Resilient Teams and Systems of Values

One of the worst things that can ever happen to a quality function or test team is a credibility gap. When perceptions of quality take a hit — whether internal or external — you are on a bad path. Here I don’t want to talk about how you get out of that situation. What I want to do is talk about how you can avoid getting into it in the first place. But I want to talk about it at the level that it really matters. This means talking about morals and values. But this is tricky because such discussions are fraught with peril and subjectivity. Yet we need to tackle these head on.

So let’s start out with this bold statement: Our goal must be to create a team culture whose strategy embraces moral purpose and whose values have strategic focus.

System of Values

We have to create a system of values that are unique to our team and designed to serve our team’s strategic objectives and catalyze its growth. The system itself has to be robust. What that means is that there is an understanding of the team’s capacity to uphold the system. It further means that the system that speaks clearly not only to what the team’s values are, but to how the team manages conflict and dilemmas within its value system and how it deals with the rise of differing value systems in different parts of the company (or even among members of the team).

These last points are particularly important because they speak to aspects of self-discipline, self-examination and intellectual honesty. A system of values differs from a set of values in that a set of values places no weighting on the values. A “set” does not deal with the inevitable and tough dilemmas that arise from conflicting values. Further, a “set” does not address the consequence of acting outside the values or, even worse, of undermining the values.

So our goal must be to implement the system of values.

This, however, will have a cost in terms of time and effort. But if we’re going to do it, then we certainly want the system to be robust. When the system is robust, it tends to respect risk (innovation) but reward accountability (trust). This leads to a team that is stable in its permanence while being dynamic in its growth. This is the basis of a resilient team.

Resilient Teams

So what actually is a resilient team? I mean it sounds nice, right? Who doesn’t want to be resilient? But still — what does it mean? Well, I think this requires an operational definition, so here goes: resilience is the quality of being able to respond with speed and effectiveness to change and to survive and even grow through turbulent times and challenging economic conditions. A resilient group is one that focuses on two elements:

  • Deliver continuous innovation.
  • Inspire trust.

Here “continuous innovation” is referring to the way the team operates, in the way it manages its people, in the way it reduces its costs, as well as in the products or services it makes possible as a result of its actions. The “inspire trust” part is required for the team to survive turbulence as well as to sustain their growth.

Admittedly, these two qualities — innovation and trust — can be paradoxical. Trust is born out of predictable continuity, whereas innovation breeds unpredictable discontinuity. The balance of these opposing forces is how our team should focus on both short-term objectives and long-term strategies. I believe that teams have to avoid compromising between the two alternatives, opting instead to create a third alternative that embraces both of the original two. (It’s not either-or!) The team must harmonize the forces of change with the forces of stability. Depending on the culture that has been established within your company, that can be quite a challenge.

What’s interesting here is that the dichotomy goes even deeper. Innovation needs freedom. Trust needs discipline. You can’t have boundless innovation without trust; but you can’t have so much trust that you sacrifice innovation.

Trust and Innovation

I talked about innovation before but I didn’t really talk about trust and yet it’s the trust that often gives your team the go ahead to innovate. In fact, both of these terms have come up a lot in what I’ve talked about here. But that’s because they are the centrifugal and centripetal forces that your team is most likely dealing with. Your team process will create your tangible product (innovation), but it’s your team culture that will create and deliver your intangible product (trust). It’s trust that your team must not lack. Just as your company cannot sacrifice trust with its customers, the same applies to your team within the company.

Trust is a tricky thing to establish in many cases. You want a culture that is trusting, you want team members that are trustworthy, and you want a brand that is trusted.

Of course you want that, right? But how do you get it? To establish all this requires discipline. However, I think that what you want is discipline that’s powered by the integrity of your team’s people and the values of your team’s leadership. What you don’t want is discipline that’s solely imposed by external rules of compliance. We need to achieve higher levels of trust without dampening the exuberance that breeds innovation and growth. As your own company grows, you’re going to need the self-discipline of corporate character rather than the controls of corporate oversight. I believe this is the case regardless of how large or small your company is.

Beyond the “branding” aspects, trust is one of the most powerful drivers of efficiency. Operational efficiencies — your day to day practices — do lead to productivity gains from higher levels of commitment, engagement, and innovation. Those three aspects are critical to me.

Values, Ethics and Strategy

Any team values and ethics should support the team strategy. In order for this stuff not to become overly theoretical, the term “value” has to have an economic and a moral (or ethical) meaning. This is a balance.

  • Values are beliefs about what’s good and what’s bad; what’s right and what’s wrong.
  • Ethics are the “cost” that a person is willing to pay to uphold their values.

Ethics are basically the way a person translates their beliefs into actions that entail a cost. I think most of us will find that people generally differ more in their ethics than their values. So just having values doesn’t really mean anything by itself. What does matter is how those values are translated into an ethic that will impact corporate intent and strategic objectives. So don’t just rely on statements of values. Determine how those values are put into action.

Strategy and values should not be conflated; but they also shouldn’t be treated as concepts that are wholly separate. If I had to sum up some of what I’ve just said, I would word it this way:

The team strategy should have a dimension of moral value and the team’s values should be strategic.

The moral dimension of strategy comes from its definition of the deep human needs that its products and services will satisfy. This is most likely your company’s purpose in the industry and it should be your team’s purpose within your company.

As Within, So Without

So let’s summarize a few points here that I stand behind:

  • Focus on the effectiveness of our strategy, the efficiency of our process, the authenticity of our values.
  • Differentiate not just by products and processes, but by intellect, cultures, and values.
  • Efficiency cannot have a higher value than integrity. (Quality of process must lead to the quantity of the outcome, not the other way around.)
  • A mission can have meaning when it focuses strategy and generates human energy and creativity.

Here’s how all this ties together. Resilient groups are resilient because they work to address the needs of their company. There’s a good argument to be made that helping people to address their legitimate needs is the highest form of ethical activity. This is where values are translated into action. Yes, this sounds like I’m saying you must work for a ‘higher purpose’ but, in a way, that’s exactly the case. I firmly believe this: working for a perceived higher purpose is what engages peoples’ minds and passions.

When you get that level of engagement what you have are people directed at the improvement of the contributions they make. This is how you’re going to establish a resilient group that spurs innovation and inspires trust. For people to become fully committed, their work should expand beyond the basic trade-off of skills for income. In the search for some sort of “meaning” to what we do day-to-day, we all need to see our work as an opportunity to use our unique talents to make a contribution to others that is valuable. The team’s return on investment are the rewards and the measure of successfully fulfilling a purpose that has a higher moral or value-driven calling.

That is what I’ve really been talking about here. It’s the same level of commitment and engagement that your company is (hopefully) seeking with its clients and customers. All I’m saying is that you have to reflect that same focus within your company.

This, in fact, is a key driver of quality. This is how “quality happens.”

About Jeff Nyman

Anything I put here is an approximation of the truth. You're getting a particular view of myself ... and it's the view I'm choosing to present to you. If you've never met me before in person, please realize I'm not the same in person as I am in writing. That's because I can only put part of myself down into words. If you have met me before in person then I'd ask you to consider that the view you've formed that way and the view you come to by reading what I say here may, in fact, both be true. I'd advise that you not automatically discard either viewpoint when they conflict or accept either as truth when they agree.
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