Fake it ‘til you make it

22 Mar

Too often in life, the knowing-doing gap – as defined by Stanford Business School Professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Bob Sutton – can be traced to “a basic human propensity: the willingness to let talk substitute for action.”

Then imagine a dysfunctional project team, debating a concept or a product to death. If you lead a team, embrace action instead. Welcome change. If you don’t know exactly what you’re doing, develop a hypothesis, attempt the work, then analyze the outcome. Fake it ‘til you make it.

Strategies of Effective New Product Team Leaders, an article published in the California Management Review by Avan R. Jassawalla and Hemant C. Sashittal, embraces just this approach. While the title seems to indicate narrow applicability to just one group, this article has implications and scope beyond new product development teams. It’s a useful approach to building a variety of cross-functional teams, including those to improve sales revenue, such as in a service organization, or improving patient care, or developing new processes. Heck, it’s even valuable if one ignores the cross-functional premise and applies it to managing a department-level team.

According to Jassawalla and Sashittal, effective new product team leaders formulate five objectives and strategies:

  1. Ensure commitment
  2. Build information-intensive environments
  3. Play facilitator
  4. Focus on human interaction
  5. Focus on learning

The effective team leader can then best apply these strategies in a culture which encourages change and innovation with the full support of senior management. Mistakes must be welcomed in interest of furthering learning – to stretch the notion of what’s possible.

One aspect of teams not mentioned in the article: What is the optimum team size? No data or reference is included. Presumably, a too-large team might be unwieldy, and there would be a less secure bond among members. Too small a team might become insular, or suffer from a lack of diversity in opinions and options.

A second aspect not mentioned: What is the optimum time from team formation to maximum effectiveness? According to article, effective leaders focus on increasing members’ personal and emotional commitment to the team. This dynamic is a function of trust level, which is built over time.

As this article implies, the work of a team leader is extensive, and requires a significant commitment beyond day-to-day operational activities. An effective leader develops project plans, schedules meetings and puts out fires, among other things, and does it quietly, without any undue attention or fanfare. It’s team facilitator as servant leader.

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