The Forest for the Trees

Often we are so busy coping with day-to-day issues that we don’t step back and see the big picture. Unfortunately this may mean we’re constantly reacting to symptoms rather than identifying and addressing causes. The problems we face in organizations are often complex, so we need to be able to see the forest and the trees—recurring patterns as well as individual instances.

Image credit: (c) Bob Greene

Image credit: (c) Bob Greene

It’s crucial, therefore,  to be able to explore organizational systems. Peter Senge, a leading thinker regarding systems in organizations and in society, says in his classic book, The Fifth Discipline, that

[s]ystems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static “snapshots.” . . . . And systems thinking is a sensibility — for the subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character. (68-69)

Simply put, systems thinking involves looking at the interconnections between different elements—seeing the complex whole rather than focusing only on individual parts. So, for example, in organizations, what one department—say marketing—communicates to the outside world has important impacts for the day-to-day work of other units throughout the organization—which in turn affects marketing.

Last year a colleague, Heather Berthoud, and I had the opportunity to update an article that we had previously published exploring diversity and inclusion in the field of Organization Development. We shared a case study, which also illustrates the importance of taking a systems view. While gathering data for strategic planning, a colleague of ours learned that there was considerable discontent among many staff people who saw racial discrimination in hiring, firing, and promotions in an agency. Rather than treat these concerns as “off-topic,” our colleague saw that the planning process would rest on a shaky foundation if these concerns were not addressed. This is a good example of seeing the interconnections between elements in a system. As it turned out, working relationships were still being impacted by a heated exchange at a retreat that had occurred a few years before (another aspect of systems thinking is being able to connect the dots between moments in time). We worked with leadership and staff to open new channels of communication and review relevant policies and procedures. And in turn this work helped enhance the strategic planning process.

It could easily have been tempting for leadership to have said, “we will address these staff concerns later” (or to have tried to ignore them). Yet the ability of the organization to successfully carry out their strategic plan would have been compromised by concerns deep in the system that many in leadership were not fully aware of. Instead, the efforts that were made allowed new voices and perspectives to be heard and make a greater contribution to the agency’s work. Leadership took the courageous route and chose to explore the organizational system, including considering how they contributed to the dynamics. In my next post, I’ll say some more about the challenge of looking at one’s own role in an organizational system.

For more illustrations of systems thinking in organizations, please join me on June 1 at 1:00pm EDT for a free webinar, “Seeing Systems to Better Address Complex Organizational Problems.” [Update: The webinar recording is now available.]

Teamwork and Intention

The notion of teamwork has become a lot like willpower—an almost mystical quality that seems to be beyond our reach. Yet teamwork (like willpower) involves perspectives, skills, and habits that can be practiced and developed.

Instead of assuming a magical notion of teamwork will make our teams run smoothly and effectively, it is necessary to create shared intentions and practices. Building teamwork takes effort, including concrete steps to:

Photo credit:  Ambro via

Photo credit:  Ambro via

  • Promote clearly understood and shared expectations.
  • Identify and appreciate the different gifts and experiences each member brings.
  • Develop clear goals and processes for working together.
  • Practice effective communication, constructive conflict resolution, and mutual accountability.

Something that is often overlooked is being intentional about helping the team get off to a great start. Typically, people are brought into the same room (or video-conferencing platform) because of their job function or title, declared a team, and expected to start working together immediately and produce great results. They may or may not produce those results, but it’s also possible they will never actually mesh as a great team. Just as likely, starting to work together this way can lead to miscommunication, misunderstandings, and missed opportunities to benefit from each team member’s unique experience and skills.

A group of people do not become a truly effective team just by declaring them to be so. In a study by Bonner & Bolinger, summarized in Harvard Business Review (2014):

The teams in the control condition tended to defer to whoever seemed the most confident, and they had the worst performance. The best performance came from teams that had inventoried their members’ knowledge as a group. Those teams were more likely than the others to use their knowledge to devise strategies for solving the problems, perhaps because the process of collectively assembling knowledge increased members’ understanding of the task and what it meant to be expert at it.

So one technique for helping a team form intentionally is to have each member share the relevant knowledge they are bringing to the team’s work.

