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Stratified Systems Theory Applied to Dream Teams

Posted by Felix Assivo on
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Business
Stratified Systems Theory Applied to Dream Teams

This week’s article is an excerpt from The Science of Dream Teams: How Talent Optimization Can Drive Engagement, Productivity, and Happiness by Mike Zani, CEO of The Predictive Index, a talent optimization platform that uses over 60 years of proven science and software to help businesses design high-performing teams and cultures.  It is a companion to his interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled The Science of Dream Teams that aired on Tuesday, September 14th, 2021.

What do you have to do next week? What will be on your plate four months from now? How about in two years? If you pose these questions to different people in your organization, you’re sure to get very different answers. Some will provide full to-do lists for different scenarios, while others will shrug, wondering why you’re asking questions that seem irrelevant to their jobs.

People across an enterprise hold wildly different ideas about the future. During the Cold War, a psychologist named Elliott Jaques carried out research on this subject and called it the Stratified Systems Theory. The idea, which was especially useful for the military, is that different jobs require different time horizons. Certain people are comfortable projecting far into the future, while others limit their view to a single week, or even a day. So the trick for a large bureaucracy, Jaques wrote, was to layer the talent according to people’s time horizons.*

If that sounds a tad theoretical, consider concrete examples. An engineer is heading up a team building a manufacturing plant. Working on the construction might be a welder who handles assignments thrown his way. He doesn’t have to plan too much for tomorrow or the next day. His time horizon can be counted in hours.

But the engineer takes a longer view. He has to consider the supplies he’ll need next month and the month after. By that point, winter storms might be blowing through. How will that affect supply chains and construction? He’s dealing with a number of variables over a time frame of several months. Next year, he knows, he’ll have a different project. But he doesn’t have to plan for it.

His boss does. She’s a regional manager who has financial responsibilities, a profit and loss report due every quarter. She’s already prospecting for next year’s projects, some of them in Europe. She’s busy calculating how many workers she’ll need, considering currency hedges, and gauging the risk of banking on contract laborers, which hinges on the job market next spring. She has to think ahead, at least a year or two.

She reports to a chief executive, who might be plotting an Asian strategy, including a massive acquisition in Japan. This person has to weigh variables far into the future, perhaps a decade, even longer.

When Elliott Jaques was drawing up his Stratified Systems Theory for the military, the expanding time frames, Strata 1 through 5 (see Figure 4.1), fit neatly into a rigid hierarchy. Privates didn’t need to think about the future, only to follow orders hour by hour. Each ascending rank required a longer vision, until you got to five-star generals, who had to consider the geopolitical implications in 5 years, or 10, of nuclear weapons development or the containment strategy of the Soviet Union.

While few of us run companies as hierarchically rigid as the military, it’s still valuable to measure the time horizons that employees are comfortable with, and to use them in the deployment of talent.

There are tremendous advantages in a workforce marked by higher strata proficiency. We strive for it in our company. One big plus is that a person who envisions what’s ahead is more likely to figure out what to do—thinking through the steps that lead in the right direction. These people need less management, and are frequently self-starters. They’re more likely to generate ideas because they’re imagining the future and scenario planning. People who think far ahead also have potential to climb into management and executive roles.

Getting a grip on strata is fundamental for designing reporting relationships in an enterprise. Think of what happens, for example, if a chief executive has an administrative assistant who functions on a Strata 1 level. To manage this person, the CEO must drop down to Strata 2, allocating perhaps 15 minutes every morning to go over what the assistant is going to do and how to handle certain calls and emails and calendar items. This is not time well spent. And for this reason, many CEOs hire executive assistants who function at high strata levels. These elite assistants can see the entire operation, and anticipate what’s ahead and what needs to be done. Often, they shed the assistant moniker and become executives in their own right.

If you’re in a small startup, you don’t need to think much about reporting relationships. But as a company grows to 200 people, it develops new levels, with executive vice presidents and division leaders. It’s while managing talent in such an enterprise, with five or six levels, that the strata take on importance. Ideally, each level will have to drop only one strata to manage its reports. Big gaps waste time and lead to frustration.

How do you test for strata? Tom Foster, a management consultant and author, proposes a question, such as: “When you finish what you’re working on now, how do you get more work?” Some people say they wait for their next assignment. Others ask their manager. Others might start to enumerate everything they know that needs to get done. The answer often reveals a person’s time horizon.

I often test for strata during the hiring process. After all, if we want high-strata employees, the job interview is a great place to screen for it. I might ask candidates to tell me a story about the most complicated project they ever undertook in their youth or early in their career. I’m not looking for altruism or team play or any other virtues. I’m focused on comfort with complexity and long-span thinking.

Some people, eager to flash their entrepreneurial credentials, tell me about a business they started. But when you poke further, there’s little there. For example, someone designs a website in college. It’s pretty good. And a local business pays him $500 to make another one. Pretty soon, he has a small business of his own, which pays a chunk of his expenses through college. That’s great, but it doesn’t show a strategic vision.

