Communication Emotional intelligence (EQ) Teams and group dynamics

A Time for… Po?

“The significant problems of our time cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” – Albert Einstein (attrib.)

We don’t live in a black-and-white world. We have unprecedented globalization but increasing protectionism; technological breakthroughs but major disruption; and increasing wealth but greater inequality. In an era of astounding complexity and paradox, we thirst for simple answers. Retreating into our social media bubbles, we separate ourselves along partisan lines. Clinging to familiar ideas provides comfort when it feels like the very ground under our feet is shifting. The problem is, reality seldom conforms so neatly and cleanly to our need to label things and put them in handy conceptual boxes, but we behave as if it does. The time is ripe for a better, more creative way to navigate the challenges that confront us individually and as a species.

In 1972 Edward de Bono published Po: Beyond Yes and No (NY: Simon & Schuster), proposing a method to check our perspectives and improve our problem-solving abilities. Po, as he called it, is a framework for thinking in a more open and flexible manner, a “de-patterning device” and a “counterbalance to the yes/no system.” Po is deliberately non-binary: generative rather than discerning, it invites possibility and eschews predetermined categories. This is critical because the wondrous human brain, wired for pattern recognition, bumps hard up against its limitations when faced with nuance and newness, which is to say constantly. If you’ve ever used a digital user interface, you know the frustration when even a broad menu of choices doesn’t address your specific situation.

Po book cover
Now imagine that anguish, amplified on a global scale. We need another adaptive strategy if we are to survive the next century. Or at least survive the difficult conversations necessary to get us there.

It was de Bono who also gave the world Six Thinking Hats, another deceptively simple approach. The technique was designed to focus the collective brainstorming genius of any team and to streamline analysis of the results. It’s very effective for maximizing full team input while minimizing potential for conflict, and we continue to use it in our work with clients today. Po, too, might withstand the test of time for similar reasons. It mitigates the all-too-human need to be right and, more generally, to assume that there can only be one “right” solution. Citing the “arrogance of logic,” de Bono offers Po as a “tool for change,” and an antidote to confrontation and clash, thesis and antithesis, argument and counterargument. As the default modus operandi of academia and science, the dialectic has worked well enough. Unfortunately, it fails is pretty much everywhere else; in many other domains (including our legal system, for example), a win-lose mentality can be as counterproductive as it is pervasive. (For an aptly titled and thought-provoking critique, read Deborah Tannen’s The Argument Culture.)

Po is the difference between the normal, vertically constrained way of thinking (i.e., bounded rationality) and lateral, imaginative thinking. It embodies four attitudes: exploration, stimulation, liberation, and anti-rigidity/anti-dogmatism. Among other applications, de Bono proposes several ways to implement it using language, such as inserting the word Po before another word or phrase, to signal that what follows is simply a possibility. It identifies any assertion as merely one way of looking at a problem or issue, without proclaiming it “truth.” Another use of Po is to introduce an “intermediate impossible,” i.e., an unlikely idea that can be used as a springboard to challenge the status quo and inspire innovative options. These verbal signposts could be helpful in our daily interactions with those who don’t inhabit our bubbles or otherwise share our viewpoints.

Po is analogous to the power of open-ended questions. These typically begin with words like “How,” “Why,” “What,” etc., inviting dialogue and curiosity. In contrast, closed questions – those beginning with “Do/did,” “Is/are,” or “Are/were,” etc. – can only be answered with “Yes” or “No,” and are intended to produce a definitive conclusion. Because they limit and control the flow of discussion, closed questions are to be avoided during contentious negotiations or difficult conversations, or else risk escalating tensions. Po is an effective way to initiate discussion, and not shut it down.

De Bono offers Po as a way to shift perception which, he notes, is really a type of thinking that we don’t generally consider as such. Instead, he says, our yes/no system of categorization essentially bypasses perception, thus committing a fundamental error: we ought to examine how we actually see and experience information before we can even begin to process it, never mind correctly discern between boxes and labels. Po creates a space to question our preconceptions.

This is important because we may be witnessing the widening of a dangerous, us-versus-them divide. It’s most obvious in political systems, including those theoretically designed for pluralities. We also see it in the broader public discourse, which appears to be driven less by a genuine desire for mutual understanding than by a growing desire to score points over the “other” side. But “being right is not enough,” de Bono warns. “Any idea, no matter how right, should be re-examined from time to time,” because circumstances change, and may demand it.

Indeed, given the current state of things it might be time to reexamine how we perceive the world, and overhaul the ways we think and talk about it. The challenges that lie ahead require a higher level of insight and problem-solving, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) may not achieve it fast enough. Until then, Po may be more relevant than ever.

