ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - May 2001


Behind the Teams: We've provided you with the tools and resources that will help you in your fight to keep team efforts alive, to build a greater sense of community and unity in your organization.
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  In This Issue...

A Purpose And A Place
Do Upper Managers Earn Their Keep?
Pageturners: Effective Training Strategies
Proof Positive
Brief Cases

 One From Column B —
My Kingdom for a Team

Peter Block explores the durability of teams and why they remain fascinating after all these years.

  Behind the Teams:

Just What the Doctor Ordered
In Support of Teams
Cynthia Minor and Mike Levenhagen

Highlights of Winning Teams
Views For A Change
Pam Walsh's Unofficial Quality Tips

Return to NFC Index

A Purpose And A Place
Harmonizing Elements to Create an Organization with Rhythm

The challenge of finding new ways of working together is ever-present in today’s global marketplace. Geographical boundaries have been virtually eliminated, redefining our workplaces and workspaces. We are now able to work from home, but in many ways we are struggling to see beyond the fences in our backyards—beyond our departments, companies, fields of interest and expertise. If we truly want our work to be effective, productive and innovative, we need to create a sense of unity and connection by organizing a space that brings many together for one purpose. How do we create this shared space? Frank Heckman’s approach: move things. Move people by identifying a common goal, move each other by recognizing each person’s strengths and move the organization by aligning all of these elements to create an organization that can dance. Heckman stresses the importance of pursuing a common purpose—the rest will naturally flow.

 Heckman’s ideas integrate his experience as a writer, consultant, athlete and Judo, Aikido and Csikzentmihalyi master. He is currently one of the leaders in applying open systems thinking and participative design methods in Europe and the United States. This approach is meant to support the creation of active, adaptive workplaces and communities. Heckman has also worked closely with the Dutch Olympic committee to support and mentally prepare athletes and coaches for the Sydney Olympic games.

 News for a Change caught up with him in the Netherlands where he is currently working on the human resources portion of the giant multi-nation European merger of Renault and Nissan automobile companies. In this interview Heckman shares his unique perspective on connecting people, places and movement to create organizational rhythm.

NFC: The topic today is helping leaders and managers create and support teams and create the appropriate environment for them. Starting teams and using team-based management almost always involves training people. Your approach to designing and training the people who will be members of the teams is somewhat different. Could you share with us how and why?

Heckman: My notion on teams is something larger than putting people together and training them how to work together. I don’t think that we really need to do that. I think it’s hard-wired into human nature that we can work together. It’s much more important to identify what it is that we want to work together around. You don’t need a team first, you need a topic. Get an idea, a question, a need, a prototype to build, and then you create a shared space—a place where people can elaborate on this idea, state their views and start to build that prototype. Out of that idea you begin to realize what the knowledge, experience and brilliance is of the people in your specific organization, community, etc. and they will gather around that idea.

NFC: Not everyone has the same understanding of what you mean by “shared space.”

Heckman: Traditionally you think it’s just a department or a place where a group of people can work together. It’s not necessarily bricks—it can be clicks. I’ve used the example of a mother in Australia running a farm. She gets her supplies through e-mail ordering. She has a child that she doesn’t understand and she sends an e-mail of concern out to the world and people pick up on it and realize this woman is talking about a child that is very possibly autistic. They respond to her and there’s ongoing communication and within months there is a site where people all over the world are discussing autism. All of a sudden, this mother has a shared space in which she has learned how to deal with her own child. Shared space can also be an actual place, whether it’s virtual or networked or whether it’s real bricks, that’s one thing. A place where people can elaborate and work together on something is another thing.

NFC: Back to what you were saying about the notion of teams and working together...

Heckman: Most organizations are still quite traditional. I work in Holland, Ireland, France, Spain, Italy and the United States. There are some changes from culture to culture but we’re all struggling with our way of working together, which I call organization. Organization is more of an active form rather than a noun. Looking at new ways to work together is the real key to effective, productive and innovative organizations. But if we go in a more traditional form and build teams, those teams sometimes are just new wine in old sacks.

NFC: It’s like the example of asking people to be cucumbers, but when they are put back in the same old pickle jar they become pickles again, real quick. Something else has to change.

