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Team Health Debt: How to Pay It Off

This article recently appeared in Real Leaders.

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we live in a VUCA world – we are experiencing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity in unprecedented ways. And we are finally talking about it.

Fueled by ambition, fear, or pragmatism, this pandemic’s massive disruption to the ordinary course of things has led to every organization shifting its strategy in some meaningful way. We have published extensively on the benefits of using scenario planning to make sense of and plan for disruption, and we’ve written about some of the more powerful no-regrets strategies that position companies for sustained success.

As companies have made strategic pivots, their employees have demonstrated flexibility and resilience while working from home and juggling competing responsibilities. Never has our physical and mental health been more critical to our well-being. Yet we’ve noticed a systematic under-investment in one of the most critical levers for sustained corporate success — leadership team health.

Healthy Teams Enable Rapid Scale It’s well understood that to scale in any business climate, companies need a stellar strategy – an extraordinary product-market fit, a winning business model, and a differentiated approach to the market. Yet, success hinges on having a leadership team with strong execution capacity even with all of these things in place. That is, the ability to make high-quality decisions faster and more often than competitors. And the key to execution capacity is leadership team health.

Healthy leadership teams share these attributes:

  • They are aligned on their “why,” that is their shared purpose individually and as a team

  • They are clear on their “what,” their vision of where they are headed

  • They embrace a coordinated “how” by being committed to a shared roadmap, an operating system, and principles that guide them

  • They have a deep understanding of who they are individually, where their strengths and gaps are, and they are skilled at optimizing one another

With all of that in place – designed for the company’s people and strategy – they learn, grow, and scale together successfully.

When strategies change, and leaders are under more pressure than usual like in this moment, it’s time to check in on leadership team health. Because, more often than not, managing through disruption increases team health debt that, let’s face it, in many organizations was already higher than it should have been.

Team Health Debt By team health debt, we mean mounting dynamics, such as conversations that never happen but should; decision-making that takes place in siloes; low levels of transparency; and low-quality dialogues when they do happen.

Teams suffering from team health debt might be very nice to each other – so nice that they don’t have the difficult strategic or personal conversations needed to succeed. They might find themselves in long, belabored, or meandering conversations that feel like they demonstrate transparency, but slow decision-making. Or, they might find themselves so busy focusing on the day-to-day, that they are tuning out, phoning it in, or otherwise disengaging from the level of relational development that is essential to mobilize strategy collectively.

Learn strategies for reducing team health debt The challenge of team health debt, like tech debt, is that it is not always a visible issue to all team members, despite its devastating impact. But once it’s paid back, the team can move to a higher level of performance, strategy execution, and even joy.

Unnecessary Tensions It is essential to stay current on your team health payments. When you postpone a meeting to collaborate or deprioritize a tough conversation or don’t have the hard-hitting collaborative meeting to solve big strategic problems, you default, therefore incurring more team health debt. Teams who invest the time to be with one another, and take on the difficult dialogues not only pay down the debt but find themselves in a surplus where innovation and breakthroughs occur.

The easiest way to know if your team is suffering from high levels of team health debt is to look at how you address strategy and execution. Unhealthy teams see the world in black and white terms. They see binary choices where they don’t exist. And so, factions form, individuals dig their heels in, and the quality of decision making suffers. On unhealthy teams, these misunderstood tensions are seen as trade-offs. They are not discussed openly, but exist just below the surface and toxify the team—slowing execution, causing poor decision making, and killing morale.

Product vs. go-to-market. Should you focus on technology and product development, as you did in the early days of the company, or on revenue generation? Of course, the answer is both, but if executives argue over resource allocation, roadmap clarity, or critical metrics and measurements, it’s likely that the underlying tension is unstated, over-rotation by essential leaders toward one side or the other of this spectrum.

Autonomy vs. collaboration. As hiring ramps up – whether from 10 to 50 people or from 200 to 500 people – there’s a desire to ensure freedom and also address issues more holistically. If executives argue about roles, decision rights, and swim lanes or cross-functional decisions are delayed or made poorly, your team is likely stuck in this false choice.

Culture vs. growth. If your team asks, “How do we preserve our culture while we grow?” you’re probably not as clear as you should be about the company’s values, operating principles, and how individuals are empowered to live into them. In extreme circumstances, culture and growth are seen as trade-offs, which will undermine both.

Patience v.s action. “We need a bias toward action.” Or, “We have to be patient with the strategy, let the team do its job, and trust the process.” What if both are true? What if teams could discuss the areas where they should be patient and compare them to the places where the action is necessary?

Healthy teams see these tensions as opportunities for strategic dialogue and realities that can be optimized. They take a both/and approach rather than an either/or approach to resolving tensions – that is, they work together to understand how to get the best from both sides of the tension.

Imagine a team that has paid off its team health debt systematically, and has clear decision rights, structures, and agreements about which issues require urgency and require patience. Imagine a team that brings difficult conversations to the fore, resolves them, and builds relationships. Imagine a team with an updated simple, clear, and co-created purpose, vision, roadmap, and operating plan. How much more quickly could it scale? How much more fun could it be? What will be unleashed?

The Prescription There are three core areas companies can focus on to improve team health, and to have a fast impact on strategy execution.

  1. Individual Leadership — It all starts with individual leaders. Every executive leader should know their strengths and values and be clear about their areas of growth. They should see these continually evolving and be invested in exploring them in collaboration with others on the team. Each leader mastering their code builds both confidence and humility – necessary conditions for successful leadership.

  2. Team Cohesion – Next comes team relationships. In a pandemic world where 5-star dinners, trust falls, and offsites are impossible, there’s an opportunity to focus on the deeper foundations of relationship – trust, vulnerability, and connection. When teams are wedded at a deeper level, they can more rapidly address issues, which means problems are discussed earlier and resolved more quickly, and better solutions are found. Updating the core foundations of a team in response to the pandemic – values, purpose, vision, roadmap, strengths, and operating systems – has the dual impact of providing a strategic or intellectual upgrade and doing so in a way that promotes strategic dialogue and builds connection.

  3. Team Operating System — Just like computers, teams have operating systems that govern their functionality. In most cases, that operating system is not explicit – the rules are unclear for how the most important work gets done. We believe every team should design an operating system that identifies: the cadence of strategic and tactical meetings, the metrics or objectives, and key results (OKRs) to pay attention to; the rhythms and processes to ensure execution success; and the agreed-upon principles. With this operating system in place, the formula for strategy execution is transparent and continuously refined.

Improving Team Health During the Pandemic The pandemic has shaken up strategies and execution. It’s an excellent time to ask whether you’ve sufficiently tended to team health–and whether there’s an opportunity to reduce team health debt during this moment of societal innovation, flexibility, and forgiveness.


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