There we were in a workshop, talking about how to hand over tasks effectively, to free up energy and time to focus on more important things. I was explaining our proven 4 step process of Explanation, Demonstration, Imitation, and Practice. I’ve done it thousands of times and it is one of the models people write down most often.
At that moment, the team leader’s hand went up and in one statement, she triggered one of the most humbling moments in my facilitation career.
“So how do we delegate when there is nobody in the team to delegate to because we are all operating a max capacity”? She asked. “It doesn’t matter what my bosses pass to me. My only choice is to help my team not give them more work to do”.
I could hear the lump in her throat and see her eyes were welling up. She was genuinely emotional about the circumstances they were in.
The room stopped. People looked up from their notes. I could almost hear the gasps. To her, the team was so completely overloaded that she didn’t feel like she could give anything else away to them. So her response was to work herself toward burnout and complete exhaustion by taking on more and more. She didn’t have any filter left that day. It all came tumbling out.
The cutbacks and resignations which had resulted from the pandemic. Team members being asked to cover other people’s jobs. Their leader was in the trenches with them, sleeves rolled up, doing the stuff they did. She did it really well too — it was the stuff she used to do before, that had got her promoted in the first place. She felt obliged to be there “doing” — “not leading”. They were all tired but the leader was exhausted.
Normally I take great pride in being able to offer an answer to just about any question in a workshop. I’ve trained for this for years. I can nearly always come up with the tool or framework or metaphor which will help.
But at this moment, I didn’t know what to say. I could see the emotion written on people’s faces — shock, agreement, sadness. Somehow I didn’t think another framework or tool wasn’t going to help. This was a team with the thousand-yard stares just like I remembered from the faces of soldiers in Gulf War 2 when I arrived in Iraq as a fresh young 2LT. They’d been through hell and were continuing the fight.
I paused, and fell back to my training for when you don’t know the answer in a group; ask the group.
What happened in that room next was one of the most rewarding and humbling experiences I have ever encountered. This room of people who up until this point had been going through the motions on their Ways of Working journey suddenly shifted gears. They stopped worrying about themselves as individuals and became a team. They saw what their leader had been trying to do to support them and they responded.
The conversation that unfolded was incredible. Together we listed all of the priorities in the team, and who was working on what. We discovered the overlaps, the wasted efforts, and the time being spent on legacy projects. In reality, the team was like most teams. People doing things because they had always done them — and never really asked why. They’d inherited tasks not really knowing the purpose or outcome, and therefore carried out the transaction but didn’t interrogate the value. This all contributed to the massive overload, which contributed to the leader feeling like she couldn’t delegate anything more to the team.
The team stopped “playing the game defensively” that day. Instead of trying to not take on more for themselves and they started to think about what they needed to do to win the game — as a team.
This shift of perspective resulted in conversations about prioritization, stopping some things, and supporting the leader of the team to push back on some things with stakeholders outside the team. The leader also realized that there was a list of items she could start discussing with others in to find out if they were even needed. Other teams had also lost people and so it turned out energy time was being spent on creating things they might not even need.
What transpired here was a moment where the team connected, started to trust one another, and in doing so, shifted gears in terms of performance. This is what Ways of Working is meant to be all about, but WOW (no pun intended), this workshop is one I will remember.
It didn’t go where I intended, but that wasn’t important. What mattered was that the team started to have the right conversations. The ones that transformed business results. The ones that transformed them. The ones that made going to work and getting better results not something that required working harder.
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