Flexible Work Teams Become the Norm

Wooden mannequins pushing puzzle pieces into the right place

What is a flexible work team? The term makes enough sense, but how many of us have personally experienced this dramatic change in work practices? Flexible work teams are becoming more the norm than the exception in today’s office or plant environment. As consumer demands for higher quality and quicker turnaround become standard practice, corporations look for new ways to shorten production time and heighten efficiency.

Often what prevents a company from responding to consumer demands is the traditional structure most of us are familiar with. The “top down” organization develops narrow, vertically oriented departments based on functional skills and responsibilities. This “silo” structure contributes to a lack of communication and isolation between departments, often resulting in duplicate or conflicting actions and strategic direction. Worse yet are the gaps which occur between each “silo”, preventing smooth and efficient hand-offs. How often have you heard the phrase, “The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing?”

Enter the flexible work team or cross-functional team. The concept itself is simple. Teams of workers are assigned to projects based on their functional skills. For example: an engineer, technician, artist, product manager, analyst, marketer and merchandising professional may make up one team. They combine their expertise for the period of time necessary to design, develop, manufacture and deliver a particular product or service. Teams may be grouped in “pods” rather than traditional offices. They are assigned to the project for a limited timeframe and leadership may come from within the team with one project manager providing guidance across occupational boundaries.

As a comparison, mixing up teams is similar to the change in structure experienced when we moved from grammar school to high school. In grammar school you were assigned to one teacher for the entire year (usually the one you didn’t want!) and classmates remained the same for each class. Yet in high school, classes moved between different teachers and the mix of classmates changed as well.

Organizations may find it difficult, however, to adjust from a traditional structure to this approach, often advocated as a ”one size fits all” result of re-engineering. Just because the concept is simple, doesn’t make it easy to implement or negate the impact on workers. By nature, human beings do not like change – we prefer a predictable environment. Since reorganization consultants report a 55-70 percent implementation failure rate, successful organizations ease into cross-functional teams in stages over a period of time rather than dramatic and immediate about-face.

Veterans of the process recommend starting out by establishing teams dedicated to solving one specific problem at a time. When multifunctional participants come together to analyze a problem, it often leads to breakthroughs in understanding and communication. Dissecting a process, piece by piece as it touches each department often identifies why it is being done in the first place and determines if it is still necessary or how it can be changed for the better. It also gets key people from the impacted departments talking to one another, interacting, asking questions and gaining a wider view of how the company runs.

Even the smallest of organizations benefit from this exercise. Too often we fall into the trap of focusing solely on the responsibilities for which we are held accountable. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the process of getting our work done that we lose perspective on how those functions impact other departments, divisions, vendors, etc.

The key question addressed by cross-functional teams is, does this process ultimately benefit the customer? After all, isn’t this the main reason for being in business? Walking backwards through each step, beginning with the first moment of customer contact, is an effective way to evaluate the necessity and effectiveness of the process.

Cross-functional teams, when implemented with care and over time, bring a significant value to all concerned. Quality improves, production time decreases, employees gain a better understanding of the role each other plays in the product development cycle. Team building increases through meaningful exercise, rather than an artificially constructed scenario. Problem solving strategies contribute to improved critical thinking skills and employees gain a more global understanding of their purpose.

People Personalities Like Penny the Puppy

IMG_0430I’ve been puppy-sitting this week for my daughter’s dog, Penny Lane. With two cats in the house it’s been interesting to watch the dynamics!

As she raced around outside this afternoon, ignoring my calls and tearing across the road, she reminded me of some people I know:

Impulsive, exuberant, people-pleasing types who don’t always listen yet just want to be loved. They are the chocolate labs or golden retrievers of our world who will bend over backwards for you, unless they’re distracted by the proverbial “bright shiny object”.

They may often over-commit in their zeal to make you happy. If they feel unloved or under-appreciated they might act out. New experiences beckon them and boring tasks discourage them.

So how do you keep your “chocolate lab” engaged?

  • Build a trusting relationship, follow through and allow for some “play” time
  • Hold them accountable – talk through commitments to ensure they can do what they say they’ll do
  • Agree on a common language of “no nonsense” words to reel them back in (when I say “X”, I REALLY mean it!)
  • Give them “bright, shiny” projects that will hold their interest
  • Give them “treats” to thank them for a job well done
  • Make sure they know how much you like them as a person
  • And let them run off the “leash” within safe boundaries

Thankfully, my week of puppy sitting is at an end. Now I can go back to my quiet life with two stuck-up cats.

Q: Got a people-pleaser personality in your “yard”? What strategies have you used to get better behaviors?

What Matters: To Make a Difference

Norm's Photo GalleryNorm's Photo Gallery 2

Earlier this year, my Uncle Norm died. Some of you who have subscribed to my newsletter over the years may have seen his comments. “Stormin’ Norm” shared his 2 cents frequently and always had something wise and insightful to say.