Photo illustration: (c) Bob Greene. Original photo:   zirconicusso at

Photo illustration: (c) Bob Greene. Original photo: zirconicusso at

I’ll return often in this blog with tips and ideas for building and facilitating teams (with hopes that you can avoid the eat your vegetables view of team participation). Here is an introductory exercise that focuses on creating shared expectations for working together. And even if the team has been around for a while, this can be a great team-(re)building activity.

  1. Think about a terrific team you’ve been on (it doesn’t have to be at work; perhaps it was with a volunteer group). What made the team great? It’s quite possible you will think of things like, “everyone cooperated,” or “communication.” Now consider what the team specifically did to foster that cooperation and communication or other excellent quality.
  2. At a full team gathering, ask each member of your current team to share their responses to these questions. It’s important that each team member participates—let each person speak without interruption (there will be plenty of time for discussion after everyone has shared). Listen for similarities and themes that emerge as each person shares.
  3. Working together, identify those practices from team members’ previous experiences that you all agree to carry forward with this team. Create a set of shared expectations that can become a team charter.

Moving Beyond the “Eat Your Vegetables” View of Team-Building

Teams can be viewed as the broccoli of work life—many people can’t stand them, even if they’re supposed to be good for you. (Mindfulness may be turning into the brussels sprouts of the workplace, but that’s for a future post.) Being on a team for many people is something unpleasant one is required to do, just as many children (and some adults) are told to eat their vegetables. Unfortunately, unpleasant experiences on teams do abound: the team member who doesn’t do his share (or takes credit for yours), conflict, confusion, delays, and general frustration.

Yet in today’s organizations, where we pursue lofty and challenging goals, working interdependently is necessary. Complex work that requires creativity and marshalling a variety of resources pretty much demands effective teams.

"Yes, the copier got fixed!"  Add your caption for this photo in the comments. (Image credit: stockimages at

"Yes, the copier got fixed!" Add your caption for this photo in the comments. (Image credit: stockimages at

And, I would argue, the poor team experiences many of us have had are not due to inherent problems with teams, per se, but with our beliefs about what teams are and how they should work. The simplistic image of a work team is reflected in stock photo images (such as the one here) of ultra-happy business people with their arms raised in victory. Yeah, right; that’s what team meetings are like.

Furthermore, many people believe that each team member must selflessly sacrifice for the good of the collective project —after all, as motivational posters and coffee mugs extol, “There is no I in TEAM.” Sorry, that’s not true (unless we are just referring to how the word “team” is spelled). Actually we bring our individual gifts, needs, hopes, and blind spots—the whole suitcase of stuff we each carry around that makes us who we are—into the teams we are part of. So the problem is that teams are typically established and run without taking into account that real people, with their unique strengths and weaknesses, comprise the teams.

Next, I’ll offer an exercise you can use to start creating a shared sense of who the real people on a team are.

Welcome to "With This In Mind"

It’s been said that journalism is "the first rough draft of history." A blog, then, might be the first sketch of the rough draft. In this blog, I won’t be practicing journalism, but I will be sketching out ideas on work/life topics that fascinate me and I hope will interest you too. I am one of those people for whom writing is a way to think things through and develop ideas. And one of the beauties of a blog, I believe, is that ideas can be developed over time.

Drawing on my consulting and coaching experience, a few topics I plan to explore in With This in Mind include:

Image (c) Bob Greene

Image (c) Bob Greene

  • Leadership and personal development ideas for everyday people—not superheroes.
  • Seeing the forest and the trees when looking at the complex work (and family and community) systems we take part in.
  • Moving away from talking about work/life balance — it’s really about integrating work and the rest of life.
  • Ways to promote inclusive and engaged teams and workplaces.
  • Findings from psychology, business, and other fields that provide valuable insights into planning, decision-making, relationships of all kinds, and, in general, why we do the things we do.
  • Second and third thoughts on team-building, mindfulness, leadership development, personal growth, and much more.

Here are a few intentions for the blog. For one thing I promise never to have a headline like, “The Five Essential Things Every Leader Must Do Today to Succeed” — as if important ideas can be simply broken down into five quick points. I will, however, try to express ideas clearly and succinctly (but not simplistically) and offer practical tips and tools. And as part of my own work and life integration, many posts will be illustrated with my original images.

Thanks for visiting. Please pull up a seat and stay for a while.