A Common Sense

What's normal?

Everyone knows certain things about how to get along in the world. We call it "common sense." Why is it, then, that we see common sense stumble so often in the face of "the way it is." How can one person's common sense be so easily misunderstood, disregarded or considered foreign by other equally sensible people?

What if we had a way to reconcile all those versions of normal and practical right up front; a way to lay it out and have a little fun with all of the differences? What if we had a way to quickly establish a common sense about the things that matter within a (new) team?

What if we could find a new normal we could share (at least for a little while)?

"Aber das ist nicht normal!" exclaimed my future brother-in-law after I explained a situation that arose at work. "But it is normal for me!" I replied, trying to explain how things worked where I came from.

Tom grew up in a small town in Germany that sits right on the border with The Netherlands. So close, in fact, that a local farmer has a barn that you can enter while in Germany, and exit a back door into The Netherlands! I, on the other hand, was raised just outside of a small town in Ohio near the southern edge of Lake Erie. In short, we didn't come from the same place.

We also didn't have a lot in common professionally. At the time, I was moving from country to country, supporting the launch of new wireless telecommunication carriers and other projects involving management information systems. Tom was living in Dresden, Germany with his wife, Doris, and worked for the government of Saxony. Together, they converted an old preschool building on a steep hillside into a beautiful modern house, where they now live with their two adorable children, my niece and nephew, Charlotte and Justus (pronounced something like "Youstoos").

Shameless promotion alert: Doris has since built a successful pharmacy business in Dresden. If you ever find yourself there, you have to stop by Lavendel Apotheke am Schillerplatz and check out their aromatherapy products.

You may be wondering how an introduction to the in-laws is relevant to the topic of team performance. Here's how:

What individuals think is normal and not normal matters. It matters a lot.

Tom and I struggled to understand one another because we didn't have a shared context. Some twenty years later we are still having the same conversation, albeit with mutual understanding built up with time and patience. The words have changed to “That is not normal to me.”

Let's say we are putting a team together for a 3-6 month project. We clearly don't have twenty years to get everyone on the same page. How, then, do we establish a common sense as quickly and effectively as possible? That new common sense would help minimize misunderstandings that build up over time; those pesky disconnects that combine and compound on one another to strain relationships and drain performance.

Maybe we could avoid the problem by simply hiring people like ourselves. After all, even the smallest of disconnects can have an impact over time if allowed to persist, right? There are two problems with that:

Problem #1: There are no people like ourselves, and even if there were...

Ironically, the closer two individuals' versions of normal are, the harder it seems to be to identify misunderstandings when they occur. I learned this lesson the hard way on my first project abroad in Düsseldorf, Germany.

My team was made up of people from many different places, and I was told the work would be done primarily in English. That was a bit of a relief to me. My German skills were... let's say... limited. I prepared myself for the challenge of communicating across languages.

As it happened, I had far more misunderstandings with native English speakers than I did with everyone else. I assumed that if I understood the words, I also understood what they meant. It turns out that wasn't a very good assumption. With non-native speakers, on the other hand, I had prepared myself to listen more closely, and made a special effort to confirm my understanding through more active listening.

Note to self: Active listening is always a good idea, particularly when you think you need it least.

Problem #2: Surrounding yourself with people like you eliminates one of the most significant advantages of having a team to begin with.

When individuals come together for a common purpose while sharing different perspectives, that diversity can be the team's greatest asset. To put it another way: if everyone on the team thinks and behaves the same, then someone might be redundant. Duplication creates capacity, not capability.

Varied perspectives offer clearer vision, and an improved ability to “look around corners” to see potential challenges and opportunities. If those different perspectives can be shared and put to use by the team, they also provide more tools for problem solving. Steve Jobs said that "innovation happens when multiple disciplines intersect." That intersection of multiple disciplines is focused diversity.

So what's the solution?

What teams need is a way to identify and objectify what matters, together, in a manageable way. The key words here are “manageable” and “together.” They need a shared and understood basis to start working together.

The method must be simple enough to focus the team on what matters, at a level of abstraction that allows for general agreement on the big picture. With that agreement in place, progressive elaboration can proceed in a graceful and meaningful way. If the method chosen is too complex or elaborate, the team is likely to get lost in the details and frustrated by dissent and confusion.

The method should provide an open architecture of sorts, which allows various perspectives to be shared, compared, contrasted, and reconciled in a non-threatening, even playful way. If the method chosen is too prescriptive and inflexible, members of the team may reject it before even giving it a chance to work.

Lessons from the Gaming Community


The first modern role playing games were paper based. While offering unlimited creativity and variability, Dungeons & Dragons provided an abstraction layer simple enough for pre-teens to grasp and use -- so easily, in fact, that they saw it as just having fun. 

My son tells me that the Dota2 online gaming community lobbied the game maker to require new players to successfully complete a tutorial version of the game before they can join real players in a real game. They wanted new players to understand the different roles on a team and the accountabilities associated with each role. They wanted new players to understand the language used during matches before being placed in win-lose situations. They demanded a certain level of competence even from the newest of players. They asked for what they wanted, and they got it.

In both games, players form teams quickly and take performance seriously while having fun at the same time. They work within a well-understood set of norms that allows them to leverage every team member, adapt quickly to surprises, and enjoy themselves with minimal discord. In the case of Dota2, this happens in less than 60 minutes in an environment where diversity in time zones, cultures and languages is the norm, not the exception. It works!

We can learn from these kids and the games they play.

Form a Meta Team

By adopting and adapting concepts from role-playing games, together with a knowledge of how teams work in real life, we can create an abstraction layer simple and meaningful enough that just discussing it with the team will make things better.

That abstraction layer makes it easier for them to discuss and consider aspects of their own performance more objectively. This, in turn, reduces the time and effort needed to establish a performing team. When team members look at the team itself as a system they enter meta team mode. They become a team about a team. These meta teams tend to be very focused and utilitarian.

Meta teams work together to build and constantly refine a common sense about themselves, their purpose, and what matters to them both as individuals and as a team. They create a common sense that is strong, flexible, resilient and playful enough to get past the way things are and accelerate towards the way we want them to be.

Teams adopting this as normal practice are able to improve how they improve. This results in happier, better performing teams and a higher return on investments in people, process, and technology.