We miss him. So I’m thinking of Norm’s life on this Christmas Eve since it’s time to celebrate a new life – the birth of the Christ child.

Norm kept pictures of family and significant life events on a paneled wall hanging over his kitchen counter. There are pictures of his son and daughter, nieces, nephews and their children, his friends and my Mom, his only sister, among many others.

There are pictures of skiing at Vail. He was informally known as the “Mayor of Vail” – he’d lived there since the early 70’s and knew most of the old timers and founders.

His whole wall was dedicated to family and friends. People are what mattered most to Norm, even though he lived alone the majority of his life.

During times when tragedy strikes and we wonder why bad things happen, especially during the Christmas season, the message below helps get me grounded. I hope it lifts up your spirit and gets you centered on what matters most.

I want to thank you for being here, for reading what I have to say and for passing along messages that might make a difference to others.

Warm wishes and a very Merry Christmas to you and your loved ones!

Laura Benjamin

To Make a Difference (University of Rochester graduation address, adapted from American author, Leo C. Rosten)

“Where was it promised us that life can ever be easy or free of conflict and frustration and loneliness and pain? Those who yearn for the refuge of bliss can find it in tranquilizers or narcotics. To me, the purpose of life is not to be happy – it is to matter. To be productive and responsible, to be honorable, to be dedicated to goals higher than the infantile self – to have it make some difference that you lived at all.”

Mount Rushmore National Monument to Persistence

A few years ago, I visited Mount Rushmore for the first time and wondered why I hadn’t gotten there sooner. Put it on your “places to go list”; it’s pretty impressive. The 500 ft. famous faces of four Presidents, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt are snuggled shoulder-to-shoulder in granite, 7242 feet above sea level. This monumental project encompassed the 14 remaining years of 60-year old Gutzon Borglum’s life. The sculptor began in 1927 with 400 local miners under his guidance and the carving was completed under his son’s direction seven months after his death.

Project Management at Its Best

Borglum built a model of the completed sculpture to  transfer the portrait of the four figures onto the granite cliff. He mounted a protractor on top, and attached a metal rod to pivot outward across an arc of measurement over the model’s face. He then attached a plumb bob to the end of the metal rod to determine the horizontal distance, in inches, from any point on the string to the nearest point on the model. A similar design, 12 times larger, was installed on the mountain. By substituting feet for inches, workers were able to determine how much rock needed to be removed. When they finished roughing out the figures, they then used “honeycombing” techniques with air-powered tools to drill closely spaced holes to exact depths. Chisels and hammers were used to break away the rock between the holes. Work crews blasted within 4 inches of the finished surface and removed 90% of the 450,000 tons of granite from the mountain with dynamite. The final process was known as “bumping”, where pneumatic drills and special bits graded contours of the lips, nose, cheeks, neck and brow resulting in a finished surface as smooth as a concrete sidewalk.

A Profile in Persistence

There is a laminated card on my desk that urges, “Press on. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

I can only imagine there were days, weeks, months – years even, when Borglum and his crew were discouraged, disheartened and didn’t at all want to press on. There were probably times when the weather got bad, money dried up, workers got sick and they looked for the fastest way off that mountain. Perhaps interpersonal squabbles threatened to interfere with the work at hand.Borglum may have anticipated that possibility at the christening of this national shrine when he said, “We believe the dimensions of national heartbeats are greater than village impulses, greater than city demands, greater than state dreams or ambitions.”

In other words, Mount Rushmore stands as a tribute not only to four visionary leaders, but also to anyone who looks to see the deeper message carved into that mountain.The dusty, unemployed miners who showed up for $1.25/hour in the Great Depression, may have originally been drawn by the paycheck, but quickly bought into the spirit of the challenge. Workmen who hung suspended “face to face” from the granite carving relied on each other to come down safely at the end of each day. (Surprisingly, there were no deaths and few injuries, despite the use of heavy equipment and dynamite during those 14 years!) Mount Rushmore is proof that anyone can achieve great things when they commit to a noble cause, inspire dedicated teams, get beyond the petty issues that derail great endeavors and are willing to persist for the long haul!

Persistence Rarely Stands Alone

Persistence doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s often the insightful and talented leader who provides a nudge in the right direction – who illustrates just how important our work is for the greater good. My younger son is lucky in that regard. Both he and his brother enlisted in the United States Air Force and like the good boys that they are, they made every effort to call their mom on a regular basis. When my younger son called one night he said, “You know Mom, it’s not easy pulling these 12-hour shifts. I’m pretty tired, but the thing that makes me get up and go back out there is ’cause my Chief comes along at the end of every day and thanks me personally for something he noticed I did that day. Somebody at some leadership school probably told him he had to do that, but I don’t care. It helps a lot.”