Heckman: That’s right. I can give you wonderful examples of things that seem progressive and new but really aren’t. I work with one of the fastest growing cable technology firms in Europe and maybe the world. In order for them to sell their product, they need to certify at an international level. Basically, they need to specify every single step in the construction of the new technology and go through an international board of examiners. It’s a very hard, trying process. You need to be fast because if you lose your certification or you don’t make it, then the second round is six months later and your competitors may be ahead of you. The firm was doing this unsuccessfully and they missed their first round of international certification.

 When I came in to look, they had their hardware teams, software teams, logistics people and their testing people working day and night and through the weekends—young people, engineers from India, Greece, America, Holland, and France. I looked at the groups and then I asked management, “Will you allow me to give this group the power to see if they can actually make their deadline?” They said, “Frank, do anything you can as long as we make the certification.” I brought them together and basically asked if they could make week 43. They said, “No. We can’t make it.” And I asked, “Then why do you try?” They said, “Because management says we have to, but we think it’s unrealistic.” Then I asked them, “Why don’t you take a day and see if you can make a realistic plan. And then we will hold that plan against the deadline one more time.” They collectively designed a new plan, looked at that deadline again, and after a day and a half, they said, “We can do it.” The teams started to work in an entirely different way. I’m talking about four teams that were one team and they had never worked together, they had always passed the buck on to each other.

NFC: So the only difference was that they discussed all of the scheduling and a new plan together rather than separately.

Heckman: It was an integral approach. It seemed as though they all had one goal, which was trying to get the technology to work to be certified. They looked at their technical problems and started a whole new way of working—breaking some paradigms just out of the group conversations they had. They found, without any interventions from the outside, that their professional hang-up was that they thought when you made a good amount of money and had a nice leased car, all that stuff, that if you had a technical problem you were supposed to solve it by yourself. They realized that doesn’t always work. There were many times when people were sitting on problems for 2-3 days because they thought they needed to master it. And out of these sessions, they realized that they could put colors to problems: red—get help and green—go ahead. If they had a hard time defining a problem, they always looked for a second person. When the definition was there and you couldn’t see a good procedure, they went to a third person. So they tackled their issues head on and solved more technical problems in six weeks than they had done in the last seven months. It’s a different way of opening up an organization.

 Teaming works best if the organization is prepared to put talent above the structure. If management is prepared to say, “These people know their business and if we pool that intelligence around real issues, then we will figure out how you should organize yourself around the project with real outcomes and real deadlines.” This is very different from priming people to work together and giving them special skills hoping that this will add to the outcome of some kind of process, product or service.

NFC: You’ve been meeting with coaches and managers involved with the Dutch Olympic teams. Are their problems the same? Some of those sports are called team sports but they’re really not. What’s different about that sort of thing? What have you learned?

Heckman: I feel that it’s the adaptive relationship that the individual needs to make in his most direct work environment, within his organization, within society. These adaptive relationships are very critical in the workplace today. Individuals, whether they’re top athletes or in the workplace, can no longer go on a cosmetic charge. By that I mean it’s no longer about the functional task that you perform well in your organization. Even an organization puts the emphasis on task and function. What we do is strongly appeal to a person to understand that each and every one of us has a gift—core qualities that are very personal and individual and these need a chance to be expressed so that function and expression somehow become one. We use a process in which people write small essays about achievements in their lives. Sometimes I call them “flow” experiences and I bring in the theory and practice of Csikszentmihalyi—meaning that people have certain moments in their lives where they are completely immersed in their activity and at the same time they bring out the best. These reflections, upon those best moments in their lives, are very critical to the work. People exchange these stories without being interrupted in small groups. The participants listen very carefully and they write down the talents and qualities that they hear surfacing through the story. They feedback those qualities to each other and that’s their gift to one another. That’s also a foundation of having people share and actually become aware of their core qualities. This personal piece is very critical because it’s the adaptation between the individual and his or her direct work environment, direct team, family, friends, whatever it is.

NFC: You’re charged with an individual task and you get stuck. Whether you’re working on electronics or running hundred-meter hurdles, what you know is that you can go to your teammates. I go to John, who knows nothing about hurdling, but he does know something about training. And he may be able to help me out.

