Do I have an innovative management team? A tool for diagnostic

Today I decided to write my first post in English. My intention is to start writing alternatively in Spanish and English. If you are one of my Spanish readers don’t worry, I will alternate between both languages. If you would like to have this article in Spanish, please let me know.

Hoy he decidido escribir mi primer post en inglés. Mi intención es empezar a escribir alternativamente en español e inglés. Si eres uno de mis lectores habituales en español, no te preocupes, alternaré entre ambos idiomas. Si quieres tener este artículo en español, mándame un mensaje.

Today I’m going to tell you about one of the tools I use in order to diagnose how’s the culture of a team, and how far is it in terms of being an innovation culture. Normally I don’t use this tool in isolation, but for clarity and extension purposes I will reduce today’s post to this one only. In future posts I’ll add other tools.

Quite a few of the set of tools I use are diagrams, which belong to what is called Berne’s Organizational Theory. And if you guessed it, you are right, I’m referring to Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis. If you want to find out more about these diagrams, you can check his book called “Structure and dynamics of groups and organizations”, published in 1963 by J.B. Lippincott Company.

The power of these diagrams remains in that you don’t have to interpret a description of the situations you are being told, for instance by the leader, in order to understand the culture. Instead of telling you, they just need to draw what it is, or what normally happens. And by doing so, you both get raw information which then can be analysed by the person who drew it. You can of course help interpreting, but often all you need to do is ask questions about the diagram.

The tool I will describe today is called the Seating Diagram, and although it was not exactly designed for culture measuring it is a good way of discovering how innovative is a management team, what goes on it, and from there you can start to see some aspects of the culture the organization has.

I use this diagram when I am talking to top management team leaders, with the whole team, or to leaders in other hierarchical levels who have a team.

All the interviewee needs to do initially is draw the layout of a meeting. I tend to use it when these meetings are regular and can show behavioural patterns. If that’s not the case the diagram is still useful as a source of information, but not as much for identifying cultural aspects.

The way to proceed is to ask the person to draw the last meeting she or he attended, and draw a 2D layout showing the walls, the doors, the windows, the tables and chairs, the people attending, the position of the screen and any other element which was present, like recorders, flipcharts and so on.

A typical seating diagram could look like this:

The questions to ask meanwhile the diagram is drawn, or once it’s finished, can be the following:

Do team members seat in meetings always in the same places? Which is, by the way, very typical and says a lot about how conservative the team structure can be. If they repeat their seating patterns in the meetings, which other patterns they forget to update? How often to they look for new perspectives?

Do good friends seat together? We all know this one, whereby we tend to seat in our comfort zone close to our friends. Do they join forces and act as a separate subgroup when there are tensions in the team.

What happens when someone tries to swap places? How strong is their bond to that position? Do they get angry or just joke? Are they seating close to the boss and that’s why they want to keep the position? Or, are they seating far away and … that’s why they want to keep the position?!

Who seats closer to the door? Often the “youngest”, the one who joined last the organization, seats closer to the door. How protected does that person feel? How does that affect his leadership? Which kind of decisions is he famous for? If he substituted someone, is his “ghost” still present? That is, is that person still remembered by the team and the new leader struggling to cope with it?

When did each member enter the team? Are the “oldest” in the organization seating further away? How much contact and connection is there between them and the leader? Are they managing their areas as silos? How much are they innovating? How much revenue in their areas comes from products or services with less than 3-5 years? What effect do these silos have in the organization’s cohesion? An in their results?

How is the relationship between the leader and ones seating closest to him? Is that a protected area? Or a threatening one? How submissive is he or she? Can that person behave in a confronting manner? Is there permission in the team to think differently and express it? How about in the organization?

Are there empty places? Why? Is the chair empty because some was fired? Or did she or he leave voluntarily? Is that been discussed? What impact does that have in the team? Do other people join the meeting at certain times? What for? How do they behave? Do they speak openly?

Which members of the team normally have clashes? Are they seating in opposite sides of the room? It’s easier to fight someone when you are facing her o him, can see their moves, and have a defence (a table) in between. Do they develop good empathy in general? What if both change seats and seat together?

Just by asking these questions and let the leader, or team answer, you can have a lot of information. Of course, if you are dealing with the team you’ll have to protect them well and be more careful in the contracting stage.

Remember the aim of using this tool is not to make anyone feel embarrassed, rather elicit information which can be there and they have not realize before, and overall understand the culture they are part of, and how they can be maintaining it.

Before finishing I want to thank Philippe Ducatteeuw as he introduced me to these tools in our training in Lyon.

And this is it for the time being.

I wish you a good practice.