129: Building a Better Team with Bennett Bratt

By March 13, 2017Podcasts

 

Ben Bratt identifies critical elements of great teams to help get strategic view on how to build your team’s strengths and confront your team’s weaknesses.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The 16 variables of a great team
  2. Why 80% of the teams you’re on are not effective – and what to do about it
  3. An approach to creating an open discussion of the key strengths and weaknesses of your team

About Bennett

Bennett Bratt’s passion is engaging teams and transforming people-related systems. In his current role as the Principal and Founder of The Team Effectiveness Project, Ben’s quest is to unlock the true power of teams, leaders, and communities.  His Team Elements™ approach helps teams de-mystify their team experience and take positive ownership for their current situation and path forward in truly inclusive way.

Over 20+ years, Ben gained global experience and broad leadership expertise at T-Mobile, Sun Microsystems, Ford Motor Company, and Silicon Valley start-up company Model E. He earned graduate degrees in Political Science from Tulane University and in Counseling from Michigan State University.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Bennett Brat Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Ben, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Bennett Bratt
Pete, wonderful to be with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom here, but first I’d like to have a blast from the past if we could. Can you tell us what does a cryptologic technician in the Navy do? Is it as cool as The Imitation Game movie?

Bennett Bratt
Wow, that was 37 years ago. And I think, when I recall, leaving that I signed a 50-year non-disclosure agreement.

Pete Mockaitis
Oops, sorry.

Bennett Bratt
But then the work is fascinating and, yeah, probably had a great start there at the end of World War II. Largely, I think the world of cryptology is in two different pieces. One is perhaps listening in or eavesdropping on other navies or perhaps governments and decrypting what it is they’re talking about. The other side would be absolutely protecting the U.S. Navy’s information and communications through great cryptology and coding of communications. I handled more of that second piece. So I lived in Hawaii for a couple of years and Japan for a couple of years and was on ship for a while making sure that America Navy communication secrets were kept through cryptology.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. Well, I will not pressure you to violate any agreements or disclose anything.

Bennett Bratt
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
But I’m imagining that that’s probably interesting work in terms of discovery or breakthrough. I imagine it being drudgery on most days but occasionally thrilling. Is that accurate or what was your experience?

Bennett Bratt
Exactly. It was days of sheer boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror, that’s how we would describe it.

Pete Mockaitis
Not much upside, I guess.

Bennett Bratt
Yeah. No, actually it was a great job. I wouldn’t have chosen any other job in the Navy. It was fantastic.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it seems more recently you’ve also cracked the code when it comes to teamwork, teaming and that stuff. So, tell us, why did you come to believe that teams are so critical and what’s the story of your fascination there and the start of Team Elements?

Bennett Bratt
Yeah, in the late ‘90s I was at Ford working with large product development teams, very cross functional, maybe 300-400 people, often from people around the world speaking different languages, trying to design a car. And if you can imagine it was awfully complex and competing interests but also a real desire to get something done.
And so helping teams become effective be it we’re increasing trust or better communication, helping them make decisions, I found it to be a very applied, very high-leverage way of helping to improve business results. And over the years, in about 2006, developed my own methodology for how to help teams.
And so for the last 10 or 11 years I’ve been focused heavily on teams but I think when I look nowadays at teams, and I look at folks who are either just starting their careers or early in their careers, we look at organizations and I think a couple like Google that did quite a bit of research over two years to find out what made their most effective teams effective.
And, of course, what everybody was thinking was you just put the brightest and most brilliant individual contributors on a team but their research never found that. It found that the variables that were most predictive of great teams producing great results were things like the ability to establish norms, great at listening and empathy. Or, for leaders, being able to create psychological safety.
When you look at studies out recently from Josh Bersin, Bersin by Deloitte, Josh and his team are saying that when you look at 2016, 2017, all the way up to 2020, the number one trend that keep executives up at night isn’t so much leadership or culture or workforce analytics or engagement, it’s now how they structure their organizations to work in teams, teams of teams, quickly forming teams, teams that have to partner with vendors, partner across functions, even partner with people who used to be their competitors.
And so our ability to work in small social systems, to quickly form trust, to quickly get the basics of teamwork down it is becoming the way that work gets done. In fact, I wanted to ask you a question.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, just ask.