Heckman: I was asked to do some work with a group of athletes just before the Sydney Olympic games. I brought 30 athletes together from all different disciplines; Judo, skating, rowing, track and field. I asked them the question: “Reflect upon a time in your life when you had an extraordinary experience—a full experience in the match, the game or the race that you were in.” Those events when you had an ultimate challenge that you could meet with enough skills, butterflies in your stomach, and all of the sudden you went—you were in flow—you had that wonderful experience where you felt you were just going, somewhat on an automatic pilot. They shared the quality of the experience in small groups of four. The group members were from all different sports and disciplines, but there were amazingly similar kinds of elements that came out—also some surprising ones. All of the sudden they realized that they could learn from each other. It was a unique way of looking at sports across the boundaries of your discipline, which was hardly ever done.

NFC: They ended up doing the same as your group of engineers. Were the coaches involved?

Heckman: I did the same thing with the coaches. There were coaches from the national hockey team who won the gold, coaches from track and field and a Judo coach who won the gold, I asked them the same question. It was very interesting what people were saying because they were surprising themselves about what they thought was really important in those experiences. They’re very result oriented. This is a business where you’re either a good coach or a bad coach. And it has nothing to do with who you are as a person, but it has everything to do with who wins. So this is a different focus. Then, the coaches went into the theory of teams and of what I call the new way of working together. And I put out a few statements. One of the statements was: “People in isolation cannot develop.” A lot of work paradigms and the way we organize work are based on separating out and fragmentation. Many of the coaches, put the specialists out—the software, the hardware people—just as much in the workplace. The marathon runner goes off with his coach to the right environment, or a better training program, and then they work hard. And I said, just to take track and field as an example, “How many of these athletes would not have a great benefit of sharing experiences and having shared spaces where they can actually work out together?” And one of the coaches started to laugh and he said, “Frank, you hit it right on the nail. Because we didn’t want this, but this year we’ve been forced by our athletes. They’re saying, ‘We want to train together’ And we say, ‘No way, we’re doing it our way, they’re doing it their way. I’m not going to share my kitchen with somebody else with a hidden agenda.’ And then they said, ‘Okay, you guys don’t come, we’re going to train together.’”

 So there is a notion that they want to break with that ancient way of always separating out. And this is just track and field. Flow is a very key concept because it really puts an emphasis on the quality of experience, how to make sense out of it and how to use the data to help each other and learn.

NFC: In thinking about how you got to where you are now, how much do you think you’ve drawn from your earlier involvement with martial arts, Judo and Aikido? Did that have any impact on how you approach these kinds of problems?

Heckman: It’s very interesting. I was interviewed yesterday for a journal called Quality of Life and the title of the article is going to be “Moving in Freedom.” I think in a sense these are two parameters that I look at. Movement and freedom have to be friends somehow. If there’s no freedom, there’s no movement. We’re stuck. When I look at organizations I always look at movement in a sense. An organization that’s healthy has movement, but not just haphazard movement. It has a distinct rhythm. Small entrepreneurship or a small, fast-growing, high-tech company has a very different rhythm than a ministry or agriculture.

NFC: You’re talking in terms of movement or motion, and I directly relate that to music. One group’s motion or rhythm might be jazz, and one group’s might be a string quartet, symphonic or flamenco. But it’s distinct. We use the term that each organization has a culture.

Heckman: That’s right and that culture has a specific rhythm and it is not just a rhythm that is in isolation, but it is a rhythm that makes sense in the context of which they need to produce and provide their services. So that rhythm is in sync, there is dynamism between their rhythm, their market and their society.

NFC: Actually, when you watch dance, it’s a combination of music and the physical movement. I’ve heard you talk about the organizational dance.

Heckman: If you asked me what my background does, it is a very simple thing. If things don’t go very well, something is usually stuck and doesn’t move. I think I have a good sense of feeling where things are stuck very quickly and not trying to loosen it up and do a piece-meal solution. If you move something into a wrong rhythm or to a wrong measure, it may screw up an entire organization. It’s like when you want a group of soldiers to go over a bridge, you don’t want them to walk in a march rhythm because they can actually destroy the bridge. If you just move something that is stuck without the context of that organization and the rhythm of the music that you’re hearing, you may create more problems than you think. It’s very important to see it in the context of the whole to understand what rhythm is needed. In martial arts, it’s the same thing. It’s a continuous environmental scan that you do by looking at your opponent anticipating and moving in rhythm with that opponent.Basically, if you are able to crawl into the skin of the other, which is ultimate communication—fighting is often seen as hard and one against one, but in fact it is ultimate communication—if you can do that then you’ve reached what they call a master level.

NFC: Which means to go forward doesn’t always mean going straight ahead.

Heckman: That’s absolutely true.


May 2001Homepage


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