Team like sardines

Have you seen a school of sardines swimming in the big ocean? I remember seeing them on television while growing up. It was only in late 2000 on my first trip to the US, I saw them live at the walk-in aquarium at Pier39 in San Francisco. I remember being mesmerized by the silvery fish that seemed to behave like one single being. There were hundreds of small slivers that swam in one direction and they would all change directions, as one being in sudden swift movements. How did each fish know which direction to go in and how to turn precisely at the same moment as the rest of them? How are they so keenly in tandem with each other? What sophisticated means of communication do they have that tells them what is happening collectively?

What the fish do, is what most leaders desire- for the teams to move in the same direction with a common purpose and do this together in harmony with each other. To be aligned as a team heading in one direction and to be attuned to each other in the process of the journey.

So how does one create alignment and attunement? I share a few essential practices, that I have found to be effective, based on my experience of working with multiple teams across different organisations and geographies.

Creating a shared vision: Whether it is someone managing a project, a department, a business unit or a company, very often the person in charge decides what needs to be done. The team is then expected to follow the directives and deliver. In this scenario, every person on the team sees their job is to deliver their piece. Each one sees the big picture only through their limited lens. Creating a shared vision requires all the team members to be together, in painting that picture of the desired future. When they contribute their ideas to the vision, when everyone receives every one’s ideas and then collectively form the direction, there is a greater sense of ownership. Most importantly everyone sees the same big picture. Shared vision becomes the guiding light, that then allows the team members to act freely within a context.

Setting the ground rules: While the shared vision gives the common direction, there is a need to align everyone towards that vision, by clarifying what each one is expected to do and how the team members interact and behave with each other. When it comes to clarifying roles, individuals may know what they are supposed to do. But a lot of the friction arises when everyone in the team does not have a common understanding of the roles of everyone on the team and what outcomes are expected from each one.  Every team needs a set of norms as well, which define the ways in which things will be done. They need to be defined collectively by the team and shared. This includes the desired behaviours that each team member must exhibit. Naming the behaviours that will not be tolerated and the consequences for poor behaviour are just as important. Most of the frustration in a team arises when inconsistent ways of working are tolerated.

Dialoguing as a team: The team that has a strong sense of common mind, moves together as a single being. Every time there are complex issues to deal with, managers feel there is a need to provide solutions. Leaders on the other hand see these as opportunities to engage the team and create a common mind. It involves dialoguing together around complex issues and common concerns. This is an important leadership task. There is a need to create forums where everyone can participate and share openly without any judgement or fear of each other. Share the ideas, raise questions and contribute to shaping perspectives and solutions.

Building consensus through dialogue involves constantly rehearsing the shared vision and the deeper purpose so that the team is aware of the context that guides the response.  Dialoguing cultivates deep listening- a most essential attribute required for achieving attunement. Dialoguing requires setting aside dedicated team time. When the teams slow down for a collective walk around the situation and create a common mind on the response to the situation, they can move swiftly with power and focus and deliver the solution.

Alignment is about knowing where to go, the direction to pursue. Attunement is about sensing what is going on as everyone is moving in one direction. Alignment is moving in one direction. Attunement is moving in one direction, together. Alignment is about singular focus. Attunement is about flawless harmony. Alignment and Attunement happen when the team spends time creating a shared vision, clarifying roles, defining behaviours and dialoguing together on a frequent basis.

Awake leaders create rituals that incorporate the above into team practices. So that they become repetitive and regular. Rituals include forums to dialogue around issues and concerns, meetings to paint the vision, team time to reflect and celebrate, to define the ground rules, to clarify the roles, to collaborate. Every occasion creates a greater sense of connection in a team. When the teams spend time working and dialoguing together, the team begins to think and act as one being. There is no short-cut.

Creating alignment and attunement requires a great degree of maturity from the leader. If the leader does not trust the team’s capability to take ownership, there will be no ownership. If you do not believe in individual’s inherent capacity to think and contribute, there will be no ideas or true participation. Leaders posture of treating every team member as a colleague, as an equal, is foundational.

I am sure the school of sardines have their own compass that gives them direction, a set of ground rules and a high degree of sensing ability that creates those magical movements. I believe that any team can be aligned and attuned. At the heart of it, there needs to be a true desire and a leadership will to create such a team.



Note: If you are interested in learning techniques  and skills to build an aligned and attuned team, do reach out to Nucleus Insights.

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