Understanding How Teams Work
One of the most interesting mental models I have come across in recent times is Prasad Kaipa’s use of the tetrahedron. I have been playing with it. Our consulting group took the exploration of our own work processes based on the paper “Application of Pyramid Building in Organisations: Aligning Strategy, Process and People in Organisations” by Prasad Kaipa, Chris Newham and Russ Volckmann.
As I worked with the model further, I started bringing it into my meditative practice. In one such session, I experienced the padmasana as a mudra (body gesture) of the tetrahedron. My mooladhara charka (the base of the spinal chord) and the two hands in a dhyana mudra(meditative hand gesture) became the base. My head was the apex and my hridaya (the centre of my being) the centroid. This was a very powerful experience. It has triggered off an intense enquiry in me on the question “What is my reason for being?” “Who is the quintessential me?” “Have I nurtured this being or have I distorted this being through compulsions to become something?” “Are my intentions true reflections of my reason for being?” I have not got any conclusive answers to these questions, but I persist in seeking answers. I believe that the question and the enquiry are more important than answers anyway. I am sharing in this paper, the process by which I came to experience the tetrahedron as a Yantra that can be applied to organisational learning and design.
What is a Yantra?
The word Mantra is probably more familiar to most readers, so we will start from there. A Mantra is the use of words and sound that has a profound effect on the mind. It helps one switch the “figure-ground” paradox in a way that is similar to the more familiar gestalt pictures of the faces and the vase in black & white. One sees the faces to start with and suddenly, one changes figure and ground and the vase appear. In the meditative repetition of a Mantra, one flips from listening to the sound to being aware of the depth of the meditative mind that is chanting. The mind becomes insightful and one can remain anchored in this state for a time. A Yantra is a geometric pattern that does visually what the Mantradoes through sound and Tantra is ordered and ritualistic movement of the body that helps one to become meditative.
A Yantra that one uses as a personal meditative and reflective tool is like a lens through which one can see oneself. When these frameworks are used in a group, they help the group experience genuine dialogue and creative reflection.
Group Reflection Using the Tetrahedron:
After reading Kaipa’s paper, our consulting group decided to use it in our yearly retreat to reflect upon ourselves. We came up with a model that fitted the different aspects of our practice. It also helped us integrate various aspects and be true to our key idea “ Aligned to the Gemba (the work place ”.
There are two great challenges that face us today. Firstly, people working together and striving for a simultaneous unfolding of personal and collective excellence. Secondly, economy and precision in the use of resources. We see these challenges as human challenges that cut across all types of organisations. Organisations large and small, voluntary groups, social action groups, large national bodies and the like. Our focus however, is to help business organisations respond to these challenges. In taking these seriously, the organisation not only stays true to its business objectives, it also exercises corporate citizenship.
At TAO when we looked at our consulting practices, we realised that while we were working primarily on the Gemba – the work place, our work had different facets. We were working with people directly and evoking a sense of pride, empowerment and ownership in them. Our aim is to transform the culture and make it evocative and energising. The methods we used for this have a strong systemic and task focus. This is primarily because most of us are engineers who have working in the shop floor for many years before looking at transforming the way organisations work. This is the corner stone “Heartware”. We were educating people; challenging existing mindsets and helping people understand the new paradigms that are emerging. Education is therefore another corner stone of our work. This corner stone is “Mindware”. Thirdly, we were implementing changes in the shop floor, implementing changes in system design by working with organisations in a fairly “hands on” manner. This corner stone is“Actionware”. One of the areas of focus that we missed in our early years is the aspect of costs and tangible measures of economic value. A cost accountant with expertise in Activity Based Costing joined us and through teaming up with him, we have learned how to integrate the vital aspects of cost in our work. We go through the resource economy route so that the understanding of effectiveness and efficiency becomes visible. This we translated into economy and the precision in the use of resources. This then is our fourth corner stone namely Transformation, referring to our primary focus is in transforming organisations, i.e., becoming lean in all aspects. Through activating all four of these corner stones of the tetrahedron we help organisations change their culture, the way they work and the way they measure performance.
Parallels with Traditional Archetypes :
Thus, we identified the 4 cornerstones of our work. We then used the rules outlined in Kaipa’s paper and derived the action words that join the corner stones and describe the outcomes. The final picture emerged like this:
After going through this exercise, I have been very excited with the whole process. Applying Piagets maxim “to play is to learn”, I have been playing with the model. What I am most excited with is the correspondence our consulting model has with some basic principles of yoga. Let me explain.
