Many of the team members I’m working with right now feel caught between two opposing forces. On the one hand, they’re living in matrix structures that require tightly aligned team behavior and interdependence. On the other hand, they feel the weight of the expectations for personal accountability and speed of execution, which are inadvertently driving independence.
If you feel caught in this trap, you will tend to run fast to do the work, then share an almost completed output with your teammates. Your teammates will then engage in an adversarial and uncomfortable process of trying to change your work once it’s almost done. It’s a lot like trying to put chocolate chips in a muffin after it’s baked.
Let’s have some fun with that metaphor. Say you’re part of a team that has agreed to put on a bake sale to raise money for your organization’s favorite charity. You’ve been assigned as one of the muffin people. After the initial meeting, you get busy baking your muffins without seeking more input, probably with one of these seemingly legitimate rationales:
- “I take my responsibilities really seriously and I want to show the team that I’m a fantastic baker. I’m going to work all weekend and show them what a great job I can do. They’ll be so impressed when they see my 3 dozen beautiful muffins!”
- “We need to get this done ASAP; the bake sale is tomorrow. Why did we leave it so late? I’ll just have to use the ingredients I have in my pantry because that’s the best I can do given the time constraints.”
- “We had a really good planning discussion and everyone agreed that we need muffins. Now that I think about it, no one was specific about what kind of muffins, but everyone always loves my banana nut muffins. I’ll just make those.“
Unfortunately, your eagerness to live up to your responsibility can lead to some pretty bad outcomes. That’s because the whole bake sale committee will be judged on the quality and success of the bake sale. They have a vested interest in your muffins.
Here’s what you might face when you drop off your muffins the night before the bake sale.
- “Ahhhhh, you used nuts in your muffins! DON’T YOU KNOW THE CEO IS ALLERGIC TO NUTS!!! How could you not have known that!!!!
- The head of sales thinks chocolate chips are the hot feature these days. He starts making posters that say “chocolate chip muffins” even though there are no chocolate chip muffins available.
- The organizer tells you to take your muffins back home, because he is clear that he asked for cupcakes. He tells you to put some icing on them and hope no one notices the difference.
- The other bake sale team members start whispering that you are ALWAYS doing your own thing without checking in. “So typical,” they say as they roll their eyes.
- You walk in proudly with your tray of muffins only to see that someone else has also made banana nut muffins. What a colossal waste of time. If you’d known that someone else was making muffins, you could have dealt with the other urgent issue last night.
- The person running the bake sale table on the 6th floor smiles and takes your muffins but you learn later that she never put them out.
The bake sale story might seem silly, but I bet the same thing happens to you.
- What goes through your mind when you find out at the last minute that someone knew something you didn’t about what the boss wanted?
- How does it feel when sales is out promoting a product that you can’t deliver on because you never agreed on the product specs?
- How often does your team do a ton of work on a project only to learn at the 11th hour that everyone had been defining success differently?
- How often have you felt totally demotivated when you learned that you were doing work that someone else was already doing?
- How many times has your work been altered or ignored by someone who went along with it in the room?
- How many times have your honest efforts to deliver been falsely interpreted as your attempt to build an empire?
So no matter how accountable you feel or how fast you think you need to go, if you undervalue input at the beginning, you’re going to get an ear full at the end. And it’s a lot easier to put chocolate chips in the batter than in a muffin that’s already been baked.