The Surprising Way to Focus Your Team on the Fundamentals

The Surprising Way to Focus Your Team on Fundamentals

Why focus on the fundamentals?

When I was defending my master’s thesis over 25 years ago, one particularly snotty professor (who had never actually worked in an organization outside of academia) leaned back in his chair and smirked, “It strikes me that research of this type is ‘either trivial or obvious.'”

At the time I was hurt, frustrated, and I thought my advisor (who had spent many late nights with me pouring over the data) was going to throw a chair at him.

I’ll spare you the defensive rant here, but I will share how those four words still haunt me every time I step on a keynote stage or pull the research together for our new book.

What if this approach is “trivial or obvious?” What if they’ve heard something similar before? What if this just confirms what they already know?

Is what I’m saying truly helpful?

The Surprising Value of Obvious Insights -Adam Grant

And today, I stumbled across Adam Grant’s article in the Sloan Management Review, The Surprising Value of Obvious Insights.

The article is definitely worth a read, but if you want a quick spoiler here’s what Adam said on LinkedIn.

When people are resistant to change, instead of pitching new ideas, lead with obvious ones. I’ve learned that once you validate some intuitions, you earn the legitimacy to challenge others. You don’t have to say something new if you say something true.

And my response.

@Adam Grant This is so true, and an important read. Your example of new hire onboarding is spot on. Most managers know the basics. If you asked, “Do you think it would be helpful to take your new hire to lunch on the first day?” I imagine most managers would say “yes.” But how many actually do that?  In our work with organizations, one of the concepts we share that seems totally obvious is what we call a “check for understanding” (essentially have the employee share back what they heard you say to ensure that they’re picking up what you are putting down). 

Not earthshattering. Not new. But when we go back and see which behaviors were most transformational and had the biggest impact on results, pretty much in every program we do, “check for understanding” is in the top 3 (even among very senior teams).

This concept was so basic to me that as we were writing our book, I argued with my co-author David Dye that it was just too simple to put in. I gave in. We kept it in. And as it turns out, that was helpful to folks.

When it comes to helping leaders grow, we’ve found that its so important to ensure the fundamentals are in place, and not to assume that because managers KNOW the basics, that they actually lead that way.

A Surprisingly Easy Way to Get Your Team to Focus on the Fundamentals

Which got me to thinking about you.

What if your team already knows what to do?  What if what you really need to take your performance to the next level is not new ideas, but executing well on what you already know?

Here’s an easy focus on the fundamentals exercise you can try with your team.

A check for understanding per se.

Pick a topic and ask for their best thinking on the topic. What do they already know how to do?

  • Ask a group of team leaders, “What are the fundamental management behaviors that if we did consistently every day would take our performance to the next level?”
  • Talk with a group of contact center agents, “What do our customers want most from us? What can we do on every call to ensure we provide that?”
  • Brainstorm with a group of service technicians, “What makes for a great service call?”

Give everyone sticky notes or index cards and ask them to come up with the most foundational truths they believe about the topic (and write down one idea per card).

Then have them work together to group the fundamental truths into themes.

Pick the fundamental truths that everyone agrees on, and then start a “How can we?” conversation.

If we know this is what works, how can we ensure we do this every day?

Your turn. What’s your favorite way to keep your team focused on the fundamentals?

Focus On The Fundamentals

I walked into the call center training room and the team was all working on the call center equivalent of a basketball “3 pointer”. Even the rookies. Figurative basket balls were bouncing off the rim and the walls and one another. Every now and then one would go in, and the coach would go wild, “see YOU CAN do this woot woot!!!”

They were all concentrating on our hardest call type, the one that’s getting all the executive attention. Clearly they had heard my message loud and clear. Everyone was breaking a sweat. Bless their hearts, the stress grew more intense with each missed shot. Sadly, their efforts didn’t show in their results. In fact, not only were they not shooting 3 pointers, they were missing the lay-ups.

“I wasn’t real quick, and I wasn’t real strong. Some guys will just take off and it’s like, whoa. So I beat them with my mind and my fundamentals.”
~ Larry Bird

In the next room the coach was calmly talking fundamentals. He had a few in the corner practicing their 3 pointers and coaching one another, but the rest were focused on the basics: sounding friendly and empathetic; really listening to the customer; using their tools. Sure, they talked about what to do when you must shoot from the outside, but that wasn’t the focus, until they were ready. Here’s the crazy part, not only was this team out executing the first group in all metrics, they were nailing more 3 pointers.

Why We Ignore the Fundamentals

As leaders it’s easy to assume our team is ready for more. In fact, over-all results can be deceiving. We see trends improving, and we start teaching Harlem Globe Trotter stunts. It could be just a few superstars influencing the trend.

Plus, fundamentals are boring. Your team is tired of practicing, “one more role play and I’m going to barf.”

And then there’s the pressure from folks like me. “Come-on, the other centers nailing 3 pointers why not you?” Great leaders tell overly zealous leaders to chill down, and focus on the fundamentals.

 How to Nail the Fundamentals

  1. Know what skills matter: First figure out what fundamentals are really driving your performance
  2. Don’t assume winning means they’ve got it: Congratulate the win, and dig deeper into each skill
  3. Encourage teamwork: Find ways for the team to help one another, pair them up for skills drills
  4. Understand each player’s performance: Customize a development plan for each team member
  5. Teach in confidence bursts: Build confidence through the small wins
  6. Constantly refresh: Develop a regular cadence of back-to-basics practice
  7. Don’t grow too fast: Be sure you have a critical mass nailing the fundamentals before you rapidly grow the team