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Making Lessons Stick: How Teams Sustain Change

[Guest blogger Nina Peterson is COO and Partner at Wisdom Works. Her last blog addressed how leaders engineer optimism.]

My daughter graduated from college in May and she is struggling to apply what she learned. It reminds me that at the core of my work, I’m an educator. Like school teachers, I work with ‘students’ for a time, and then ‘graduation’ comes and it’s on to new faces. I wonder: Do teachers often find out how their past students are doing? Do they know how many of their lessons stuck? Well, I just had the opportunity to answer those very questions about my work.

It started two years ago when I received a call about supporting the development of a self-directed work team. I was awfully excited, since the work recalled one of my most satisfying projects ever. Plus: this new group was clearly committed to the effort. A very small team in the midst of a traditional office, they chose a self-directed-team strategy to eliminate a layer of supervision. They sought to leverage their knowledge and experience while expanding learning and development opportunities for a tenured group of employees. Both the individuals and their organization made a significant time commitment: three hour sessions every other week for six months. We went to work.

Our time included: training, designing new work routines, having tough conversations about breakdowns, action learning to apply our principles to real life situations, and a communication strategy to share this new way of operating with others. The team struggled with and ultimately embraced new skills and “out of their comfort zone” approaches. Once we laid the foundation, individual coaching supplemented their development and everything seemed to be humming along. It was a wonderful project.

So last month they called asking if I could come back and do some training with a new team member. This new work provided me the opportunity to spend time with all my old contacts on the team. To my delight, I found that they had been following through on all the tools, strategies, routines, and systems we had set up. I wish I could say this always happened, but how often do we actually hear news that our ‘students’ have lived up to their potential? This particular team had continued their mutual learning, maintained their intentions, and achieved exactly what they had envisioned: all fantastic news!

When I asked the team how they had managed to sustain all the changes we had implemented together, they told me:

  • We have scheduled time for consistent communication. Almost every week we meet for one hour to discuss information, tasks, and duties. Each quarter we meet for an extended period to discuss strategic items.
  • We have several tools to keep our team on track, most notably our manpower matrix and cross-training schedule.
  • Individually we are committed to our self-managed team concept; we hold ourselves and each other accountable.
  • We embrace the trust account concept as a valid, living document. We may not overtly state when a deposit or withdrawal has been made, however our team is cognizant to keep the bank account balance in the black.
  • We revisit our training materials provided by Wisdom Works, refreshing our memories and goals.

First of all, let me say how gratifying it is to hear such an ongoing commitment. We all like to believe that the hard work we do will stick. As you can tell from this group’s list, maintaining the momentum of significant organizational development requires persistence and periodic check-ups. But when a team puts in the effort, the rewards can pay off for years. If only school teachers had such an opportunity to see what makes their lessons stick!

Photo by kevindooley