The female forms of god are considered the active, evolving, flowing aspects of the universe and the male forms are the life giving but changeless aspects. In the female forms, Shakti, Lakshmi and Saraswathi are different facets. Shakti symbolises the powerful passionate form, Lakshmisymbolises order and wealth (in a universal sense) and Saraswathi symbolises quintessential insight and learning. Shaktiin turn, is seen as comprising Iccha Shakti—the power of intent, Gnyana Shakti—the power of wisdom and Kriya Shakti—the power of action.
I discovered to my delight that the model we had come up with for our consulting work, fitted in with this conception. The 3 forms of Shakti had a one-to-one correspondence with heartware, mindware and actionware; Ichha Shakti is Heartware, Gnyana Shakti is Mindware, and Kriya Shakti is Actionware. The nature of Lakshmi coincided with our understanding of resource economy leading to wealth creati—order and precision in the deployment of resources. I struggled with the need to find how the idea of Saraswathi fitted in and not just make it synonymous with Gnayana Shakti. I had an insight! If I look at the tetrahedron as space structure and not as a solid, Saraswathi forms the centroid! The pyramid tetrahedron became a prism.
The gathering of understanding and knowledge about the nature of the business and of the world in a way that helps all humankind develop ought to be the reason for being of an organisation. Let us take a closer look at Saraswathi before we return to our model. Saraswathi is the female aspect of Brahma—the creative principle. The word Brahma means ever-growing, ever-expanding. Saraswathi is the quintessential insight and learning necessary for growth.
The Tripura Rahasya an ancient text on the nature of the mind and its transformation (that has a woman as its main protagonist) talks about the creation of the manifestation as follows: from the infinite primordial unmanifest, the energy of pure consciousness emerges. This then breaks up into three forms—the Iccha Shakti, Gnyana Shaktiand Kriya Shakti. These four interact with each other, creating time and manifestation. Also, as engineers we saw a great parallel with the work of Buckminster Fuller. He has written a treatise, Synergistics, where he derives the basic approach to creating geodesic domes and spends a great deal of time on the beauty of the tetrahedron. He also suggests that all structures including organisations ought to be designed on the principles of geodesic domes.
Modelling the Organisation:
We return to our model and look at the centroid as the “reason for being” and the corner stones as the tangible aspects of the intent. Growth is the reason for being. Growth in human terms means self expression and relatedness with others. Saraswathi is the unstoppable urge to grow. Shakti in her 3 aspects forms the “here and now” unfolding of energy, Lakshmi the nature of order and the pattern of the unfolding.
At TAO we have created our tetrahedron like this:
Each edge carries an essential question about oneself. We are using the tetrahedron to do two things, one, for us as a group to reflect on our organisation and two, to reflect on how each of us as individuals energise the whole. To illustrate, if I am able to live in a way that is true to my quintessential nature, there is order and excellence in my living process. I become what I was meant to be. My passion is true, I extended my capacity to learn, I act as well as I can, I generate wealth and knowledge. In converting the edges into questions, I also realise the “other side” of the picture, the me as I am, my adequacies, limitations and potential.
I have found it extremely useful to treat this prism as a Yantra—a geometrical drawing meant for contemplation both individually and as a group. While the questions one reflects upon can be stated in generic forms, each person must develop his own Yantra, i.e., specific action words that represent the edges, specific intent for each cornerstone and specific hope for each outcome. One must keep in mind, however, that to use aYantra or any device as a trigger for contemplation, one must learn the art of intense slow observation without judgement. The Yantra cannot be used as a framework of “shoulds”. “Shoulds” do not evoke creative healing processes within, they internalise the expectations of significant others. They act as walls, jailers and censors that distort and deform unfolding.
When the Yantra becomes a trigger for contemplation, one learns the art of experiencing the “Nava rasas” – the nine essential feelings (flavours) of living experience. One learns the measure and balance of these feelings. They neither take on demonical proportions and derail ones growth, nor do they become emaciated and make life drudgery. In discovering this location within, one discovers Saraswathi, Lakshmi and Shakti. One discovers a subtle and enduring joy of living. One experiences creativity and growth.
The Virtual Teaming Context
We are now working on a very interesting project with the European Union. The project is aimed at creating a platform for design of Mechatronic products. Often the design process and therefore the resulting mechanical and electronic components don’t fit “hand in glove” with one another. The project had a further objective of getting a number of small organisations situated across the world collaborate with a few European small businesses. Our role in this process was to enable a virtual team to emerge. We have applied this Yantra to the problem of creating the virtual team. The resulting model and process is being tested by a few virtual teams in this project and in a large global IT organisation as we write this paper. The initial results are very encouraging. We share below the process by which we came to build the model.
