Monday, September 14, 2009

Environment's Role in High Performance Teams

What environmental qualities does it take to foster a high performance team?

Do not make the assumption that good people will perform at the top of their game regardless of the environment. It is crucial to provide the environment that encourages top performers. It is leadership that sets the stage of the environment. To continue the play analogy: the leaders are in control of the stage manager's budgets for prop and materials, provide vision for the director's action instructions, and inspire risk taking to achieve works of art. A good leader will know the bounds of the environment, perhaps by testing, scouting and exploring the area. This knowledge of the environment will help them to guide the organization within the sustainability envelope. It is not in the overall interest of the organization to exceed the sustainable performance characteristics of the team. The environment has a large impact on sustainability of team performance.

Graham Jones' article in Chief Learning Officer magazine "Environment's Role in High Performance" prompted my thinking on this subject.

How do we set the stage for high performance teams in Agile communities?

Do we as leaders provide the performance enablers (Information, Instruments, Incentives); do we support our people with the aspects that effect performance (Attitudes, Capacity, Behaviors)? Are we aware of the whole eco-system?

A case study in the effects of environment in the attempts to modify human behavior was done by a well-respected psychiatric researcher named Lee Robins as part of President Nixon's Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention in 1971.  She studied heroin addicted veterans form the Vietnam war.  Some reports put the addiction rate at 15% of returning vets.  And the current thinking was that it was practically impossible to kick the addiction.

The Office put in place a program of treating the soldiers in Vietnam before returning them home.  The rates of relapse to heroin use was 5% (95% successfully made a very difficult change) in Robins' program.  Other programs that treated soldiers at home had relapse rates in the 90% range (only 10% making a change in behavior).  What was the secret?  This program had the opposite results from the expected results.  Decades later the study of behavioral change points out the reasons for this drastic inversion of expectations.  The secret - behavior is highly influenced by environment.  The soldiers that got clean and then changed environment were successful in adopting the desired behavioral changes (staying clean).

Listen to the NPR story, What Heroin Addiction Tells Us About Changing Bad Habits by Alix Spiegel.

If environment is this crucial keystone in breaking heroin addiction what environment change shall we make to facilitate the behavioral changes needed when transitioning to an Agile mindset?  Or as we saw with these case studies, if we retain the environment and expect new behaviors to flourish after training and a bit of coaching, should we be surprised when the old behaviors return?
Behaviors that are not supported by the environment will be hard to maintain, and the environmental clues keep pointing to the old behaviors.

My suggestion, if you wish your Agile transition to have a long term impact upon people's behavior then you best be changing the environment along with the process, procedures and practices.


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