The ‘Curse of Brightness’.

Within the Agile communities ‘gaming’ has become fashionable, fun and some would suggest a productive way for teams to learn new skills. It certainly has gained mainstream popularity. It has certainly helped some of the teams that I have coached over the last 8-years.

Gaming reminds me of one of the seminal insights from Belbin (1980), and his work at the Henley Management College of Cambridge in what he termed ‘THE EME’ or The Executive Management Exercise. This was a week-long assessment/ development centre. In this setting, the participants created teams to compete against each other. good fun huh!

The outcome was simple: to finish with the largest proportion of scarce resources. This was how success was framed. What Belbin was able to neatly demonstrate was the affects of a range of important psychological variables. These factors included: IQ, personality measures (the Big 5), as well as creativity.

After some nine or ten years, Belbin and his team were able to claim the proverbial ‘Golden Calf’ of Work Psychology: predictive power! They must have been delighted as we Work Psychologists delight with good data. In other words, they could predict given their assessments which teams would win even before the games commenced. Yes imagine that! Holy smoke! This, by the way, became a successful business model and for sound reasons as you can see.

What can we learn?

There are a number of key insights and these seem to me to be quite relevant for 21st Century Leadership (and Organisational) Development and Coaching:

  • Their initial hypothesis that the brightest individuals brought together as a team would win proved to be faulty/false. What they discovered to their surprise was that a team full of bright (high IQ) people brought “an astonishing disappointment”. To ensure that this insight held-up to empirical scrutiny they repeated their hypothesis around 25 times. And each and every time it highlighted just how flawed it was.

It seems to me that this is worth exploring more fully, and we ought to be curious as to why this was the case. There are for me four key insights:

  1. Bright people spent an inordinate amount of time arguing. I call this the ‘curse of brightness’ in that over time bright people rely more on this strength as their singular or core strength. This creates a number of emotional, psychological and relational ‘blind spots’. The “Apollo team” as they were named by Belbin spent much more time on defending, arguing their own point of view as the ‘right view’ that this meant that other less bright but more collaborative teams made progress on the implementation of the project rather than being ‘fixated’ on generating the right ideas per se.
  2. This meant that decision-making speed was significantly slowed down. Any decision tended to go ‘around and around’ the team. They could not move to any sense of resolution or negotiation that satisfied them.
  3. The most intelligent people resented any sense of imposed organisation. This smacks to me of arrogance; or hubris. They resented leadership in any shape or form. The very notion of ‘followership’ was a ‘dirty word’ and therefore they disrupted any sense of team leader. ‘Herding cats’ of course is the colloquial term for this team dynamic and collective behaviours.
  4. They lacked creativity more than other groups with a lower IQ. Thus, a person with a high degree of creativity will genuinely suffer if placed within an Apollo group.

Solutions for Apollo Teams

So what are some solutions to these problems when faced with an Apollo group or team?

  • Get a trained Leadership Coach in for dialogue training. This will bring the competences, skills and awareness of what genuine dialogue looks and feels like. It will help the team to see the ways in which their dynamics are less productive. I have found that with Coaching Apollo teams do indeed develop dialogue skills, and over time, there will be added value demonstrable improvements.
  • Bright teams require a tough but not dominant leader. This will help the team to ‘settle’ into their roles and align their sense of team purpose. A conceptual constellation exploring their purpose can add value to these ends.
  • Some teams benefit from a rotated Chair. This helps the sense of a participative leadership style. It underscores the temporary ‘servant leadership’ model which in some cases is helpful as each member gets a turn.
  • When the team has an essential need to be more creative (e.g. in the innovation space) then bringing in external Consultancy for this purpose can help. However, Apollo teams might well need to recognise that creativity is not one of their strengths. (I have found that Apollo teams moving to a place where they can even acknowledge this can also aid their collective humility).


Key Reference:

Belbin, R. Meredith, 2010. ‘Management Teams: Why they succeed or fail’. Third Edition, Elsevier Ltd.

Take care, Jason

You looking for high performance? My Top 5.

Over the years I have been impressed with the Tavistock Institute. Their insights, discoveries and careful examination of the differences between lower and higher performance work systems has much value for theorists, practitioners and organisational leaders alike.

This week I have been reflecting on the principles of high performance work systems.  By this term I simply mean bringing together work, teams (people), technology and information dashboards (real-time quality reporting) in such a design or way that this optimizes the ‘fit’ between the work and the customer/users. We want the ‘fit’ to optimise the flow of work; with feedback loops and agile responses to customer feedback. This is the purpose.. the ‘why’ we bring these elements together in this way.

