After months of interesting and energizing discussions about Circles and guided peer groups, a hard deadline arrived. IESE, one of Europe’s top business schools volunteered to be a perfect test candidate – a new three-day exec workshop on building teams that would start mid-March. The only way to get at least two meetings of our “alpha circles” completed before testing with IESE began was to start the alpha circles right away. To meet the challenge, a team exploded into existence.
I lived the Mission Impossible casting sequence when Jim Phelps flips through laminated photos of agents. Like the TV show, it took a few seconds. And then, there we all were – eight people, meeting over two days in Manhattan and Williamsburg in early February. Synchronicity pulled us into physical convergence from Barcelona, Marseille, San Francisco, Melbourne and even Washington Heights. Phew! We moved fast. We chose roles as the need for something came up, built a prototype web “app,” selected and configured a team communication solution, fumbled our way through setting up a process and created a curriculum. And as I write this, the Circles experience has begun. Two circles (eight learners each) are signed-in, jelling and exploring the first learning journeys.
Teams are born this way more often than not. The stable, burnt-in executive team that knows each other’s families and has had many an offsite retreat together is wonderful. But the majority of teams today consist of free agents and specialists, parachuting in to get a job done.
I think a lot about how to get teams to hum. This time around, I tried something different. I didn’t set a meeting rhythm – something I was always religious about at my previous companies. These first ten days have been an improvisational comedy, mostly over chat on Slack. I didn’t define roles. We’ve been tripping over each other in a big muddy rugby ruck. No one seemed to mind. We did the essentials.
Josh Waitzkin outlines a beautiful metaphor for learning in his book The Art of Learning: “Make smaller circles.” The more you’ve mastered a move, the less effort it takes. Instead of swinging a whole arm to block an opponent, a seasoned master can accomplish the same thing with what looks like a flick of the wrist. But all the essential components of the move are still there.
What were the essentials? I think everyone understood the mission. These weren’t total strangers to Circles. They were mostly people I’d been speaking to about the idea. They read much of the public writing and dialogue here on the website. In our few in-person hours together, we even squeezed in some drinks – the shortcut to jelling. And we were able to establish a fair amount of trust quickly by getting to work.
Was it perfect? Nah. I have to do a much better job of dividing the responsibilities and defining success. Things are going to fall between the cracks. And this mad sprint needs to give way to a more sustained process. I can't say we were exactly ready when a few days into alpha launch I tried to return to my waning European sabbatical. I have work to do to make sure this team has what they need to do their best work. But I’m psyched. Now that I have a second to reflect, I have to admit, I have a team. Time to do some team building. It's been a while, and I’m glad the reflexes kicked in. Go, go, go!
Top image photo credit: OnTask (Flickr - Creative Commons)