06- Effective Team Management: Reflection and Action

August 10, 2008

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[Co-Authored: William Bergquist and Steve Phillips]

As I noted with regard to Blog 05, effective team processes and leadership blend information, intentions and ideas. They also balance phases of reflection and action. Frequently, members of teams will spend too much time in reflection and never move beyond untested ideas, or they will move precipitously toward action with insufficient attention to either information or intentions. Effective team functioning requires a balancing of the two.

The activist is to be found in many contemporary teams. The activist dwells in a world of ideas and action. Things are to be done immediately: “Why put off till tomorrow what we can do today!” For the extreme activist, cautious deliberations are frustrating and demoralizing: “Let’s get on with it!” The extreme activist tends to define the world in terms of courage and risk-taking: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” She often suspects that the real problem of those who urge more deliberation is an unwillingness to take risks. This activist believes that action must be taken even though not all the information is in and even though the proposed solution is not perfect: “Something is better than nothing.”

By contrast, those who tend to dwell more on reflection than action are oriented either toward realism or idealism. Whereas the activist tends to dwell in the domain of ideas, the realist prefers the domain of information and the idealist the domain of intentions. The extreme activist views the idealist as hopelessly romantic: “The idealist would rather build castles in the air than construct a durable bungalow on earth.” Similarly, the extreme activist often perceives the realist as being an immobile, often obsessive person: “The realist never lifts up his head high enough or long enough to see what is actually happening in the world.”

Members of teams are often pulled, not only between reflection and action, but also between realism and idealism. The extreme realist is careful and cautious, because of concern that new ideas may be enacted through wishful thinking (the failure of idealism) or without anticipating the consequences (the failure of activism). “Too many people,” according to the extreme realist, “go off half-cocked, with very little sense of the resources needed to solve a problem and without a clear understanding of the current situation to anticipate all of the consequences associated with a particular solution.”

The extreme idealist is someone who can pick out the flaw in any situation. Within minutes of arriving on a new job, entering a new relationship, purchasing a new home, or formulating a new program, the extreme idealist is imagining how things could be improved. She challenges the mundane reasoning of the realist and notes that new perspectives are needed on old problems if the activist is to be successful in generating proposals to solve these problems. Like the realist, the idealist is cautious and reflective, but not for a lack of adequate information. The idealist is concerned about confusion between means and ends, about losing the war while seeming to win individual battles through expedience. The idealist confronts the realist with his lack of courage: “If bold vision is lacking, then when will risks be taken and progress made? Without courage and vision where is the capacity to endure against adversity?”

Effective participation in a team requires an integration of these different perspectives. This is the key to successful team functioning: understand and appreciate the context within which one is working and assume an appropriate role in meeting the distinctive needs of the current setting. Effective members of a team shift between the domains of information, intentions and ideas. When confronted with a new, unpredictable situation, an effective team member will tend to become realistic by attempting to assimilate this new reality. When confronted with an old, unchanging environment, she will tend to become a daydreamer, creating images of how this environment might be transformed. When confronted with the press of time and events, the effective member of a team will tend to mobilize his activism, creating proposals to meet these challenges.

The successful team will adapt to changing conditions by moving into all three domains. By contrast, the extremely realistic team will attempt to collect information even when the environment is unchanging and in this way will contribute to the resistance of this environment to change. Similarly, the extremely idealistic team will daydream not only under conditions of relative stability but also under conditions of rapid change and instability, and in this way will add to the instability of the environment and to its unpredictability. The idealist under stress retreats to another world that is much safer. She should instead be confronting the current situation. The extreme activist team will respond with hasty actions even when there is no press of time or events. Members of the team will even create crises where there are none in order to justify precipitous action. Failure in the activist’s haste may, in turn, produce a new crisis that makes activism seem to be appropriate, thereby initiating a self-reinforcing crisis-management mentality.

When taken to an extreme, each of the three preferences tends to be ineffective in some settings and to create more problems than it solves. Reflection must be balanced against action. Furthermore, the period of reflection must provide opportunities for both the collection of new information and the clarification of existing intentions. An effective balancing and integration of reflection and action requires that action produces information and is based on information, actions inform and clarify intentions, and reflection leads to decision and action.