These are 5 principles that hold true:-

  1. Although rule and procedures are critical to success; no more rules should be specified that are absolutely essential. And by essential we can literally ‘lean’ the rules all the way back to determine the actual essential nature of the rule. A fab example is the need for a Change Advisory Board (CAB) in IT. I have found with larger organisations these have demonstrable quality outcomes. Whereas over time as teams ‘learn, grow and adapt’ they get better at meeting the quality criteria for a CAB; and in turn, much of the CAB processes become ‘lighter, smarter and automated’ rather than in the early days ‘heavy, cumbersome and manual’. There is no right nor wrong here; each organisation will be different, and the same organisation will have differences given their own maturity.
  2. Information dashboards should be designed in the first place to provide sufficient information to the point of genuine responsive action and team problem solving. For Kanban teams this would include, for example, cumulative flow and released value; and for Scrum teams this would include Backlog stories released; bug tracking; and velocity.
  3. Each member of a team should be skilled in more than one function so we can maximise agility and adaptability. In IT we call this the ‘T-shaped’ career so as to note both specialist depth, but at the same time, breadth of associated team member work.
  4. Variances (or if you are using lean six-sigma deviations) from the ideal process should be controlled at the point of origin or point of failure. This calls for genuine process control mapping and root cause analysis.
  5. Roles that are interdependent should be within the departmental boundaries. This encourages faster and improved collaboration, communication and clarity of purpose.

What are the outcomes from the evidence from this approach you’ll be asking next? These are key:-

  • Increased agility to respond to customers
  • Lower turnover and absenteeism
  • Increased quality and better quality solutions ‘upstream’
  • Enhanced internal team motivation, resilience and sense of purpose
  • Increased learning in and between team members as across teams too
  • Reduced costs and waste

I do hope this approach brings you the same set of results as my own experiences over the last 17-years!

Take care, Jason

Top Leadership Team Development: A Truly Dynamic Approach

We have a need for this bright, capable group of  17 experts to work together as a leadership team; so what approach would you advise?” a Director asked me a few weeks ago.

What resulted was a carefully bespoke approach to this Director’s needs; an assessment of where his team where; and what the necessary next steps would be. This is the approach and my initial reflections.

First, let us start with the key objective as when we ‘start with the end in mind’ we have a sense of purpose, as well as direction that can inform questions of OD design of the workshop content. It can also inform questions around structure, as well as the key points in terms of learning process.

This was the objective:

  1. To create a safe, encouraging, supportive team environment that, over time, would lend itself to higher team performance including the key elements such as openness, trust, rapport, dialogue and ease with candid feedback. 

Accordingly, we co-created the following design and approach:

  • Using the Gallup strengths-finder (c) we helped the individuals to identify their top 5 strengths. This would help create the ‘safe container’ or effective team meeting environment that would lend itself to an appreciation of each other ,and their contribution to the team.
  • We mapped the individual strengths across the team across the four broad domains. This was used to create a conversation around whether this was the right balance for the team’s key objectives, or not. It also created a genuine discussion and debate around what a Strengths approach offered; as well its limits and insights. For a strategic leadership team the strength distribution was a good fit.

Capture Leadership Team Mapped



  • Created four action-learning sets. Each set would meet monthly to enable individual and collective learning as each team explored questions of the type: ‘How can I improve what I am doing as a team member”?
  • Using the data from a recent 360-degree feedback as areas for learning, development and growth. Each individual offered 3 areas from their 360-degree feedback that they were willing to explore with the smaller action-learning sets. Their team members would in turn challenge them in terms of the relative rank ordering of the three areas.
    • NB: Given the previous work from the top 5 strengths, this meant that they were all aware of one another’s strengths and that, in turn, these could be seen as resources from which to support & encourage in the spirit of co-coaching or cooperative inquiry (see Prof. Peter Reason).

Lessons Learned?

These are my own reflections to date:

  1. We found the right ‘balance’ between the strengths and the candid feedback. After lunch I drew a dynamic on the flip chart as this image came to mind as I carefully listened to the emergent themes and ideas from the ‘check-in’ after lunch. I shared with them how I imagined that the ‘positive charge’ was the appreciative side from the top 5 strengths and the ‘negative charge’ was the 360 feedback. Both, I noted, are essential energies for the dynamic to be truly effective.
  2. Smaller action-learning sets are very helpful when you are looking to bring along more reserved, private and introverted experts. ‘Being open’ in a large team of 17 people is well beyond the comfort zone of some of the team’s more mature introverted experts.
  3. However, you can later ‘scale-up’ when the ‘time is right’ by bringing two of the action-learning sets together and even at some point the whole team! For me, this has a delightful ethical approach; that in my view fosters genuine and sustainable individual and collective growth/learning.
  4. The Gallup strengths-based approach is a fab contribution to the design of any safe container; and more especially for new teams, as well as teams in significant transition for example.
  5. Having had the previous work completed around the team’s purpose using a constellation was a significant help (see The Whole Partnership). In fact, this previous work was a solid foundation from which to build further team capability.