How-to Teams and group dynamics

4 quick & cost-effective tools to accelerate team development

In the creative industries, teams frequently need to get from zero to sixty almost instantly. This is typical in the film & TV business, where production crews are routinely shotgunned together and required to make audiovisual magic in as little as thirty days (sometimes less). These high expectations may be unrealistic but they aren’t impossible, usually because the more seasoned veterans can turn on a high level of professionalism like flicking a switch. The early break-in period can also be greatly reduced if some crew members have worked together on previous projects.

But not everyone has a shared history, pleasant or otherwise, and few crews exclusively comprise battle-hardened pros. Even when they are, there are still issues. Creative teams, no matter how short-lived, are still subject to the same process of forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning (or “mourning”) as any other team. So how do you accelerate them through Tuckman’s stages of development when you simply haven’t got the time or budget to send everyone on a team-building retreat? Today’s post looks at a number of surprisingly inexpensive but effective tools that can be used to help teams survive and even thrive through that first crucial phase.

In a nutshell, the Formation stage is characterized by (among other things) a general lack of prior history and unfamiliarity with other team members; concomitant low levels of trust; a steep learning curve with lots of checking each other out; and a lack of established norms for communication, handling conflict, and other behaviours. Therefore, the kind of tools that are appropriate at this stage are those that are not only cost-effective and quick but can also help the team get to know each other without being too in-your-face and personal. In addition, these tools would also help identify the most effective ways to manage essentials like communication and inevitable conflict. It’s a tall order, but there are a few:


Arguably the best-known of the personality inventories is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) which, according to the Myers & Briggs Foundation, aims to “make the theory of psychological types described by C. G. Jung understandable and useful in people’s lives.” The MTBI assesses preferences along four dimensions: Extraversion/Introversion, which is the extent to which individuals focus on their external or interior worlds; Sensing/Intuition, or how we relate to incoming information and the extent to which we interpret and add meaning; Thinking/Feeling, how we make decisions by focusing either on pure logic or whether we take emotions into account; and Judging/Perceiving, which is about how we structure our relationship with and make sense of the outside world. Knowing how we differ in the ways we relate to the world through our sensory, analytical, perceptual and emotional mechanisms can help us be more patient and tolerant – not just with others but with ourselves as well. It can, for example, be helpful in matching an individual’s natural gifts with appropriate career options, among other applications. That’s probably not relevant in the scenario described above, but it’s useful for helping team members get to know each other without having to reveal anything too personal in nature. It can also encourage bonding by identifying commonalities among team members and setting norms that respect individual differences.

Social Styles

Merrill & Reid’s social styles theory, as its name suggests, offers insight into our social interactions. It identifies four main archetypes (Analytic, Driver, Amiable, and Expressive) and their respective sub-types based on a two-dimensional matrix of social Assertiveness and Responsiveness. The Assertiveness continuum is the extent to which we are more comfortable asking or telling in a social context, mainly as it pertains to expressing individual needs. Responsiveness is the extent to which we react to others by empathizing or openly emoting, or whether we are more likely to rein in our feelings. Awareness of a person’s relative ease or discomfort with asserting their needs and desires, for example, can allow us to see past the stereotypes we might otherwise apply (“bully” vs. “wimp,” etc.) and communicate more sympathetically, allowing for differences in social style.

Both of these models have been in use for many years and provide valuable insights into how people behave, and why, under most normal circumstances. There are, however, a couple of tools that offer more specific, situational insights that I have found particularly useful in creative and/or business environments:

Team Roles

Based on the work of Dr. Meredith Belbin, Team Role theory identifies nine basic roles that we all unconsciously adopt, to varying degrees, when operating in a team environment. Each of these natural roles – as opposed to any formally assigned team roles – makes a unique contribution to the team and comes with concomitant allowable weaknesses. Knowledge of team roles can allow for more strategic and effective team formation; conversely it can help avoid team dysfunction or outright conflict that is almost inevitable when roles are over- or underrepresented on a given team. This is no less true in the film & TV industry, where crew roles and workflows are very clearly defined.

