Some groups are more than the sum of their parts. They go beyond ‘performing’, beyond achieving financial targets, beyond balancing stakeholder needs.

Despite our best efforts to create perfect teams, a large number remain best on paper, an elite collection of IQs, track records, qualifications, agreeableness and inspiration, mostly as individuals. Others amalgamate to deliver profound impact. They appear to craft and refine a special type of relational capital, interacting with closeness, conflict and purpose. Reaching a ‘performing’ state is a not a desired end goal. There is always more. They coalesce to drive a larger agenda, running as thread between them, and only fully realised through their collective.

Relational capital, also known as social capital, is not built over-night. But it is increasingly badged as the secret sauce of transformative groups. So what is it? And are we already building it in our organisations?

Social capital refers to the functioning of social groups through interpersonal relationships. It is the shared sense of identity, understanding, norms, values, trust, cooperation and reciprocity within a group. It may seem that we already invest in building this kind of interaction with teams. Yet if we unpack what makes some groups exceptional at problem-solving and innovation, drawing on the work of Daniel Coyle, we note that highly successful groups are underwritten by efforts in three critical areas:

·      Building psychological safety

·      Being vulnerable (so that they can move to being invulnerable)

·      Having a purpose.

Are we explicitly tacking these kinds of issues in our work with teams? I would argue that in many ways, we are only touching the tip of the relational capital iceberg. It is certainly more fashionable to question, although we are still accepting and building the skills to do so, and the skills to speak up. Think of the continuum emerging from the radical candor of Kim Scott, moving right along to Ray Dalio’s radical truth and transparency. These are far from ‘the way things get done around here’ in most organizations, especially large legacy ones.

Margaret Heffernan insists that for good ideas and true innovation, human interaction is necessary, but it is not a measured, ‘objective’ roundtable debate of consensus seeking. Conflict and argument are essential, she notes, between motivated people who share bonds of loyalty and trust. Suddenly the ‘as is’ state starts digress significantly from the ‘want to be’. Very few leaders intentionally create conflict and argument at work. In the face of conflict, most shy away or manage down. We do not trust much at work either. The gap seems big.

But investing in building relational or social capital as a ‘want to be’ state is likely to pay high dividends. At the most human level, as pressure intensifies, leaders and their teams are already fraying under the toxic pressure to deliver and to go beyond. Performing teams will need to go beyond, without burning out. Relational capital is the currency to shore up when chasing broader, transformative or game changing ambitions.

Thanks to the work of people such as Margaret Heffernan and Daniel Colye, we have a much richer understanding of the principles at play. The skills of highly successful groups are not predestined, they can be built, and many of them are ready to apply in our work with groups.

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By Gaylin Jee

Even a giant can streamline, increase speed and encourage innovation. 

General Electric (GE) has done this through making lean startup part of the mindset and the culture at the organisation, using a programme called FastWorks.

Leader of GE Culture and co-founder of GE FastWorks, Janice Sempe:

“We had a culture of being addicted to being right, … we had a culture of perfection. We didn’t know how to partner with our customers and see their problems from their perspective.” “We had to train our leaders to lead in a different way. We had to get them to ask questions in place of provide answers.”

Often our focus is on activity, or getting things done. If we shift the focus from customer requirements confusion to customer validation, to building a minimum viable product and then pivoting, to learning as we go along, we get better product to market more quickly. In place of having thinly spread teams, GE builds dedicated teams. These teams are fast, and focused. Using FastWorks, GE has successfully introduced lean startup principles in a non-tech environment, and in a highly regulated industry.

Based on the lean startup methodology principles of Eric Ries, creator of the Lean Startup methodology, FastWorks is essentially a set of tools and practices designed to build better products for customers, more quickly. There are 100s of FastWorks programmes across GE. FastWorks decreases the cycle time for product development. GE uses it to get closer to customers, to encourage innovation, increase speed to market, improve chances of success, and, generally, to make it easier to get things done.

Sempe shares the challenges and tangible successes that GE has driven through creating a culture of experimentation in the podcast interview How An Enterprise Makes Lean Startup Part of The Mindset And Culture. These kinds of successes she notes are about a lot more than training. You have to think more broadly about your organisations ability, in terms of its behaviours and cultures, to support the application of a lean startup approach. This is more than giving permission to fail, it is asking the questions: What new skills are needed and can be developed? Will new behaviours required be rewarded? How will our performance management system support this? What are the new expectations we have of employees?

At GE, 5 new belief statements were introduced. They wanted to think about failure in a different way, and to reframe barriers, giving permission for people to accept and adopt new ways of thinking and acting. Not meeting an outcome is a great way of getting to a better solution. You learn as you go along. The bold GE statements are:

  1. Customers determine our success
  2. Stay lean to go fast
  3. Learn and adapt to win
  4. Empower and inspire each other
  5. Deliver results in an uncertain world.

The GE performance management system has also been reworked, from a linear process of setting and measuring goals at the start and end of each year, to an on-going process that encourages asking the right questions. It allows for adaption. Employees are expected to experiment and pivot based on what they are learning from their customers.

It would be naïve to think that an organisational change like this is easy. Sempe says they are learning as they go, and she admits that it is hard. There has been considerable commitment to the programme. In the first year of implementation, Ries trained around 1000 GE executives on Lean Startup. There are also numerous coaches in the organization. But the results are tangible. Sempe offers two proof points in her interview:

  1. A new product (an engine) getting to market 2 years ahead of competitors with significant cost savings to the company, positioned very well with customers as a result, by using FastWorks principles;
  2. An efficient low cost energy solution for their power and water business, development costs were reduced by 60% by using the principles of FastWorks.

Define your company's mindset orentation

The Singularity Hub describe FastWorks as part of the company’s Mindset Orientation, or MO, one of 8 principles for leaders to make the most of the exponential age. It is worth reading the article to find out what the other 7 are.

What is your organization’s mindset orientation? What commitment is there to learning and adapting faster than the change that’s happening around you?