What would I do to improve?

  • Perhaps have a shared objective (as well as an individual learning area) for the smaller action-learning sets.
  • However, there is a trade-off here in terms of the time for each set.
  • NB: We might introduce this in 3-months time; when we bring all the team back together before the summer break for a retrospective.


Take care, Jason

Is the Scrum Master best placed to be the meta-knowledge champion?

Business Psychology is evidence-based. In other works ‘good’ science. We move away from ‘fads and fashions’ and have an open-minded curiosity about what works; and carefully examine how it works and in what settings- using the scientific paradigm or range of methods to these ends.

So, with that in mind, this week a pod on the British Psychological Society (BPS) website caught my interest as it links to my previous blog, from last week, around moving teams from ‘good to great’. The BPS presenter, Christian Jarrett, does a genuinely fab job of bringing these insights to life.

Firstly, he interviews Dr Julija Mell (from the Essec Business School), and she says that meta-knowledge is “knowing who knows what in the team”. Of course, this does not have to be a Scrum Master although that type of role is quite well placed. You will be reminded that in most IT teams Scrum Masters do not have any line management responsibilities as they are by definition, a Coach. Being a really good Coach is an excellent example of a meta-knowledge champion. You ought to have the time, skills and knowledge to really get a sense of the breadth and depth of each individual. A decent Coach should get to know the team members experience, knowledge, training, interests and strengths. In this way, the evidence is encouraging that you significant leverage to underpin higher degrees of collaboration,   cooperation and team performance. Good news indeed!

But there’s an implicit point in here: and this is having the time, and Coaching training. Of course other roles might have those skills (e.g. a technical lead or a project manager) but this assumption should be tested!

This review of this applied research is fascinating. What we learn is that helping the team members to get to know what they each bring to the team (and I would advocate both technically and as team players too by using a strengths based approach) the team start to broaden their cognitive or knowledge ‘map’ of the total team. In psychological terms their decision-making and problem solving space enriches.

Christian Jarrett then turns his attention to the ‘extra miler’ or the team player that goes beyond the ‘call of duty’ for the team’s objectives. To explore this point he interviews Dr Alex Fradera who shares research that the ‘extra miler’ has a massive  influence (or what we might say a disproportionate positive impact) on the team. This is because they are influencing the team in a significant way; and the good news is that this seems to be a strength that can be carefully (i.e. psychologically) identifiable. And of course, with peer award and reward systems this distinct attribute should be one that is rightly celebrated.

However, there is also a counter-intuitive point too. (I love counter intuitive points as they underscore even more importantly why Psychology is a social science and not simply the latest book at the Airport!); and this is around distribution of star players or the ‘extra milers’. The evidence is that it is best not to have them all in one team; but rather distribute them across all your teams- such is the positive impact they can have. This is akin to the Pareto 80:20 Law. Why? The researchers suggest this is because they are in effect role modelling to the team. In this way, we have the right behaviours as well as the right outcomes. When we have performance appraisal systems set-up that address (perhaps even equally) behaviours and outcomes; this can be an important point. Each team would benefit from both a decent Scrum master or meta-knowledge Champion as well as an ‘extra miler’ for the reasons detailed above.

Lastly, Christian Jarrett then turns his attention to the physical space for the team to work and collaborate within. He asks Dr Katherine Greenaway (University of Queensland) for her advice. She gently warns against a 1920’s ‘lean stark minimalist’ approach as the research is that these are much less effective. Dr Greenaway shares how the relative meaning of the space is important. This team meaning enhances team outcomes such as creativity, productivity and sharing information. Her basic advice is to ask teams to decorate the space to make it ‘more like home’; to have an input into it; and to make it team-centric rather than the ‘bland, white, and corporate look that reminds us of Apple’.

This again is a fascinating evidence-based point.. It underscores the importance of space. It also means that problem-solving space for daily and weekly Stand-Ups should all be co-created by the team themselves in terms of colour, styles and memorabilia that they jointly contribute together. This is another important point; and one that might run counter to current Corporate trends and fashions?