Background: TAO’s Successful “Failure” Experience:
TAO had been approached by two small consulting organisations in the US to form a collaborative offering that we could jointly take to market. After an initial face to face meeting, where we shared our intent and derived broad contours of the shared offering, we decided to carry the process forward. We were very hopeful of forming a joint venture and giving concrete shape to the offering. We even had a prospective client. The next few months proved to be a roller coaster ride. After a few hundred e-mails, phone calls and skype chats we decided to pull out of this process.
We at TAO decided to use the failure as a learning process and studied the various communication trails; we also shared our feelings and thoughts. We realised that there were four anchors that made up the “virtual” gestalt – the most visible to all the participants was the work of creating the offering and the goals we had set up. The invisible anchors were the meaning making and choice making process embedded in our psyche, the partly visible anchor was the information and knowledge each of us held. The knowledge base and competencies were the real source of wealth for the group, the goals we had defined for the JV was a translation of the intent into a business proposition, the work space was the actual shaping, sculpting of the offering.
Through our introspection and reflection it became clear to us that the product/offering did not get a decent shape because of two reasons primarily. The first and more obvious reason was the lack of a shared language and shared frameworks for management experts, behaviours scientists, anthropologists and yoga teachers to really understand in depth the “components” each of us was bringing in. We had not evolved the “glass bead game” amongst us to enable the communication and translation. Second and more subtle, we had not created a bedrock of trust between us that would allow contingent and situational leadership: issues like “will you use my IPR and either not give enough credit or translate it, use it and claim it as yours”, could not be dialogued sufficiently. Withholding of resources and wariness would come up from time to time and stall the process of “welding the components and sculpting the offering”.
An Interpretation Through the SD Lens:
The enterprise itself required strong and Green V-memes to be the foundation of the organisation. The systems and processes of sharing and growing were ecological with each of us in deep dialogue with the others and the whole. Each of us as individuals ought to have anchored ourselves in our Yellow values. The individual had to bring in an ability to “flow” and be insightful for the outcome to be really a creative, integral offering and not a patched up piece. The offering and the business focus of the collaboration rested on an Orange networking process on the one hand and clear rules for sharing the wealth on the other hand. The work disciplines were not defined and norms were not set. The Blue was assumed and when one person’s idea of “work discipline” did not immediately harmonise with the other, there were no standard processes and structured expectations to fall back upon. Soon, narcissistic Boomeritis made its appearance. Given the fact that we met face-to-face only once as a group, an in-group/cohesive us had not formed at all. We experienced a euphoric “Wow!”, we can actually communicate and dream together though we are from such diverse cultures and we are meeting for the first time”. We were pleasantly surprised that we could sing songs together and discuss books and philosophy. But, I guess creating a robust ground for ubuntu did not exist.
Allowing Virtual Teams to Evolve: More Reflections and Lessons
The virtual team context presents many unique but at once obvious challenges: the challenge of creating an “us” amongst entities who are distributed (and often distant) and drawn from diverse cultures whose parameters for defining the “us” and processes for forging such an “organism/entity” are varied, having to exchange information through indirect means and being increasingly information technology dependent, relying on one’s senses with an acuteness of perception when hearing through phone lines or “reading between the lines” of written mail content, and evolving a shared purpose and meaning of success, a shared “working” language that transcends cultural differences and is relevant to the task and a mechanism to deal with non-task human residues of hurt, pain, shame, guilt, disappointment, anger and regret of the collective that often impinge/intrude into the task space only because in the first place, they are excluded from active engagement by the collective for reasons of it being “non-task” issues.
At the outset is the difficult task of creating conditions of safety and trust amongst the group. This perhaps calls for members to collectively share and engage with their hopes and fears, their excitement and apprehensions, and articulate some of the glues that are critical to the experience of an “us”. It perhaps also means sharing apprehensions and concerns as regards the larger context, especially those that are puzzling, bewildering threatening and seductive simultaneously. A “reason for being”, that is recognized as beyond the ability of a sole individual, needs also to be taken cognizance of. The virtual team context, for the every reason of its peculiar characteristics hinted at earlier, requires that these be engaged with, certainly and creatively. A solely task focused and temporary virtual team may leap frog and not engage with this process ;only the instrumental self is recognized, valued and engaged with. The member then is only a bundle of competencies.