Bennett Bratt
Yeah, quite often when we work with a client we start with a question of, “How many teams are you on?” And I noticed that you were at Bain & Company and I’m just wondering if you had any perspective when you were in that work environment, how many teams were you on?

Pete Mockaitis
You mean at one time, or like over the whole duration?

Bennett Bratt
Yeah, like at one time. Look, not only at work but at home. So, you might be on X number of teams at work but you also come home and you have a soccer team or an HOA or a PTA or something.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. So, at work it’s actually pretty contained, I’d say three. My primary consulting team. Secondly, the recruiting team gets some talent from the schools I was visiting three. And, three, it could just sort of an extracurricular thing whether it’s like the Bain World Cup event or something. So that was that. And then, at home, well, I guess there’s numerous in terms of like church and volunteering and accountability groups. So, let’s just go with life total 7-ish.

Bennett Bratt
Perfect. The average answer we’ve gotten over 10 years is that the number of teams people are on is around nine simultaneously. And we actually had one busy CFO tell us he was on 29 teams and I completely believe him.
And then we asked a follow-up question, “What percentage of those teams would you really say are effective or highly effective?” And at best we get something like 20%. In other words four out of five teams that people are on, they themselves would say just aren’t effective. And that’s just an amazing statistic because what in your life do you put up with really working 20% of the time.
You wouldn’t put up with your car starting 20% of the time, or your wireless provider giving you a good signal 20% of the time, and yet somehow we organize thousands, millions of people of teams every day, and we ourselves only say that about maybe 20% of them are effective. And then we asked a third question, like, “Okay, for the teams that don’t work, what percentage actually get any help?” And it tends to be between zero to 5%.
So we’ve created a world in which we use teams as the primary organizing device and we expect value creation through them, and yet they don’t work and we don’t do anything to support them. And then you see other societal trends like more and more people working remotely or working from home. We don’t always have that opportunity to sit face to face, and yet work gets done in teams.
So, how can people collaborate well and trust and communicate and make decisions and resolve conflict in this evolving world? And I think particularly for millenials, last point, there is just across the board a decline in trust in the big institutions in our lives. If you look at Gallup poll data, people just don’t believe much anymore in Congress or the presidency or in education. And if you look at millenials in particular they have low degrees of trust in the media and in justice organizations and education.
And I think people end up moving more towards these small social systems to find meaning and productivity and connection and relationship. The more this goes on the more teams just become vitally important to our lives and to society and how we get stuff done. So that’s part of the genesis behind why the team effectiveness project and why we’ve developed Team Elements to help teams really be able to move through this at some speed.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, that is a compelling story there and, indeed, big stuff at stake. So, well, can you share with us then if some of these key discoveries, you talked about Google’s research and you’ve also on your website, I saw an intriguing sentence. You said, “Teams made the most progress when they were able to have meaningful conversations in a highly-targeted way on the topics that mattered most to each team.” Can you share with us, if that’s kind of the scoop, what are the primary holdups, roadblocks, stuff getting in the way of that happening?