Conflict Response Roles

The five Conflict Response Roles – Loner, Decision-maker, Moderator, Diplomat, and Friend – describe the clusters of behaviours we tend to adopt when in conflict. These roles vary according to the extent to which the individual naturally focuses on the self, the task, and/or the facts of the matter in a conflict situation; and the extent to which the focus is on the other, the relationship(s) involved, and the feelings of the people in the conflict. The Conflict Response Roles (CR²I)™ self-assessment instrument has been used successfully for over a decade to identify, among other things, common escalation triggers; needs that are being protected in a conflict; and conflict behavioural patterns, both helpful and potentially destructive. This increased self-knowledge can help individuals make the necessary adjustments so that conflict situations are prevented, or at least managed earlier and more skillfully, in a conflict situation.

Of course there are other tests and inventories that can be used to assess and analyze everything from decision-making preferences to leadership styles and other aspects of our personal and professional selves. The Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation-Behavior (FIRO-B) is also commonly used in organizational contexts. Remember that the purpose of these tools is not merely to categorize or classify people; it’s imperative to avoid lazy assumptions based on handy generalizations. Reducing individuals to labels and objectifying them makes it far too easy to demonize and see them as “other,” which defeats the whole team-building purpose. And while these tools offer a kind of shortcut through the team’s formative stage, they are by no means a panacea.

Still, when used wisely these mental models can help us appreciate what makes each other tick, and see how and why we behave the way we do in certain situations. They can be invaluable tools for establishing a solid foundation for more effective and lasting working relationships. We may not always achieve agreement, but we can always achieve greater understanding and empathy. And we even can do it more quickly and cheaply when time and money are in short supply.

Accountability How-to Teams and group dynamics

Is accountability your team’s Achilles heel?

Accountability – or the lack thereof – is the Achilles Heel of many a potentially great team, group or organisation. Part of the problem is that accountability has become just another buzzword. (It’s like the weather: we love to talk about it but we seldom do anything about it.) It’s also an uncomfortable subject, being frequently confused with blamestorming. When the going gets tough it’s easy to forget that accountability is simply the ability to account for one’s actions. It’s holding others able to describe a chain of events, for better or worse.

Like accounting, accountability is concerned with (literally) summing up positives and negatives to determine a net result. Accounting is emphatically not about finger-pointing, judgment or shaming, and neither is accountability. Balance sheets and P&Ls are just tools for analysis, a means of figuring out how to make a business more profitable. Similarly, accountability can and should be an instrument for making teamwork more effective and productive. You wouldn’t shout at the numbers and call them names, but that’s the kind of pointless exercise that is sometimes passed off as accountability in many a meeting. Judgment and blame do absolutely nothing to rectify the issue or prevent a recurrence. We need to take the heat out of accountability and approach it more like accountants approach their numbers: respectfully and free from emotional baggage.

Of course this is easier said than done. We’re all human and we have feelings; no one likes to be the bearer of bad news that might let the team down, never mind admit to personal failure. For those on the receiving end, frustration and anger are equally enervating. As Dr. Brené Brown notes in her must-see TED Talk about vulnerability, “The psychological literature describes blame as a way to discharge pain and discomfort.” No wonder we so often wind up playing the blame game.

How many meetings or rehearsals have you attended where precious time and energy were wasted defending actions or deflecting feelings of guilt or shame by making someone wrong – preferably someone else? When our identity or self-concept is threatened, it’s easy to double down on our righteousness. It’s much harder to admit fault and learn from the situation. The latter demands humility and vulnerability; the former just requires ego. Guess which is typically in greater supply?

Accountability as learning

This is why leaders need to model accountability. Learning is critical, not just for the individual but for the entire team or organisation, and it’s hard to learn if you’re busy justifying, defending or deflecting. By admitting to your own mistakes you make it OK for others to do so. This is the paradox of trust: only when we allow others to see our weaknesses do they reciprocate and trust us in kind. (Consider the origins of the handshake, a symbolic show of unilateral disarmament and vulnerability.)

Disclosure also creates empathy and allows others to close ranks around the vulnerable party. If this sound counter-intuitive, consider the following: Who is more trustworthy, the person who proactively calls for help when a project is in danger of going sideways, or the one who tries to cover up until the problem spirals out of control? The sooner a issue is identified, the sooner it can be fixed. In the short term it’s aggravating when a team member screws up, but in the longer term being accountable leads to greater learning, group cohesion and trust. The flip side – denial – risks collective failure by maintaining the illusion of individual infallibility.

Accountability is a team sport

Leaders are not solely responsible for maintaining accountability, however. It must be a team sport. Having only one or two team members repeatedly play the “bad cop” sets up a straw man scenario, particularly on a team of equals where there isn’t a clear supervisory or managerial relationship; instead of being seen as allies, team mates become the enemy. If everyone holds each other accountable then no one can get away with thinking, “Oh, it’s only John – he just doesn’t like me,” or “There goes Jane again, she thinks she runs the place.”