Given conditions of safety and increasing trust, it becomes possible for capability and expertise differentials to be cataloged and reckoned with, without the downsides of needless one-upmanship, defensive—offensive routines, bravado, exaggerated posturing, misleading claims and hopeless dependency. Nonetheless it is inevitable that such differentials will create varied locations and perceptions of power that can put to risk a fledgling “coming together of people”. Expertise in itself doesn’t create the desired results or experience of success. The group needs to work through ways of working together that ensure that the energy that the collective power of expertise represents is channeled in the service of goals through appropriate regulation and boundary management. This may seem like a call to self-restraint and discipline, aspects that across cultures range from the ingrained to the externally enforced, and therefore are necessary to be made explicit, dialogued and agreed. It would need to encompass form and process of engagement amongst members, and ways that will be sanctioned in the engagement with the world for group goals/ tasks.
An ongoing process of dialogue on the group’s internal processes in addition to the review of tasks against expectations is in our view critical to sustaining effectiveness. Along the way, and often under stressful circumstances it is likely that questions as regards what are acceptable criteria for quality, delivery, achievement and success will come up for review and recalibration as a group. The experience with the rules of engagement crafted initially will prove over time to be inadequate, inappropriate or oppressive. Also, with the increasing familiarity amongst members and a better reality appraisal of each others capacity and ability, revised rules, processes and practices are likely—one more step in an ongoing process of alignment—one more time…power, leadership, structure, style, substance…
In a virtual teaming context, the ability to leverage technology—key resource, visualise based on sensory input, creating and sharing a narrative of the “visualised” to aid validation and creating the “whole” that members can hold and add to, the readiness to express and mirror one’s psychological landscape shaped by sensory-perceptual inputs to the collective is important to group learning and group glue. The corollary is perhaps the readiness to receive non-task residues, examine and reflect in non-judgmental ways and examine underlying processes that can be insightful. Having expectations of this kind, and investing in learning and practicing such processes is rare, but is likely to be critical to picking up early warning signs, to catch a symptom before it looms large as a crippling problem. Different time zones, dependency on IT, diversity of languages, multiplicity of cultures—all complicate this task—but serve as poor if not facile excuses for not trying.
The virtual team context makes a big demand on trust in the “other”. For this reason, it becomes essential that members continuously invest in upgrading their capabilities, to comply, question, to speak up, to challenge, to clarify one’s part and the overall scheme. What this also suggests is the requirement that members act autonomously based on their understanding of their part and fulfill commitments, conform to agreed ground rules to ensure a baseline of predictability amongst members and continuously contribute to the health of the “whole”.
The virtual teaming context (by virtue of its treatment here as characterized by distance and diversity of cultures) is perhaps more susceptible to nationalistic fervor and cultural stereotyping than what is acknowledged by members who often would prefer to claim a global mindset. Such members see anchorage in a culture as problematic rather than a source of pride, espouse a utilitarian outlook and a sport a veneer that beyond (or beneath?) the surface points to a somewhat colorless, odorless and rootless existence.
The real test of virtual teams is in its ability to deal with differences—valuing diversity, shaping convergence, evolving processes to deal with divergences, enhancing the trust quotient by delivering on accountabilities to others based on enlightened self discipline, and most importantly, not pointing to distances and differences as excuses but treating these as givens of the context and collectively struggling to design its processes and accountabilities for results, and to each other.
One has come to believe through the process of this exploration that in a virtual team context, playing the “part” and preserving the integrity of the “whole” calls for people to act integrally rather than rely on integrators. To act integrally would perhaps mean—to act from the knowledge that the self, the other and the context are mutually influencing and shaping one another—to act from this knowledge would mean to understand the significance of one’s actions and its impact on the whole (and therefore the imperative to act, rather than wait). To act integrally is to act responsibly in ways that is contextually sensitive and relevant rather than to act from some “job responsibility” definition. To act integrally would mean to take responsibility for the intended and unintended consequences of one’s choices, utterances and actions and act in ways that is growth-ful for the context. To act integrally would possibly mean to respond to the possibilities and demands of the context with the discernment of human costs, doing what is right for the “whole”, rather than just what is safe for the self alone. To act integrally would perhaps also mean engaging the “person” and not just his products alone.
The virtual teaming context may present the most significant challenge yet for collective endeavour, nudging an evolution of mankind through seemingly innocuous challenges that have deeper implications for how work is arranged, and how people cohere.
Modeling the Virtual Team:
At TAO we created this Yantra out of the introspection:
The four corner stones of this model are the link between the information available, how the information gets translated into the task requirements and the resources available to perform the task. The psychological space explores the way I end up ‘feelin’ in each of these interfaces.
