Before Attempting Big Change, First, Root Out the Dysfunction

Roger, a newly-hired Chief Development Officer for one of New York’s biggest hospitals, was eager to meet his team.

He called an All-Hands meeting for his 65 employees for Monday at 9AM on his first day, with coffee, bagels and fruit set up in the in the executive conference room.

His excitement slowly gave way to confusion as people filed in with heads down, forced smiles and none of the office banter he’d expected. Chalking it up to a slow start to the work week, Roger tried to counteract the heaviness in the room by announcing his intentions to start with a “clean slate” by launching a new strategic planning effort. Heavy sighs and awkward glances ensued.

Something was very off. He had heard rumors that some team members didn’t see eye to eye, but this organizational malaise seemed to be deeply-rooted. As he made the rounds over the next few days, people used words like toxic, broken, stuck and back-stabbing to describe the environment.

Roger knew that before he could launch any kind of strategic planning effort, people would need to feel they could safely work together, even if they didn’t like each other.

Roger and I agreed that he’d first need to get a better handle on the long-standing issues that seemed to be tearing this team apart. We knew that confidentiality was key. We scheduled voluntary confidential onsite interviews with all nine executive team members, all of whom were eager to talk. I set up an anonymous online conference area in parallel, where anyone in the department could offer their viewpoints.

We asked for “complete candor” and boy, did we get it! Among the issues: The previous leader had pitted departments against each other to foster “friendly” competition; department heads had inexplicably lost funding they had been promised; information-hoarding and finger-pointing were broadly encouraged; and reporting relationships changed frequently without explanation.

I shared a summary of results and recommendations with Roger and his senior leaders. With a clearer picture of the team’s pain points, aspirations and needs, we were able to design and implement a strategic planning process where people were relieved to be able to work together to achieve shared goals.

Essential ingredients for success – The “secret sauce”

🎇Use a combination of 1:1 interviews, small-group conversations and online conversations to gather insights effectively, efficiently and with the necessary depth and context to validate hypotheses, form conclusions and recommend actions

🎇 Make interviews and surveys optional, anonymous and confidential (see links below for sample questions)

🎇 Ask questions in a way to unearth dysfunctional dynamics safely and constructively

🎇 Gain commitment from senior leadership up front to share a version of the findings for discussion within departments or functions

Before launching any major initiative that requires mutual support, trusting relationships, clear communication and close collaboration, you need to know you’re starting with a healthy team. It takes courage, especially for a new leader, to stop long enough to discover and remove any landmines before marching ahead.

Other real-life examples:

This scenario is similar to other cultural assessments I have done for a number of clients:

❇️  Senior leaders from a global bank who wanted to find out why the Boston-area IT department members were heading for the exits in droves

❇️  A vice president for an international product engineering company who wanted to understand why employees weren’t doing more to boost customer loyalty

❇️ The CIO of a major Massachusetts-based software company who wanted to ferret out and resolve issues between his IT teams at HQ and in India that were delaying vital projects.

If you’d like help assessing the dynamics and culture of your team as part of your strategic planning efforts, please drop me a line or set up a meeting to see how Guided Insights can help. We design and conduct assessments that provide opportunities for all voices to be heard in a meaningful way and shine a light on aspects of your organization that merit the greatest focus.

Please click on the links below for examples and articles that might spark your thinking.


Downloadable questions, planning timelines and communications map:

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