People need to know how they contribute and often, how TO contribute. They sometimes need a model to practice on before letting ’em loose on the real deal. Borglum knew he couldn’t take hordes of miners up onto that 7242 foot cliff with just a drawing in his hands and expect them to know how to transfer the image onto the stone. By developing the protractor and plumb bob apparatus, he gave them a method through which they could do what they do best to insure the most expedient and successful outcome. It’s a heck of a lot easier to persist and persevere when you have a skeleton of a support structure to guide you through the inevitable bumps in the road, or in this case, on the rock.

A Result to be Proud of

Persistence thrives in an environment where the end result is something folks can be proud of. Regardless of the work at hand, everyone shares in pride of ownership with a job well done. Borglum’s 400 miners built roads, constructed buildings, generated power, took measurements and sharpened thousands of bits for the pneumatic drills. One driller, Norman “Happy” Anderson said, “I put the curl in Lincoln’s beard, the part in Teddy’s hair and the twinkle in Washington’s eye. It still gives me a thrill to look at it.” And how thrilling it is also for the families who now point proudly to their relative’s historic contribution.

Achievements need not be historic to inspire great surges of energy, enthusiasm, commitment and perseverance. It does, however, require a tangible outcome – something that’s quantifiable that folks can set their eyes upon or wrap their arms around. The worst damage we could ever do is to lead them through the process and then abruptly yank away the reward – that pride of ownership – by saying, “This was just a test to see if you could really do it.” Or “We now know the process works, but sorry to say, we won’t ever be able to implement it.”

I’m sure there will be other national monuments, historic treasures or cultural wonders that will inspire a similar sense of aw as I felt at Mount Rushmore. You know the drill – you make the drive, pay the admission and snap the photos. It’s easy to stand and admire the end result and overlook the fact that the people who toiled to construct such marvels weren’t much different than you or I. They possessed very similar human failings and faced challenges just as regularly as we do. They had to overcome obstacles, foul moods, bad bosses and poor health. Yet, look at what they were able to do! I hope when you drive through the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota and look up at the four famous faces of Mount Rushmore, you leave with the knowledge that anything is possible!

How to Clearly Communicate in Writing

Have you ever gotten an email from someone, read it over two or three times and still can’t figure out what they want you to do – if anything?

Too often, people bury the “call to action” somewhere in the middle of the message or are so darned vague that it’s hard to figure out the main objective.

Wouldn’t it be great if they started their paragraph with what they wanted you to do, then give you all the reasons or backup justification after that?

It’s understandable folks don’t want to come across as a bully or overly directive. We’ve all been schooled in how to be careful with email because it’s easy to sound harsh. But it’s also easy to confuse others when we’re not clear with what we’d like them to do.

Journalists are taught to put the most important stuff up front just in case their editor needs to shorten up the article. They’ll try to remove content from the middle or bottom and that way won’t destroy the main message.

So before you start to write, ask yourself, “What’s the most important thing I want this person to know or do?”

Start off stating your main objective and you’ll reduce the biggest frustration people have with email and other written forms of communication.


Slow Down for Maximum Improvement

“Creep” is the word now used to describe an addictive tendency to add just one more thing to our annual list of goals and objectives. While it’s important to strive for aggressive improvements, serious fallout occurs when we plan with little regard to systems capacity, training capabilities and human capital. The results:

  • Our plan looks good on paper but drives people to the brink of desperation and exhaustion in an effort to get it all done. Some will choose to “bug out” and you end up with a team of walking dead.
  • Errors! Just as research shows diminished mental capacity occurs when trying to drive and talk on a cell phone at the same time, the brain can only handle so many things  at once.
  • Cumulative stress that results in higher absentee rates, accidents, and employee turnover. The economy may be keeping your people in place right now, but that could end. We’re already seeing a labor shortage in some skill sets due to baby boomer retirements and shrinking numbers of qualified job candidates.
  • Organizational reputation will suffer if the word gets out that you “chew ’em up and spit ’em out.” Surveys show that workers would rather stay with a company with an excellent reputation than receive a higher salary from a company with a poor reputation.


  • Take a look at what you have accomplished this year with an eye toward what you should have NEVER attempted in the first place and why.
  • Draft up your “wish list”, then analyze the resources you have in place to achieve each objective. What “soft” and “hard” costs will you incur to get it all done?
  • Avoid the mistake of thinking a quick hit motivational cure will erase the long-term damage done to exhausted employees and supervisors. It won’t work to throw a book at them and say, “Your cheese has moved.”
  • If supervisors, managers and teams have been reorganized more than once a year, something is going to give. When people don’t know who they are reporting to or what functions they’re responsible for, they stop working toward competency, investing in relationships or organizational vision.

Not surprisingly, an Amazon.com search turned up more than 20 titles on how to do business at “the speed of light”. We may have this all backwards. Slow down for maximum productivity and process improvement!