So, in summary, the evidence is that moving from ‘good to great’ teams you would be do well to carefully consider these key three points:-

  1. A Scrum Master or Team Coach that is the meta-knowledge Champion across the various professions with the skills, time and training detailed
  2. Ensure that each team has an ‘extra-miler’
  3. Give permissions for the Team to co-create their own team space that is meaning for them

Take care Jason

NB:- Podcast Episode credits: Presented and produced by Dr Christian Jarrett. Mixing and editing Jeff Knowler. Vox pops Ella Rhodes. PsychCrunch theme music Catherine Loveday and Jeff Knowler. Additional music Zander Sehkri/Zeroday Productions (via Pond5). Art work Tim Grimshaw.

Insights from working alongside a high performance team: Using strengths

This last week I have being working alongside an IT team helping them to improve their team performance. A key weakness for frameworks like Scrum and Kanban is that they have little to offer in terms of actual team development. Thankfully, being a Business Psychologist one of my own professional areas of interest is team development. I am driven to help individuals and teams to find their ‘optimal performance zone’ to improve the ways by which they collaborate, problem-solve, resolve conflicts, communicate and so-on. Moving them from ‘good to great’ as they say.

I’ve found that taking a team through the Clifton Strengths Finder really helpful. Gallup research has found again (and again) that when people within teams focus on what they do best (i.e. their strengths) then they tend to succeed; perform better and are more engaged.

The Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment has helped people to excel for over 22-years. From top business executives and managers to salespeople, nurses, teachers, students, pastors, and others, millions of people have realized the benefits of leading with their strengths.

In 2001, Gallup introduced the world to the original Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment in Now, Discover Your Strengths. The book became a New York Times bestseller and sold nearly 2 million copies. Its author and creator of the Clifton StrengthsFinder, former Gallup chairman Dr. Donald O. Clifton (1924-2003), was named the Father of Strengths-Based Psychology by the American Psychological Association


Gallup have found that individuals that use their strengths regularly are:

  • 6x as likely to be engaged at work
  • 6x as likely to do what they do best every day
  • 3x as likely to have an excellent quality of life

This is an impressive set of results and resonates with my own experiences over the last 16-years.

“So what are my strengths and how do they complement my team?” asked one .net developer a few weeks ago. This is a really good question. It is good because it is framed by curiosity and it also underlies a desire to learn and grow; as well as taking personal responsibility.

The product that I have used the most is the Clifton Strengths Finder (Top 5 strengths).

Gallup Strengths Center Store

I have found that the top 5 is a very accessible introduction. It provides enough data for the individual to make sense of. And then you can easily map each of the 5 strengths for each team member across the total 34 strengths. I use a simple Excel spreadsheet for this purpose.

To give you a flavor of these I’ll include my own Top 5:

  1. Relator: People especially strong in Relator talents forms solid, genuine, and mutually rewarding relationships. Their relationships are close, caring, and trusting.
  2. Input: People with strong Input talents bring tools that can facilitate growth and performance. They love to provide relevant and tangible help to others. Their resourcefulness and curiosity lead them to store knowledge that can be culled and shared.
  3. Intellection: The particular genius of people with especially strong Intellection talents stems from the processing that occurs when they think.When they have time to ponder and process, wisdom and clarity result. They can serve as a sounding board that helps others “stretch” to discover new ways to solve problems or enhance the quality of their work.
  4. Learner: People with strong Learner talents not only love to learn, but they also intuitively know how they learn best. They can learn quickly, and when focused, they can keep a group, team, and organization on the cutting edge.
  5. Connectedness: People strong in the Connectedness theme build bridges between people and groups, showing them how to relate to and rely on each other. They help others find meaning in the unpredictability of the world around them, providing a sense of comfort and stability in the face of uncertainty. Putting it simply, their ability to “connect the dots” from the past, present, and future can give others perspective, guidance, and hope.

As you can see this reveals great insight for each team member and then the total team too. I’ve also noticed that something quite important happens in a team meeting when each member is appreciated for what it is that they bring to the team. It lends itself to what we call an appreciative stance to the work.

It also helps the team make sense of one another in new, novel and fresh ways. In the past it has also ‘released’ key energy and movement for the team too. Next, the team can reflect on any immediate ‘gaps’ across the total 34 strengths. They can question if this strength is needed or important for them? Or, can this contribution/ strength be made by someone else outside of the immediate team? Someone like a Senior Responsible Officer, or a Project Manager etc?

Simply seeing or just acknowledging this point can be quite liberating too! I’ve found in a number of contexts (more especially where there is pressure to deliver) that this ‘reframing’ of the positive contributions of those outside the direct team is very powerful too.