One of the best strata stories I heard was from a former high school actor named Rich Weiss. He and his friend worked on sets for a high school play. That didn’t sound so complicated to me at first. But then he described the constraints. There wasn’t much money or space. They had to figure out how to make a set that fit into the gym, one the school used for all kinds of activities. So the set had to be compact, moveable, and affordable. They had to plan in September to build it over the winter holidays, without interfering with basketball and gymnastics, and then stage it in March. Rich was clearly a strategic thinker. He now uses those skills to run important processes at our company. He doesn’t have to wait around for someone to tell him what needs to be done.

Excerpt from The Science of Dream Teams: How Talent Optimization Can Drive Engagement, Productivity, and Happiness by Mike Zani, pp. 60-65 (McGraw Hill, July 2021).

To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible,  iHeartRADIO, and NPR One.  Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.

About the Author
Mike Zani is the author of The Science of Dream Teams: How Talent Optimization Can Drive Engagement, Productivity, and Happiness and CEO of The Predictive Index, a talent optimization platform that uses over 60 years of proven science and software to help businesses design high-performing teams and cultures. Zani is also the co-founder and partner at Phoenix Strategy Investments, a private investment fund. An avid sailor, he was the coach of the 1996 US Olympic Team. He holds a BS from Brown University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Photo by Leon on Unsplash

High Performing Teams

Posted by Editor on
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Business
High Performing Teams

teampyramid

How do you build high performing teams?  How do you build trust?  How can you become corporate athletes?

This is about what it takes to build teams and lead them in today’s business world.  This isn’t about authority, it is about influence.  This is about the Law of Solid Ground.  And understanding that trust is something you have to earn as a leader.  And knowing when to train, perform, celebrate and rest to be a corporate athlete.  Because this is a marathon not a sprint.  And the 4 stages of team performance: form, storm, norm and perform.  And knowing what stage you are in and how to get to the next one.

Building trust is step one.  According to John C Maxwell’s book “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”, trust is the foundation of leadership.  He talks about the Law of Solid Ground. And that to build trust a leader must exemplify the qualities of:  competence, connection and character.  People will forgive occasional mistakes based on ability, especially if they see that you are still growing as a leader.  However you need to own up to it and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

How do you build trust in an organization?  How do you know you are on Solid Ground?
Go through “The Trust Check List” and evaluate your ability to adhere  to certain behaviors.  These behaviors if followed consistently, can help to build trust.  And here they are:
1. Keep promises and honor commitments?
2. Acknowledge and apologize for your mistakes?
3. Remain loyal to the absent?
4. Share information, both positive and negative, with the people who need it?
5. Involve others in decisions that affect them?
6. Give credit where credit is due?
7. Communicate consistently, regardless of the situation or the person’s authority or influence?
8. Honor confidential and sensitive information?

And even with the foundation of trust teams go through 4 stages before they really get to performance:  form, storm, norm and perform.  And you can’t skip a stage.  You need to go through each one.  And when you add a new team member that team has to go through it all again…..so what are the stages and how do you get through them?

Forming – this is the stage where you are just getting to know each other and everyone is polite and has not figured out how to challenge the leader or the team.  This stage may feel very nice but it can get you into trouble as I learned when I was working in advertising.  The team was so new that we did not know how to challenge the advertising campaign that was being created.  It led us to make the worst advertising campaign I have ever been associated with…I wish we had known about the 4 stages of team performance.

Storming – this can be the scariest stage. This occurs when people start to challenge the leadership, the other team members, begin to jockey for position. There is a lot of tension and it is best if someone helps the team to get through the storm.  To use this as an opportunity to create some “rules of engagement”.  People need to be able to challenge the work, the direction of the team.  This is really for the purpose of making it better.  Keep it out of the personal and focus on the work or task at hand.  If you are a team that can storm well you will get to a high performing team that will exceed expectations.

Norming – now we are all starting to calm down, settle into our roles and forgive each other’s little idiosyncrasies.  At this stage you are now able to focus on the work and not be distracted by the little things.  You understand each other better and have come to appreciate your differences and how this adds to the final product.

Performing – now this is the stage, this occurs when the team has gelled and come together and knows each other so well that you can almost anticipate things they may say or recognize that their insight will take an idea to the next level.  I had the opportunity to lead a team like this and we increased revenue for our company for our clients and won awards for our product.  I don’t even think we realized at the time what we could accomplish.  It doesn’t happen often but when it does it is magic.

So now how do you make sure that your team doesn’t burn out.  What can we learn from athletes?
We need to train, perform, celebrate and recover.  In the corporate world we do not always take the time to celebrate even if it isn’t a 100% win but to at least take a pause and say what we did well and what we learned so we can apply it to the next challenge. And we do not rest. We do not recover.  We spend most of our time in the perform cycle 12 – 14 hours a day – this will burn you out. As a leader give yourself and your team permission to rest to recover. I did and it worked. We had off-sites outside skiing or hiking and no business just fun – this is how we recovered as corporate athletes.

Building and leading high performing teams is not easy but it can be done.  Start with trust the foundation of leadership.  Make sure you are on Solid Ground by adhering to your Trust Check List. And then evaluate which stage of performance your team is in and get them through it. And don’t forget to celebrate and rest.  Remember this is a marathon not a sprint.

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