Here are a seven additional principles to help build a culture of accountability in your creative team or organisation:

  • Stay out of judgment. As indicated above, judgment doesn’t accomplish anything – but offering assistance, feedback, and support does. Flag judgmental language if and when it happens in team meetings and elsewhere.
  • Equate accountability with learning opportunities. This is sound advice in most situations but it’s particularly true where personal and team accountability are an issue. The question is not, “Who screwed up?” but, “How can we fix it and move forward?” Discuss it openly to improve communication and strengthen the team bond. When things go right, acknowledge the win and build on team strengths.
  • Ensure role and task clarity. Too often team members simply aren’t clear on their job or role boundaries, expectations, and desired outcomes. Meetings often end with only tacit understanding of what these are, but they must be made explicit.
  • Adopt an “accountabili-buddy.” Having a partner to help keep you on track and offer support in between meetings or formal reports increases the likelihood of attaining individual objectives. While the psychosocial risk of admitting failure in front of the larger group can be a motivator for some, for many it’s a terrifying prospect that can lead to avoidance of accountability.
  • Consistency is key. Inconsistently applied, accountability devolves into blamestorming. You can’t selectively apply a rule and expect everyone to follow it uniformly. Similarly, the least acceptable standard for one person sets the bar for everyone on the team. Either rehearsals always start on time or they don’t; it shouldn’t matter which orchestra member is late – including the conductor.
  • Ownership & input correlate with accountability. Given the opportunity to set their own milestones, deadlines, performance criteria, etc., team members tend to rise to the occasion more often than those whose every move and progress report is micromanaged. Our own personal standards are often higher than others’ anyway, and self-evaluation can be a powerful tool (especially when combined with #4 above). The difference between having someone check up on you and voluntarily checking in with that person is empowering and lead to improved accountability.
  • Be response-able as well as accountable. By this I mean that everyone should be held able to consciously choose an appropriate (i.e., solution-focused) response to every situation. Emotional reaction is nowhere near as effective as a considered response; anger and frustration are understandable but not productive. Establishing explicit ground rules for having difficult conversations, including conflict norming (a topic for a future post), is highly recommended. Teams should check in regularly to ensure they are mutually upholding those standards.

Accountability is an opportunity to celebrate successes and recognize strengths. It’s also a way to minimize the likelihood of mistakes and to reduce damage to team trust and cohesion when they happen. As with accounting, the pluses and minuses inevitably impact the bottom line.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) How-to Teams and group dynamics

Five Reasons to Value Conflict

It goes without saying that conflict often comes at a terrible price: War is the obvious, extreme case where the human and economic toll is immeasurable. But on a more mundane level, the costs of conflict to a business, production crew or orchestra can include chronic absenteeism, stress-related health issues, withholding of creative and innovative ideas, role confusion, reduced productivity, loss of skilled team members, inferior decisions, damaged relationships and tarnished reputations, among other things. These costs can be equally immeasurable, if only because so much of the damage is disguised or otherwise difficult to capitalize. So it’s natural to assume that conflict of any kind is bad and should be avoided.

I propose, instead, that conflict can be a boon to any group or organisation – provided it’s managed well, of course. When mishandled (and even when ostensibly avoided) conflict can easily and rapidly spiral out of control and wreak havoc. More insidiously, it can simmer quietly below the surface and undermine that same group or organisation. Here, then, are five reasons to embrace it:

  1. Conflict is a sign of caring. The first and perhaps most important reason conflict isn’t inherently bad is this: it only begins when something we care about is affected or threatened in some way. If we didn’t care about an issue we would simply shrug it off because we would have no real personal, emotional or financial investment. Having a stake in a project, decision or process necessarily means we have an interest in a good outcome. The challenge is that “best outcome” may be defined differently for each stakeholder. The good news is that the interests of those concerned can be powerful motivators inspiring the co-creation of an effective and lasting win-win solution. But if your team or organisation doesn’t suffer from conflict at least occasionally, it’s a danger sign. It means you’re overlooking something potentially disastrous or else your people just aren’t sufficiently engaged.
  2. Conflict can improve creative output (and other products). Conflict is an essential ingredient of all literature and film. Without conflict there is no plot, and plot (action) defines character. So on one level the quality, intensity or believability of the conflict depicted probably bears some relationship to the overall strength of a book, movie or graphic novel. Behind the scenes, real-life conflict can also inform and infuse creative output. For example, the well-documented (if extreme) differences between writer-director Billy Wilder and screenwriter Charles Brackett may well have contributed to the success of more than a dozen films they created together including Ninotchka and the Oscar-winning classics Sunset Boulevard and Lost Weekend.Perhaps a more obvious example of a successful and productive conflict is the Beatles’ catalogue of Lennon & McCartney songs. Whether their songwriting styles clashed or complemented each other may be a question of opinion but it’s safe to say that the blend of their distinctive influences and approaches resulted in an artistically and commercially significant body of work. Whether it was the contrast between tracks on the same album or even the constituent parts of the same song, the interplay between Lennon’s and McCartney’s respective contributions remains as aesthetically appealing as it is financially rewarding. So creative tension can be a positive factor, just as healthy competition can be a strong motivator when band members try to outdo each other in the writing department.
  3. Conflict can help generate buy-in. “Buy-in” is wholehearted acceptance and endorsement, which is far more powerful than mere agreement. And in order for people to buy into a proposed change, idea or decision they need to feel it’s been truly battle-tested. If there is a pervasive sense that input has been stifled or withheld for any reason, or that a proposal hasn’t been sufficiently analyzed, debated and evaluated from every angle, the decision will not stick; individuals and teams will be unwilling to fully commit to a course of action. Movement will be begrudging; lip service will be paid. Support will wane and factions may form outside the meeting or rehearsal room, sniping and complaining. Absent buy-in, any support for a chosen direction, decision or plan of action will be lukewarm at best. So well-managed conflict (or at least open and vigorous disagreement) can be productive instead of destructive because transparency, rigorous peer review and (partial) ownership of the outcome breed confidence.
  4. Conflict can provide a healthy outlet. Avoiding conflict may feel good in the short term because it means not having to experience the anxiety or fear that normally accompany it. It also means that at least one party will pay a heavier individual price over the longer term. Whoever goes out of their way (literally and figuratively) to avoid dealing with another with whom they have an ongoing, unmanaged conflict will eventually suffer in some other way. Avoidance saps vital energy. It requires continually finding new ways to escape the person or situation. It involves bottling up any ill feelings. The avoider will either refrain from speaking up, experience physical manifestations of their “dis-ease,” quit in frustration, or all of the above. Inevitably these personal impacts start to affect the rest of the group or organisation, and there is an opportunity cost to learning and growth for all parties directly or indirectly involved. Engaging in conflict – and managing it effectively – can allow all parties to assert their needs while minimizing or eliminating any negative fallout. Differences can be channeled into more productive outputs (see reason #2).
  5. Conflict can increase trust. A paradox of conflict is that if it’s managed well – if process needs and personal needs can be met – it can actually enhance trust and create a safer work atmosphere. Bringing it into the open and dealing with it head-on rather than letting it fester eases lingering fears and anxieties. Groups, teams and organisations that can weather a storm together invariably grow more close-knit as a result of their joint trials. Conflict offers a common bonding experience; the key is to ensure they are not united against each other internally.

How to keep conflict productive, not destructive

Clearly, then, there are advantages to be gained from taking a proactive approach to managing conflict. There are many relatively simple things that can be done to ensure that conflict is productive, positive force and not a destructive one.

The best brainstorming protocols, for example, involve a multi-step process beginning with a “no bad ideas” approach, leaving judgment and debate aside until input from all quarters is on the table. (Remember, too, that not every personality type thrives in the sturm-und-drang of a whiteboard session.) Conflict norming means determining how we handle conflict collectively – what’s OK and what’s not OK – if and when we find ourselves in conflict. These conflict norms and boundaries should be established early and explicitly, with the standards developed, agreed and upheld by all parties. There should also be clear, consistent policies and procedures for dealing with conflict more formally should it become necessary, including pre-emptive training programs, conflict coaching, mediation, or making some other form(s) of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) available.

Too often conflict in the arts and entertainment industry is dismissed as the product of ego or some stereotypical image of the creative genius. It’s not that simple. We forgive the eccentricities of the combative colleague – the “difficult” artist, manager/agent, or star employee – because of the overall value their work brings. But left unchecked, this indulgence can erode co-workers’ self-esteem, trust, or sense of safety and security necessary to a healthy working environment. This is as true in the rehearsal studio as it is in the corporate boardroom.

This is not to say that creative types should have all their rough edges removed. On the contrary, they should be nurtured, celebrated, and have their needs respected – while respecting the needs of others. Ignoring or otherwise tacitly permitting destructive, personalized conflict can soon be fatal to your group, team or organisation. Productive, well-managed conflict can be far more profitable.

– kda