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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book The Team Engagement Strategy

Q&A on the Book The Team Engagement Strategy


Key Takeaways

  • Team Engagement is easy to talk about and hard to do, until you ask the team. Employees inherently know the problems they face every day and possible solutions
  • Managers and leaders empower the team by supporting the process, not leading it
  • TES is a simple, easy to use tool that encourages teams to proactively address issues and rapidly implement lasting solutions. Focusing on solving problems as they happen is key to changing patterns of behavior and habits
  • Teams using TES build adaptive capacity--the ability to be flexible, to engage and to effectively respond to workplace challenges
  • Cultural change is possible when managers and leaders unleash adaptive capacity -- one team at a time

The book The Team Engagement Strategy provides an operational model with guiding principles that teams can use to solve their problems by focusing on outcomes. It empowers teams to take action based on their shared insight and assumptions, and helps them to learn and improve continuously.

InfoQ readers can download a sample from The Team Engagement Strategy.

InfoQ interviewed Stefano Bini and Lysha Albright about what the Team Engagement Strategy is and how it relates to agile and lean, what makes people who work in teams more engaged, how you can create adaptive capacity in organizations, and asked them for suggestions for implementing Team Engagement Strategy successfully.

InfoQ: Why did you write the book?

Lysha Albright: This is a story that had to be told. Significant change happened when one day Stef grabbed a clipboard with three questions and asked everyone he saw working on the unit how they would solve a problem related to performing a specific task (Step 1). His action was something new for the employees. Someone actually wanted to hear their opinion, listened carefully and proceeded to dutifully record everything they said without judgment or critique. Then, they were invited to a team meeting to hear what everyone else had to say and to come up with a list of potential actions to take. But that wasn't the end of the story. No report was written and put on some manager’s desk with a long list of recommended actions that would never be taken. The team was asked to participate in a process that identified prioritized items that they all agreed to implement every day, 24/7.  The implementation cycle time was quick. If the solutions didn't work, they were discarded. No tweaking. No multiple iterations. With surgical skill, they just cut the list and moved on to the next set of possible solutions. The results were outstanding. Something had changed. Simple things were resolved immediately (what we later termed "transactional"). When it came to some entrenched process problems, they were able to blast through the barriers and make sustainable changes. When I learned of this work, I felt it represented a new way of looking at things. I helped Stef codify the process and then we tested the model with national and international professionals in my field. We were told repeatedly, "Publish this." After many more opportunities to test the framework, we co-wrote the "Team Engagement Strategy (TES): Unleashing the power of adaptive teams."

Stefano Bini: After 15 years in a leadership role, this technique achieved results faster than anything I had tried previously. While it may not be a panacea, the fundamental principles laid out in the book can be applied to any change effort: set the goal, place some boundaries, ask the team to identify and prioritize solutions, focus on a few things and get them right the first time.

InfoQ: For whom is the book intended?

Albright:  TES is applicable for anyone who works in a team and is interested in finding solutions to the problems they face every day. Originally designed for managers and leaders to build adaptive capacity in their work groups, we have learned it has a much broader audience including consultants, educators, developers, project managers and individual contributors. I had a social worker tell me that she was going to use the methodology with other members of her Crisis Work Team.

Bini: The book is also suitable for mid-level managers. The C-Suite should encourage the use of TES by midlevels so they can focus on strategy and less on the process.

InfoQ: What is the Team Engagement Strategy (TES)?

Albright: First and foremost, TES is designed to improve tasks or processes. It will not help you create a mission, a vision or develop a five year strategic plan. It is an operational model with several guiding principles: the people closest to the problem can solve it, we learn more from acting than collecting data, manageable problems are solved first and we build from there and we relentlessly focus on achieving the goal and limit the action plan to seven items at a time--no more, no less. As we examined the initial approach, it became clear that there were seven steps of sequenced events that follow each other logically and move toward the final outcome most effectively. Employing the framework, we also recognized the importance of having two unique (and critical) roles: the "initiator" (Step 1) and the "conductor" (Step 6). Named for their respective tasks, the initiator is the person who sees an opportunity and wants to make changes in the workflow, and the conductor monitors the action plan and helps the team stay focused on the goal and action steps. How it all came together was interesting. After making several attempts to create various diagrams and flow patterns, I said to Stef, "Tell me the story. Use pictures." Little did I know that Stef is a skilled cartoonist. So, lo and behold, he starts talking and the pictures he drew told the story. On that day, TES was quite literally born.

InfoQ: How does it relate to agile and lean?

Albright: The first leadership commitment in lean is to listen to the employee. We wholeheartedly embrace this concept and capture verbatim what we are told by the front line staff. Two other key lean concepts are seeking to understand value in the eyes of the customer and value stream mapping.  The customer in TES is anyone who has a stake in the process. All viewpoints are recorded. This is probably one of the most critical steps in our model. Without representation from all key stakeholders, we know it will not work. So a lot of time and attention is given on the front end to identify all the "touch points" (Step 2) in the process and who is involved to ensure representation. We employ a modified version of lean value mapping to create a process map around the particular operational task. If we missed someone or group, we capture their input (Step 3) before attempting to identify opportunities (Step 4) and possible solutions (Step 5). Perhaps the biggest distinction between lean tools and TES is our focus is solely on operational tasks, not systemic efforts.