It is fair to say that over the last 16-years of using this strengths-based approach with various teams- across a range of professions- I have been genuinely struck by the practical ways by which it has helped moved teams along in their own unique journey from ‘good to great’. I hope it can help you too?

Take care, Jason





Data-driven estimation the power of the Monte Carlo Simulation

Nearly thirty years ago I worked in the Construction industry and one of my roles was to create estimates for how long a future novel piece of work would take in time/effort; resources and then attribute a risk profile and lastly the margin of return known as gross profit. At that point we have something like ten different teams. I say teams. We called them gangs. Whilst some of the gangs were relatively stable others were not given the fluid nature of the jobs in the pipeline team members needed to move for short periods of time. I would often seek to bring gangs together in response to the size, complexity and milestone (payment dates) as back then much of the work we did was earned value given key milestones.

How did we grow a successful business? There were many key factors that made the family business distinctive: branding; attitude to safety, strong leadership; performance-related pay and bonus schemes; highest standards of training; professional accreditation and many more. But for getting our estimates right? Monte Carlo was key. We were a deeply data-driven and data intelligent business.

Stated simply, the Monte Carlo simulation furnishes the decision-maker with a range of possible outcomes and the probabilities they will occur for any choice of action.. It shows the extreme possibilities—the outcomes of going for broke and for the most conservative decision—along with all possible consequences for middle-of-the-road decisions.

Stated briefly, Monte Carlo simulation provides a number of advantages over deterministic, or “single-point estimate” analysis including:

  • Probabilistic Results. Results show not only what could happen, but how likely each outcome is.
  • Graphical Results. Because of the data a Monte Carlo simulation generates, it’s easy to create graphs of different outcomes and their chances of occurrence.  This is important for communicating findings to other stakeholders.
  • Sensitivity Analysis. With just a few cases, deterministic analysis makes it difficult to see which variables impact the outcome the most.  In Monte Carlo simulation, it’s easy to see which inputs had the biggest effect on bottom-line results.
  • Scenario Analysis: see exactly which inputs had which values together when certain outcomes occurred.  This is invaluable for pursuing further analysis.
  • Correlation of Input model interdependent relationships between input variables.  It’s important for accuracy to represent how, in reality, when some factors goes up, others go up or down accordingly.

Of course, you do need a decent understanding of statistics. To this day I am still very grateful for my practical training back then, as well as completing advanced statistics such as multiple regression, analysis of variance and mixed analysis of variance when I completed my MSc in Organisational Psychology at Cardiff University.

One of the most exciting prospects of the current online Kanban tool is that we are starting a journey of moving from guess-estimates (data neutral based on faulty human reasoning and bias) to a data-driven science of estimation. And delight of delights? This tool has an in-build Monte Carlo simulation! Yes…dreams sometimes can come true…

Have a good weekend,






Radical Uncertainty: A Time to Let Go?

Happy New Year! In a genuine way I do hope that this year brings a fair measure of joy, pleasure and happiness.

Whilst I do not personally create a list of commitments or goals; I do take time for some quiet reflection by way of ‘taking stock’ of the key events of the previous 12-months. I recall both from memory and my learning journal, what I enjoyed; what surprised me and indeed where my ‘learning edge’ is for the next year.

One thing that has struck me from Theory U has been this subtle idea of ‘letting go’ so that we can be fully ‘open’ or aware to the future that is emerging. This speaks to me of more than self-awareness or what we call emotional intelligence. Whilst the latter seems to be a prerequisite there is also something more?

But what (exactly) do we need to let go off?

What are you holding on to that is distracting you from being more fully aware of what is emerging as a fresh unknown future?

These are worthwhile questions.

Over the last year I’ve been involved in a number of coaching sessions and I’ve been involved in some peer-coaching too. These are some of the themes that clients have shared by way of letting go. I wonder if you can see any that resonate with you?

  • Old beliefs or ideas that no longer work for you
  • Saying ‘goodbye’ as you work through the careful process of grieving and loss
  • Professional disappointments (e.g. not getting the promotion you hoped for)
  • Hurts when people have let you down
  • Friends gossiping behind your back- that came to light
  • An injustice
  • Betrayal
  • Significant sickness or illness
  • Feeling ‘uprooted’ by an organisational restructure
  • Losing your confidence for a season
  • Watching those that you care about experiencing any of the above

I hope that you can find the time to ‘let go’ so that for you 2017 holds the radical possibility of being fully open what is emerging and by so doing you can be fully available to play your part in that exciting prospect.

Take care, Jason