This tetrahedron is the ideal picture. If we diagnose the failed organisation, a few things become clear. Firstly, the feelings of security that each of us experienced with the other was fleeting and not a foundation i.e., the psychological space was not injecting positive energy. Therefore, encountering the others in a creative way became difficult. The Positive self-worth each of us had in own work was then experienced as “ego”. Secondly, we did not estimate the resource requirements properly. As a result, the infrastructures for efficient task completion did not exist. Delays in task completion fed into the cracks of the psychological space and encountering became inadequate or antagonistic. We assumed after our first week together that we all had the same picture-in-the mind of the final product. We also assumed that “offering quality” was clear. The deeper we went into the definitions, the language, the extent of structuring the solution versus leaving space for discovery we found that not only was the first picture vague, the comfort levels within each of us with respect to ambiguity and the tensions of discovery varied greatly. The process we called symbolising and making meaning both inwardly and more tangibly did not find coherence and convergence. The gaps widened and suspicions took the place of trust and dialogue. The most tangible aspects of manipulating the knowledge and creating the product offering got fractured, extending each others knowledge to enrich the product and each other lost all synergy.
From this experience and our diagnosis we saw the possibility of extending this experience to create a Model for Virtual Teams to use. We envisaged a model that could be used to set up virtual teams as well as review its invisible ground i.e., the coherence of the psychological space, the collaboration in the task space, correspondence in the information space and convergence in the resource space. Some of the premises we started with were as follows:
- Members of a Virtual Team come together for a purpose and often may not know each other beyond the virtual interfaces.
- The task is very collaborative and must be achieved through a structure that allows autonomy while ensuring rigour.
- The initial process of setting up of the protocols of the task must include a set of discussions on expectations that are usually taken for granted in teams that have a high face to face possibility.
The model we came up with therefore offers opportunities for the team (leader) both to set clear processes, expectations and reviews measures.
- We have formulated a protocol for the “team inception process” and “induction into the team” process.
- We are testing the health of virtual teams with a questionnaire based on the pyramid.
- We have formulated a set of “trouble shooting” methods based on the outcome of the questionnaire.
We have developed a few such Yantras for various organisational design and assessment. We are calling them Tensegrity-Mandala—Tensegrity to honour Buckminster Fuller who has worked extensively on Tensegrity in building geodesic domes and has elaborated on the nature of these structures and Mandala, a Sanskrit word meaning, “a whole that synergises divergent components”. Mandalas are also tantric diagrams that aid mediation. A T ensegrity-Mandala is therefore a thought-feeling algorithm that generates holistic organisational action.
Raghu Ananthanarayanan is a Trained Behavioural Scientist, Yoga Teacher and an Engineer; Founder of the consulting firm “FLAME TAOKnoware”—a team of functional experts all of whom are Behavioural Scientists focusing on Organisational Transformation, Alignment and Optimisation; and Chairperson Sumedhas Academy for Human Context—a not for profit organisation focusing on developing behavioral scientists. His consulting experience spans three decades: organisation turn arounds, leadership coaching, culture transformations. His clients include TCS, Infosys, Claris Life Sciences, Laxmi Macine Works, ITC, and EPCOS. He pioneered the use of Yoga and Theatre in process work. He has published many papers and two books: Learning through Yoga and The Totally Aligned Organisation. His goal is to develop a unique approach to management at a personal level and at an organisational level based on the three streams of hisy expertise namely, Lean Management, Yoga and Behavioural Sciences. He has already developed many models and frameworks, as well as practices, some of which are being converted into a software prodeuct and others into a set of video-based leaning modules. He can be contacted at email@example.com
K.S.Narendran specializes in the areas of Human Resource Development. He integrates the principles of Lean Management with HRD. Through two decades of experience in the industry as a practicing manager and a consultant he has developed a strong anchorage in OD and culture building. Naren has worked with Information Technology companies in the areas of Competency Assessment, Leadership Building, and Team Alignment. He is a Post Graduate in Personal Management and Industrial Relations, TISS Mumbai, and a Fellow of Sumedhas Academy for Human Context. Naren has held leadership positions in the HR function, focusing on OD and culture for a decade. He is at present Executive Director of Sumedhas Academy for Human Context. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vandana Menon is a Literature Graduate & a Post Graduate in HR from Madras School of Social Work. She has more than 15 years of experience in the field and has worked with organisations like Tube Products of India and RPG Paging Services. Her consulting experience includes Transformation, Turnaround, Organisation Development & Operational Optimization interventions through an organisation specific Implement–Teach–Train and Transfer approach. Trained in process work, she also brings in expertise in HR Management, Organisational Diagnostics and Development & Development Centres. She is engaged in a project with the European Union that involves research into the working of Virtual teams. She is a Fellow of Sumedhas Academy for Human Context and also a Trustee on the board of Koothu-p-pattarai, a theatre group in Chennai. She can be contacted at email@example.com.