Team Under Pressure?
Disruption creates shift. Shift at a transformative, cellular level is different than a temporary “flavor of the month” change, which doesn’t stick. Consider the transformation of a piece of coal into a diamond. Now we get a picture of what true, permanent change to a stronger different entity really looks and feels like. You’re building a team to create that kind of change, right? Chemist Ilya Prigogine won a Nobel Prize for capturing the irreversible process of transformation in nature, and it actually has everything to do with your disruptive team, causing and experiencing it every day.
Prigogine looked first at the idea of Entropy-what happens when we leave something alone (opposite of your disruption) for long enough. We're looking not at chemical compounds, but at human beings and teams. Either way, left alone, things falls apart or scatters….
Leave a log alone in the woods for long enough, it decomposes.
Leave a person alone long enough (like solitary confinement), he goes crazy.
Leave a group alone for long enough, and it either splinters or it becomes Lord of the Flies.
Prigogine then looked at the opposite; what happens when you add pressure or energy to something to disrupt it- perturbation. As Perturbations happens to a system (or person or team), it can only hold so much pressure/energy, before something’s got to give, hitting a point of critical mass. This occurs in physics, and it applies to human dynamics as well.
When pressure continues or increases to its capacity, the heat rises, (temperature in physics and in a room of perturbed people) and things start to vibrate and shift.
A log with the pressure of a fallen boulder on it for long enough will start to off-gas.
An individual under increased pressure might bail out of the situation.
A team with increased pressure on it might lose some people.
That pressure increases, hits a max point in it’s current form, and then…
Everything transforms. Literally. It’ll push through the threshold to a stronger, more stable structure which can withstand more pressure.
The wood transforms into coal..
That coal under sustained pressure over time transforms into a diamond.
Water at its boiling point transforms into steam.
Individuals pushed with enough pressure of challenge will also transform inalterably, which is the ultimate learning (sounds like "I'm just different now than before- I can't go back").
Unrivaled championship teams perform best in the playoffs. And none of these, like you and your team... go back to their original form.
You, your organization and your team will go through this. It is simply how transformative change occurs. You’ll know it’s happening when it gets hot with conflict on the team- metaphorically, yet also the temperature of the individuals and in the room literally goes up when the pressure of those dynamics rises. This can happen when they’ve been wrestling through an idea or process in search of a breakthrough, and have been at it a long time. It can happen when they’re being challenged by an outside force or time running out, and have to pull out a solution they haven’t discovered yet. You’ll see it in the organization as people bristle at the disruption that's brought (by change? maybe even by you?). In these situations, they’re being perturbed, and that's really uncomfortable. If they can stand in the discomfort of that heat, they can push through the threshold of their own thinking and challenge to transformative, real change.
Context holds the team.
For teams going through perturbation, this is where you come in as the leader. The way you hold and facilitate those dynamics makes all the difference in your team being able to push through to transformative change or not.
Teams either stay together through that perturbation or not depending on the agreements and commitment they have in place with one another. In looking at any team that thrives through pressure (sports teams, partnerships, organizations), there’s a context of solid agreements there, which holds them all together when things get rough, and become the “true north” on the team’s internal compass, to which they can reset with one another and recalibrate. These agreements keep everyone’s energy and reflexes in check under pressure, redirecting the players back to one another and the commitment they’ve made.
“Never leave a teammate alone,”
“Work through upset on the team directly, immediately and out of the public eye,”
are examples of agreements which call the team back to one another, build solidarity, and allow them to stand in the heat all the way through to the other side.
My brother and mentor Blair Singer has done many years of case study development in application of pressure on teams and the context which calls this context of agreement the Code of Honor and it’s what makes the difference between teams that fall apart under pressure and teams that step up to their best work under pressure.
- Create a context of unconditional agreements early in the team’s process, before they’re in the heat of the pressure. Help them clarify and articulate what they need to be able to count on without question from others in order to be all in, and create agreements to ensure and protect those things.
- Ask “What gets in the way of you being able to do your absolute best work on a team,” then create agreements to proactively guard against those.
Perspective holds you.
If it's you being perturbed, keep focusing on what's on the other side. There's power in picturing that wood turning into coal, coal turning into a diamond, knowing that you're in the heat, but it's on its way to something else; what you're going through is leading to a stronger, more structurally stable version of you, on the other side.
You've got this. You're almost there, diamond.
This piece is adapted from Sarah's chapter on team dynamics in the book Disrupt Together: How Teams Consistently Innovate. Here's a link directly to that chapter, Your Team of Dynamics and the Dynamics of your Team, where you'll get even more perspective on leading a team through change.