Bennett Bratt
Our approach takes each team as an individual. Pete, I imagine you’re a messy guy, I’m a messy person, and we’re just all trying to get through life. And when you take that and multiply it by 10, you put 10 people in a team, a team is a messy place. But it’s also radically unique. The people who come to the team have very subjective beliefs about what is enough trust.
Sometimes we’ll work with a team and we’ll say, “Is there enough trust in this team?” And, of course, that’s such a purely subjective question, not an objective question. And four people will say, “Yes,” and three people will say, “No,” and three people will say, “Why in the world are we talking about trust? It’s not even important.”
And so what we want to do is help each team in its uniqueness, find the things that are most important to that team. So, in other words, rather than saying, “Every team needs to go through this conflict resolution methodology, or trust-building approach.” It’s more like, “Well, let’s find of these 16 things…” and you can see them on our website, “… which are most important for this team.”
So, we were working recently with a team that was really struggling with clear responsibilities. And the lack of clear responsibilities was getting in the way of all sorts of things, like their ability to hold each other accountable, their ability to accomplish their goals. And it’s even more insidious because lack of clear responsibilities means, “I don’t know what you’re supposed to do, and when you start to not do what I expect, I begin to not trust you.” So we question even people’s intentions and motives and ethics.
And so that team needed to do a deep dive into each of their responsibilities, and to get them clear, and to share them with each other and define the gaps and overlaps. And when they can do that that team unlocked huge amounts of productivity. So, that statement on the website is about we wouldn’t want to put anybody through a sheep-dip-peanut-butter-everybody-has-to-go-through-the-same-thing. We would almost try to find like individualized medicine.
If you think about where the field of medicine is heading in like 10 years, there will be prescriptions that are just for your genome, for your particular illness and your genetic makeup. We think that we can do that with teams. A team is, they’re important. They deserve highly-tailored solution sets, discovery and insights and solution sets that bring them to the place where they’re optimizing their outcomes.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I hear that and it absolutely makes good sense that you want to get the customized targeted perfect medicine that just really hits the spot for what is ailing a team and diagnosing that sharply and giving that to them. Nonetheless, Bennett, I’ve got to put you on the spot, if I may. Just thinking a little bit about the 80/20 Rule here, from your experience what are some of the, perhaps, most common sort of trouble spots that you sort of see again and again and some of the most helpful interventions that get the job done for them?

Bennett Bratt
Great question. What we’re beginning to see is that some things vary by types of team, and our hunch is that thing also vary by things like demographics, like the gender diversity on the team, or the generational diversity on the team. And so we’re discovering those yet. What we’ve seen recently is a lot of teams that are struggling with those clear responsibilities also with openness.
It’s interesting that when things start to go south on the team and people go more into self-preservation mode, that openness, that sense that “I can trust you and that it’s safe and I can be open” begins to get attenuated a bit. And when that openness shuts down all sorts of other things creep into the team dynamics.
So, literally, just working with a team on how they can be more open on critical issues, and of course that’s not all teams, but some of the teams we’ve worked with recently. So that can be as simple as running something called like a fishbowl dialogue session where if we have 12 people on the team we might have four on an inner circle and eight around an outer circle, and the people in the four, in the middle, talk about what are the critical business issues on the team. And the eight around the outside must listen, and listen closely to what’s going on.
And everybody gets their chance on the inside, and it really provides this little crucible for the conversation that take place where people know they’ll be heard, people know they can be open, it’s a facilitated dialogue, and it renews a sense of openness, like, “We’re not going to be held hostage anymore by un-discuss-ables. We can move this forward.”
So there’s lots of great tools from lots of people that can help with these 16 different elements. We tend to pull just the right set for a client based on what’s going on for them.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, understood. That makes great sense. When I think about the openness piece part of me visualizes a team that there is a history of sort of reprisals or judgment or looks of contempt and dismissiveness. I think that, I imagine, when you see openness is a low in a team is because there’s been some historical precedent that has sent that message, explicitly or implicitly, “Your perspective on this matter is not really valuable here.” So, I guess, I’m wondering within these suite of tools, if that’s kind of the history at work that seems like a thorny one, a sticky one, how would you go there?

