Have you ever worked in an environment where the manager came across as controlling and shot down all the team’s great ideas? It simply wasn’t a priority to explore how the team could be working more effectively or inventively, or to increase teamwork and engagement levels. All that mattered was to get the current assignments completed on time and to stick to the rules; i.e. to work in the way that they had always been working.
If you’ve experienced this, you know how disempowering and frustrating it can be. Team members feel alienated, productivity and performance go down as the team isn’t given the nurturing it needs to grow and move forward.
We live in a world that’s increasingly complex and competitive. Leaders and their teams must continuously adapt and innovate if they want to stay in the game.
Technological change happens faster and faster, economic models evolve, regulations get tightened, stakeholder groups get bigger, and teams become cross-cultural and global. All of this movement requires that project teams continuously question how they can work smarter, save money and add more benefit to their customers. Standing still is simply not an option if you want to stay in business.
Create an innovator’s environment
In order to create a high performing team and cutting-edge solutions, you need to create an environment where teams are encouraged to challenge the status quo, and where a framework exists for implementing the best of their ideas. When I say “framework” I don’t mean a formal process, but a simple method for ensuring that great ideas and initiatives are rewarded and exploited. This framework entails the creation of a safe and inspiring environment where people can work autonomously and have the freedom to express what they’d like to see improved—either in relation to the products and services they produce or how they are produced.
Lead with big questions
A great project manager or team leader plays an important role here. Good leaders are excellent at creating a safe space, and at asking questions that challenge their team’s level of thinking. These questions often begin with what, how and what if. They are often so expansive that people can’t answer them based on their current knowledge or where they currently stand. They require some thought, questions like:
- What if we could produce this in half the time?
- What would it take to beat our competitors?
- How can we become the best team in our industry?
Ask questions that spark intellectual curiosity and generate energy and space for people to step in and contribute. It’s an excellent way to empower team members while changing their mindset.
Ask why, judiciously
You may have heard that asking why, why, why is one of the best sets of questions you can ask. Sometimes that might be true. For instance, asking a series of why’s is effective when you need justification for why the company should invest in a certain project and you need to get to the bottom of the business case.
But asking “why” should be used with caution when the aim is to create a safe space for the team to step in and contribute. Avoid critical-sounding questions like, “Why can’t we produce this in half the time?” Or, “Why aren’t we already the best team out there?” These types of questions close people down as they feel they have to justify something. So instead of asking “Why do we still have so many defects in our products?” ask, “What would it take to reduce our defect rate?”
It’s about motivating people
When you challenge others to think critically it’s easy to slip into a mode where you become too analytical and negative. The real goal here is to make people feel excited by the opportunity to make a difference. There’s a fine line between someone perceiving an inquiry as helpful or experiencing it as criticism. Your role is not to overrule anyone, but to listen, inspire and encourage the team to share and think their best thoughts.
A great way to practice holding back judgment and giving more space to others is to deliberately limit your contribution in meetings—for instance, limit yourself to only five comments. Think of yourself as the debate-maker rather than the decision-maker. Can you see how that will help you to filter your thoughts for only the most essential, and to look for the right moment to insert your ideas? Give it a try!
Guiding the status quo challenge
When you begin to open up and encourage your team to challenge the status quo, you may at first have to show the way and share some of your own thoughts. But after a while, when the team becomes more familiar with generating and implementing ideas, you can start to take a step back and let others take responsibility. Don’t give up if people are initially hesitating and not contributing. Be persistent in your pursuit of answers and ideas, and reward those who embrace a new and different way of thinking.
When you consistently help people to challenge the status quo, you have the potential to create a high performing and empowered team, and to deliver some amazing projects that add real value to your clients in the process.
And, you could get a leg up on your competition in the process.