With agile, we share some key foundational principles including the importance of communication, collaboration and openness to change. Some of the most incredible learnings took place as team members learned from others, either upstream or downstream in the process, the adverse impact of their action or inaction. In terms of tools, agile employs time boxing where key events are time bound. This corresponds to the implementation of the agreed to "checklist" where there is agreement on the goal and seven priority actions to be taken within a designated timeframe (Step 6). The biggest difference is that all actions on the checklist are monitored only in terms of two questions: are they happening as agreed to, or not? And at the designated end time, did it work or not? If not, the entire list is discarded and the team moves to the next set of seven priorities. If yes, the items become part of the "new way of doing things" and the team moves to the next seven priorities.

InfoQ: How does TES differ from agile?

Albright: Probably the biggest difference between the two is that Agile is iterative and incremental. What I found so interesting in modeling this work is the absence of retrospective reviews. Data are captured only in Step 2 and Step 3. Then, after agreeing to the plan or "checklist," it is simply a matter of monitoring whether the action was taken and if it worked. There is no further assessment that results in "fine tuning" the action. Discarding the entire list and beginning anew is also very radical. But, what if one thing worked on the list? An unspoken assumption is that if something did work, either a) people will keep doing it, and/or b) it will resurface in another checklist. Going back over each item ad nauseam yields few benefits. I will admit for those of us attached to data verification, myself included, this "surgical" approach is completely foreign. But how many of us have sat through tedious quality or other types of reviews that did little to move the needle and instead made the team feel like a failure?  

Bini: Process data is of little relevance in a fast paced change management process, indeed it can be counterproductive and demoralizing to the team. You have to focus relentlessly on outcomes.

InfoQ: What makes people who work in teams more engaged?

Albright: Group dynamics are fascinating. One scenario can foster "group think" where unchallenged assumptions can lead to disastrous results. However, if you have mutual trust and respect and investment in one another's success, the group becomes greater than simply the sum of their parts. We recommend that TES be initially piloted by high functioning groups where people already have a strong identity and sense of belonging. After demonstrated success and the accompanying sense of empowerment that ensues, we found other teams wanted to be involved in a similar process in their work environment. The bottom line is people want a chance to be heard and to make an impact on challenges they face daily.

InfoQ: How can you create adaptive capacity in organizations?

Albright: One team at a time. TES is an operational vs a strategic model. It is implemented at the local level based on the issues people face.  But, what we learned is because the customers or stakeholders most likely are interdepartmental, the impact of building adaptive capacity extends beyond the initial team. It begins to spread as others like the changes they are seeing and want to participate in this type of improvement effort. Think of it as a "snowball" effect. It may start small but as it continues to be pushed, more snow is added or becomes attached. Pretty soon you have adaptive teams popping up everywhere who use the same framework and language. After a while it becomes "just the way we do things around here." That is when it becomes a norm, a part of the fabric of the organization. But it does take time. While TES as a tool can be implemented rapidly with sustainable results, changing behaviors takes a concerted effort over time. And, in some cases, it may never happen if leadership ultimately does not support the bottoms up and distributed leadership model that is the crux of this framework.

InfoQ: Why does TES differentiate between transaction and process items?

Albright: The first task is to go after the low-hanging fruit before you step into more complicated process issues. Transactions are easy and fast, "one off" solutions that result in quick results. Oftentimes it is a one person job or responsibility. It also may be something that had been raised before but never actually addressed. When people see movement in a positive direction, it builds confidence in team members that they do have some control over their work environment and can bring about positive change. Along the way team members develop the adaptive capacity skills of communication, cooperation, problem solving and innovation that they need to tackle the more challenging process issues.

Bini: Transactional items are quick wins for leadership and staff.

InfoQ: What suggestions do you have for implementing TES successfully?

Albright: Managers and leaders need to take on very different roles. Rather than leading the change effort, they need to play a supportive role. Leaders specifically are not involved in coming up with "the answer"-- only the goal. Team members need to take risks by speaking up and taking on leadership roles. During one iteration, there was no one willing to take on the "Conductor" monitoring role. This became a single point of failure. It is a critical role for timely monitoring of checklist items to ensure they happen on time, every time. In addition, the Conductor has to help create a space of "blameless monitoring." In TES, failure is viewed as a learning opportunity for everyone rather than a chance to berate. The key is to free people to give their very best without any fear of reprisal. Success is celebrated timely and frequently because, after all, it was the team that made it happen. It was their voice, their solutions, their efforts and their collective results. Celebrate the team accomplishments by broadcasting success expansively! (Step 7).

Bini: Leaders really need to understand that their job is not to lead: it is to facilitate. Facilitate open thinking, facilitate breaking barriers, facilitate taking chances, and facilitate moving in new directions. This is key. 

About the Book Authors

Stefano Bini is a professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).



Lysha Albright has a doctorate in Organizational Psychology, worked in corporate America for 35 years and now is following her avocation in Ghana.

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