Bennett Bratt
Yeah, a lot of these 16 are connected also.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Bennett Bratt
That’s a systems thinking view of the world, and so in that case I might go over to norms for a moment. So, behavioral norms that we have rules of the road that give us guidelines for how we can act and what’s acceptable and what’s not, very pragmatic behavioral norms. And I think for some teams they confine themselves at a set of norms that they actually don’t like, that, “Hey, our norm is that it’s okay we roll our eyes at each other.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Bennett Bratt
And I think if we could, yeah, let’s list the 10 norms in this team that set the rules for how we behave with each other, and then let’s put them in two buckets. The ones that are really effective at helping us drive this team forward, and the ones that are slowing us down or getting in our way. And sometimes if we can take a slightly removed viewpoint from an issue in a team rather than diving into the deepest heart of the issue we can look at it in terms of data. We can look at it in terms of just analytically what’s going on with these norms. It creates a little bit of a safer zone.
We can also talk about the team’s vision, like, “Where do you want this team to be?” And, hey, somebody might want a team that we don’t roll our eyes at each other. Great. Let’s talk about that. And so there’s a lot of different ways we can get into just the core conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, understood. Well, so now, I’m thinking about getting the precision there with the 16 elements and what is most needed. How do you figure that out in the first place?

Bennett Bratt
Yeah, we have a methodology we’ve developed and used for the last 10 years. And for a number of years, and so what we do is we ask each participant to look at these 16 elements, and we say, “What are the six most important for you that help this team move forward? And of these six, are they strengths or weaknesses?”
So, if we are on a team, you might say, “Wow, a core strength for us is decision-making. This team knows how to make decisions together. But a real weakness might be shared vision.” And you get to make six thoughts like that. I also get to make six and everybody in the team gets to make six. And by forcing this level of importance first what we’re going to do is find the data that for preponderance of us believe are the most important levers for productivity in a team. That used to be a very manual process. We’d put up a poster on the wall and give everybody voting dots, and it’s actually a lot of fun to watch your teammates put like a vote for weakness on trust, or put a vote for a strength on goal achievement.
We’ve recently developed an app and so it’s all very easy to use, secure, confidential approach where people get a link on their phone or on their computer, it takes about five minutes, they make their vote, the data goes right into a database and pops up into an anonymous confidential slide that shows them exactly what everybody in this team believes to be the strengths and weaknesses. Then we use that to get to a conversation around, “All right. This insight shows us that if we just pick one or maybe two or these things, we’d get better business results.”

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I love that so much. It is so simple and practical and on the money, yes. And then it becomes great because no one has to take it personally. It’s like if there’s 16 of them, and if there’s six votes, is it three positive, three negative? Is that how that works?

Bennett Bratt
Not necessarily. I mean, you might put six positives and zero negative, and I might be the opposite. You have range.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. Okay. And so that’s so fascinating because I’m wondering now about sort of the nominal leader in these sorts of meetings and conversations. Like if they have a boatload of negatives, you know, what’s that energy like in the room? Are they just like, “Oh,” or angry? It’s like, “You ungrateful colleagues.” How does that go?

Bennett Bratt
You know, what we’re really driving towards are insights. We tend to focus on three things: insights, ownership and inclusion. So, what our process does, both for the data and the model and the consulting, is bringing people a set of insights they’ve never had before which help them take deep ownership of what’s going on, and then ownership of where they want to get to. And we do it in a way that’s very inclusive so that we help the teams see the signal from the noise.
And the leader, quite often, yes, can. This is a real test of leadership, to, “Listen. Everybody have a transparent authentic conversation about what’s going right and what’s not.” And one of the things we say is that when we’re actually doing this that is, in itself, a discovery of process is an intervention that we must have a sense of safety and trust and openness to even engage in this conversation. So we’re building the bridge as we walk on it.
And, yeah, you can watch people fold their arms and get defensive. You know, the fascinating thing happens, we had a team once, sometimes we do pre-interviews with the clients. And I was talking to this woman, and I said, “Tell me about this team.” And she said, “Oh, my goodness. What a bunch of snakes. There’s no trust on this team. I mean, I look at this team, I watch our team meetings, there’s no trust.” I said, “Fascinating. Great.”
We got in the room, we did our voting, we looked at the data, and we looked at trust and there were eight votes for strength and one vote for weakness. And it becomes apparent, like I think to this woman, we go through life with our filters and with our predetermined decisions about what’s going on. I mean, nobody knew what each other was going to vote, but eight of the people on the team said, “Trust is a real strength here.” And I think what that does is allow somebody to recalibrate their life experiences into this team.
I mean, nobody told her she was wrong. It’s just simply that when we give people a chance to talk about it, we’ll say, “Hey, look, nine votes on trust. Eight for strength and one for weakness. Who’d like to tell us about why you voted this way? We’ll give you a voice and you can explain your point of view, and then you can calibrate and see other people might be feeling in different ways about it and it’s okay. We won’t get hung up on that.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great stuff. Okay. Well, thank you. Well, you tell me, Bennett, is there anything else you want to make sure we cover off, before shifting gears and talk about some of your favorite things?

