functioning teams was developed by researchers at MIT through studying "high functioning units" within businesses. You can read about some of this work at this site. (I particularly like the U-theory and the 4-Player Model of Healthy Team dynamics). 

Before introducing the model, I showed that classic model of the iceberg that Peter Senge references in his work, where the tip, only 10% of the entire volume, represents events or symptoms. Those symptoms are a result of systemic patterns of behavior, which themselves result from the structure of the system.  The structure of the system results from the mental models, values, beliefs, held by those who created the structure.  Because the events or symptoms that we see (the tip of the iceberg) are really "cooked in" to the entire system through the invisible mental models, values and beliefs of those within the system, there is a way in which the problematized symptoms of a system are a result of a system functioning perfectly as designed (even if it was not a conscious intent). 

Also, the place of greatest leverage for change in the system is the place of invisible mental models, values and beliefs. Yet we often focus on "fixing" symptoms, rather than uncovering these hidden forces. 

I showed this model as a way of explaining that the X-team model itself is descriptive and only describes the middle two levels...patterns of behavior and structure.  It rather "overlooks" all the dimensions within the invisible mental models, values and beliefs by saying "choose the right people for the team."  This is a similar model used by Jim Collins ("Good to Great" author) in his phrase "Get the right people on the bus." 

I showed this picture to illustrate the differences in "traditional teams" and X-teams. It comes from a paper by Ancona,  Bresmin and Kaeufer (The comparative advantage of X-teams, MIT Sloan Management Review, 2002 vol. 43 (3) pp. 33-40). 
In my view, the most differentiating features between X-teams and traditional teams are their disposition toward fluid, open membership, their non-hierarchical structure, their intentional action to agents "external" to the team in order to secure resources, support and monitor for changing environments. 

The X-team, unlike the approach of participatory community design, treats "clients" as outside of the team, rather than inside. 

It has tiers of membership where the core team holds the strategic intentions of the work of the team, operational tier carries out the majority of the work, and the outer-network tier functions to address questions that are not on the critical path to the work. 

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