Commitment-Based Management Approach to Aligning Teams, Improving Productivity and Culture Change
By Tony Carew
While undertaking mediation work for a Regional Council (a local government organisation in Australia) that was a recent amalgamation of smaller councils, the then Chief Executive Officer (CEO) shared the concerns and frustrations he was experiencing with regard to the senior leadership team’s vision of delivering timely and cost efficient services to the community due to workforce issues.
Most of the workforce was not connected with the vision. The majority remained emotionally connected to the previous smaller councils they had worked for, which were also part the local community they lived in, to which they were deeply committed. The CEO and the leadership team were leaders with few followers because they were not winning these people over emotionally.
The key issues the leaders identified to be resolved were:
poorly scheduled maintenance activities throughout the region
departments operating in isolation from one another (silos or “ring fencing”) with minimal communication and coordination to deliver services
the senior leadership team not being aligned
a workforce predominantly in a mood of resignation about the change in structure
leaders through the organisation not taking responsibility or being accountable for the poor fulfilment of commitments and actions of their team members
the amount of wasted time generated by commitments not being met (coordination waste).
Specific examples of the above issues were:
grassed public spaces would be slashed up to previous (now nonexistent) Council boundaries where new extended boundaries had been established
road maintenance crews would repair pot holes at one end of the street and not the other, examples were given where crews would return a few days later to finish the job
inappropriate workplace behaviour was not attended to by managers in a timely manner, resulting in low team morale and loss of productivity
a casual attitude to the delivery of promises (fulfilment of commitments), with many being constantly being broken within the Council and with the community.
The change program
In consultation with the CEO and the leadership team an action-oriented Commitment Based Management (CBM) program was designed, which included:
one-to-one interviews involving each participant, the CEO and myself
team coaching at monthly executive and leadership meetings
on-the-job project work for each participant
The essence of the program was facilitating the development of robust conversational practices that are essential for effective leadership, in which the operational norm becomes making reliable commitments and the efficient coordination of action throughout the organisation. This constitutes significant cultural change.
The most time consuming and challenging part of the program, the interviews enabled the CEO to outline the intention of the program and reaffirm participants’ commitment to the vision and mission. Together, we clarified the fundamental commitments of each leader’s role and engaged in an extensive constructive review of each person’s performance, inviting self-assessments and ensuring genuine praise for successes in the fulfillment of commitments. The CEO also made clear what improvements he required (conditions of satisfaction) in each leader’s performance.
The outcome of the conversations was a collaboratively developed commitment document for each leader identifying coaching objectives, project description, the areas of improvement the project would address, Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s), milestones, time frames (minimum 6 months) and who the project will involve (customers and performers). Each person was asked to publicly confirm their commitment to the enactment of their document.
The individual documents were the basis for overall mutually and explicitly agreed team objectives (commitments) and the context for the design of a learning program to develop the conversational practices that would enable the attainment of team objectives.
Six 4-hour workshops were scheduled over 11 months to introduce the ontological distinctions, CBM principles and conversational practices to shift the team towards a different level of engagement with each other and with teams they led.
A common feature of the workshops was the ongoing conversation around the CEO’s conditions of satisfaction and progress towards satisfying these conditions. During the first workshop it was evident there was distrust within the team, such as the rolling of eyes when particular people spoke and a wide display of other disrespectful behaviors towards others. This gradually shifted as participants become fully aware of the many subtle and not so subtle ways they had developed disrespectful mannerisms towards each other and the consequences of such behaviour.
Individual coaching sessions
In line with the coaching objectives within individual commitment documents the coaching conversations focused on building awareness of leaders’ behaviors, shifting to more resourceful Ways of Being and building adaptive resilience. Examples of specific coaching objectives were:
to develop greater capacity to align my team to common team goals
to develop a strategic focus capacity and become more confident in engaging and influencing people at all levels of the organisation
to be more influential and develop greater confidence in bring teams together and be more effective when managing difficult people
to develop interpersonal skills and self-awareness to engage people in more constructive ways
Eight sessions of 1.5 hours were interspersed between workshops. Important shifts in Way of Being and behavior started to emerge during the third workshop and third coaching session. The leaders began to develop momentum with their project work and a collective lighter mood in the workplace was evident. During the fourth workshop people were more relaxed with one another, more willing to listen and less defensive behaviors were on display.
Team coaching at monthly executive and leadership meetings
The purpose of team coaching was to tune into the language of the team in how they interacted and coordinated with one another. I could hear the commitment and passion of each team member in delivering services to the community, however they were not a team. Consistent with what been observed in the early workshops, there was finger pointing, people being cut off in mid sentence and defensive behaviors. This seemed to be indicative of the norm of how people related to each other in this workplace.
The ongoing conversation around the CEO’s conditions of satisfaction and progress towards satisfying these conditions was built into the meetings. After some initial reluctance and tension, a recommendation for the weekly sharing of information across directorates for thirty minutes was accepted. Once resolved, the team moved forward and began to share information more openly about what was happening within their departments and more importantly what was happening for them personally in their roles.
On-the-job project work
Project work was intended to have leaders engage their team members to achieve specific KPI’s, milestones and project objectives through opening up different conversations with their teams to change conversational practices and embed a commitments-based approach to working together. Project examples were the development and implementation of:
a Community Planning Project
customer service training programs
a Facilities Vision and Direction Plan
A key question continually asked at meetings was, “Where have promises been broken that were the cause of frustration and distrust?” One consequence of continually asking this question was three Directors initiating second projects. The first was about Planning and Building Applications exceeding statutory timeframes and the second related to development and implementation of local laws where time frames had been exceeded due to lack of participation from internal performers. This was a significant breakthrough in accountability as the Executive team was now prepared to declare breakdowns and work collaboratively for initiating new practices across directorates.
In the final two hour closing workshop a number of interesting pieces of information were shared.
The CEO shared that a high proportion of his requirements (conditions of satisfaction) had been met and acknowledged the great work and effort people had taken to bring about change
When asked about silos, two directors and a number of managers declared, “There are no silos, we now work across directorates”
Planning and Building applications were now being delivered on time and the back log reduced
Leaders felt more resilient to change and felt capable of leading their respective teams, being much more confident in addressing difficult team challenges
While examples of behaviours relating to past Council loyalties still existed, these were now isolated pockets as opposed to previously being the norm
The underlying mood of the Council had shifted from resignation to ambition, with progress continually being made across directorates
Contributing success factors
The declaration of the mission by the CEO and the embodiment of his deep commitment through continued involvement in all activities
The Newfield Conversational Technology workshop I attended. This Advanced Ontological Practitioner Program provided me with a solid understanding of Commitment-Based Management
Using principles of project management to ensure timeframes, KPI’s, milestones and objectives were met
One-to-one interviews with participants and the CEO
Attending executive and leadership meetings