Bennett Bratt
No, let’s keep moving. It’s great.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, let’s do it. Well, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Bennett Bratt
Yeah. Can I give you two?

Pete Mockaitis
Please.

Bennett Bratt
The first one, this was from Muhammad Ali, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Bennett Bratt
And, you know, this is a guy with a really substantial ego that matched his incomparable skills. He was the greatest of all time, and yet he came with this profound sense of service, which I think is a call to your listeners and to me and to you, which is, “How do we match our ambitions and our need for career development and whatever else with a sense of service to the team?”

The other quote I’d give you, tell me if you know where this is from, “Coffee is for closers.” Have you heard that before?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, is that Glengarry Glen Ross?

Bennett Bratt
That’s right. I just love that movie. First of all, I’m from Seattle so coffee is for everyone. So, Pete, when you’re in town come on over and we’ll make you a cup.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.

Bennett Bratt
But, you know, it’s like the movie is such a case study in how not to run a team. It goes into belittlement and emotional and all sorts of things. It’s like coffee is for everybody, but you know what, we can still have really pointed conversations around performance and goals and rewards, but let’s not do it like Alec Baldwin did in that movie.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. “The leads are weak? You are weak.”

Bennett Bratt
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a way to go. All right. And how about a favorite study or experiment or piece of research?

Bennett Bratt
Yeah, I was going to sound nerdy but I’m a fan of all types of science. But, particularly astrophysics, and this thing in our lives right now about not really understanding the universe in terms of dark matter and dark energy. And I love this thing about dark matter which is apparently like 32% of the universe, and we don’t have a clue what it is, and we can’t see it, and all we can really kind of do is see the effects of it, how galaxies are formed and how they form strings of galaxies in the universe.
And sometimes I see this as like teams are the dark matter of organizations. We just don’t see them very well. It’s hard to see your team. But we see the effects of them. And I think this is false equivalent, I’m not trying to equate the science of teams with astrophysics and dark matter. But it almost feels like we’re on parallel journeys a little bit. We’re trying to figure out, “What is this stuff? And what’s the role of it in our lives? And how do we unlock it?” And I find that fascinating.
And so I love these studies that continue to come out about dark matter and what it might be. I think in my lifetime I’d love to see us figure that out, and teams too.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Bennett Bratt
I love a book called Cloud Atlas. It’s by David Mitchell, it came out in 2004. It’s a beautiful series of six stories that kind of trip over each other throughout time and weaves threads in between them. It’s a very systems but also a dystopian view of the world and how our journeys are connected for better or for worse.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And how about a favorite tool, a product or service or app or software, just something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Bennett Bratt
I’m a big fan of Apple. I have Apple things around. I’ll tell you though, you know this Team Elements thing we’re talking about? I hope my kids aren’t listening, but I sometimes use it with the family here. It’s like when you’re talking with your children or your friends and you find out that people aren’t really taking the opportunity to be fully open about something. You can use the model. You can use the app and you can actually go back and say, “I wonder why. Why aren’t people being open? And what can I do? What can I do to increase the safety or the trust in this conversation?”
And so it’s almost like a little thing that once it embeds in your brain you can see what goes in every day with you with people. And I think in some ways that’s a tool. For me it’s just a tool for human relationships.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. And to follow up, you said, “You can use the tool.” Are you suggesting that any of us can just use this app without paying your consulting firm large sums?

Bennett Bratt
No, but yet here’s what you can do. You can go to the website and you can look at those 16 things. It’s not rocket science and it’s not a mystery and you can print it out and stick it in your notebook or get a screen cap grab of it and put it somewhere and just say, “I wonder what’s going on in this team.” But, no, if you want to use the app we can talk later. That’s fine.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s good. Well, thank you, Bennett. That’s generous. It sounds like you have offered your permission for us to print and manually Bennettefit from your hard-won wisdom.

Bennett Bratt
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
But we should also hire you is what I’m hearing.

Bennett Bratt
That’d be great. That’s fine.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And that’s fair. That’s very fair. Thank you. And how about a favorite habit, a personal practice of yours that helps you be more awesome at your job?

Bennett Bratt
You know what? It’s a habit I think I picked up when I was at T-Mobile when I was an executive there. I started asking at the end of every conversation, I would have somebody, quite often a one-on-one conversation. I’d ask the question, “What can I do to help you?” And I think, one, it’s a little bit disarming. But, two, it actually gave me opportunities to help people. And I think what it does is establishes human connections between us. And quite often somebody would say, “Oh, no, you can’t help me but here’s what I’m struggling with.”
And I would just listen to them and then maybe help them reframe what was going on and crystallize that into an action they could take. And I just wonder sometimes what the world would be like if we just all ended conversations with, “Hey, what can I do to help you?” And I think it just kind of keeps me moving forward and helps other people keep moving forward.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, great. Thank you. And how about is there a particular articulation of your message that really seems to resonate and get people taking notes or re-tweeting and it’s connecting with folks deeply?

Bennett Bratt
We quite often use an acronym. The acronym is SNOW, S-N-O-W. And we think our first order of business, and I’ve said this before with that dark matter, is to help people actually see their teams. If you can, here we go, See, Name, Own and Work. So, if I can help you actually see your team, your team of eight people or 10 people, what’s going on in 16 different elements, and help you name the real core strengths, but also help you name the things that are holding you back.
I’m going to give you a chance to own it. You can now step forward and say, “I own this team and I own my role on this team and the ways in which I’m helping it and not.” And if we can get there there’s nothing we can’t do. We can work on this. And so, SNOW, if you can see it, and you can name it, and you can own it, you can work on it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And what would you say is the best way to contact you or if folks want to learn more about what you’re up to, where would you point them?

Bennett Bratt
Yeah, I think the website, TeamElements.com or you can reach me directly at Ben@TeamElements.com and on Twitter @BenBratt1 and on LinkedIn and on Facebook. So, lots of points of entry. Happy to chat with everybody.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And do you have a final parting challenge or call to action for those seeking to be more awesome at their jobs?

Bennett Bratt
I would say that I think that the future, particularly for your listeners in their careers and in their lives, is finding out the way to be the great team leader. I think the leaders of the future are the people who will be able to gather people together. And I also think what’s available for a lot of us is to be great team members.

And so putting all that hierarchy away, “What can I do in this moment to help the team be great?” And if you do that I think you’ll enjoy your life, you’ll enjoy your job, you’ll be a part of effective, small, social ecosystems and it makes the journey a heck of a lot better. Just own your piece no matter what your role might be.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Thank you. Well, Ben, this has been a very fun conversation. I’m excited to think through these 16 elements myself and work through it a bit. So this has been a total pleasure. And tell me what can I do to help you?

Bennett Bratt
No, I was going to ask you. You know what? When you’re in Seattle or I’m in Illinois we’ll get together and have a cup of coffee. How about that? Coffee is for closers, man.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Well, thank you. Looking forward to that and until then.

Bennett Bratt
Great. Thanks, Pete.

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