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An interview with Harold Resnick

Interview by: James Nelson

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Harold S. ResnickDuring his 30 years in organizational development and training, Harold S. Resnick has earned international recognition as a leading authority and innovator in organizational transformation and leadership development.

He has consulted with hundreds of private and public sector companies in North and South America, Europe and the Middle East.

In 1980, Resnick founded Work Systems Associates, a management and organizational development consulting firm, which developed proprietary systems and methods used by organizations to develop their leadership talent, address team issues, build quality systems, and achieve transformational change.

In 1996, he founded Generation 21 Learning Systems, a software company that developed one of the seminal web-based training and knowledge management systems which became the technology of choice for such leading organizations as the NASA space shuttle, Dell Computers and Verizon.

Resnick has had a special focus in developing highly empowered process improvement and self directed work teams for clients such as ABB, Volvo, General Motors, Shell Oil and Philips Electronics.

He talks here about the process of chartering a team, and how this process makes a team more empowered.


How does chartering a team enhance the odds that its work will be successful?

Harold S. Resnick:

Simply stated, team chartering is the act of guiding a team through the process of defining itself: its scope, its goals, its behaviours, and all the other elements essential for a team if it is to have the clarity of purpose and direction essential for guiding an organization and creating sustained business success. A charter is like a contract between the team and the organization.

Chartering ensures clarity about behaviour and goals at the beginning of the team’s existence, which helps avoid misunderstanding later on. The charter gives the team a baseline against which to measure performance and monitor results. The process also helps the team diagnose why problems occur and take corrective action.

Chartered teams are empowered. They know their roles, responsibilities and limits, and how they work with the rest of the organization. While they may not have any control over the formal decision-making process, they can bring influence to bear because they have a pre-agreed pathway to the board of directors.

What are some of the core elements of a charter?

Harold S. Resnick:

There are ten key elements and to be sure a charter is complete, it’s important to include all ten, these being:

  1. Defined purpose. This is a short paragraph, or even a single sentence, expressing why the team exists and what the organization requires of it.
  2. Team members. This sets out who has been selected to be on the team.
  3. Mission. This is typically developed by the team itself. It refines and clarifies the purpose, and often adds a measurable result.
  4. Organizational linkage. Explainshow the team relates to its broader organization in terms of resources, communication, authority, approval, etc.
  5. Boundaries. Sets out the scope of the team’s formal authority and influence, or what it can do without asking for permission.
  6. Team and individual responsibilities. This explains what the team and its members are responsible for achieving.
  7. Measurements. This establishes agreed responsibilities, in terms of quantity, quality, time or costs.
  8. Operating guidelines. Clarifies how the team will work, make decisions, communicate, resolve conflict, etc.
  9. Endorsement. This is the approval and commitment to the charter from the individual or group to whom the team reports.
  10. Communication to others. The charter should be shared with everyone the team is involved with day-to-day, to ensure clarity of focus and a good working relationship.

What are the main steps involved in the chartering process?

Harold S. Resnick:

There are six main steps involved, and they apply to all types of team. The first is to define the team. Here the executive or the group that the team will report to creates a purpose statement for the team, which establishes the work to be accomplished. The team sponsor should also be identified. This person is not a member of the team, but someone who acts as a go-between to link the team to the rest of the organization. They carry communication from the broader organization to the team, and help the team decide how best to communicate with others. The sponsor also acts as a team supporter and “ombudsman.”

“Team members should be flexible enough to realize that they still have to learn, and can do so from each other. They must also exhibit the kind of behaviour the team requires for success.”

The next stage of defining the team is to select the team leader. This is the person responsible for guiding the team’s work and insuring goals are met. Selection may be done by the group forming the team, the sponsor, or the team itself.

Then the boundaries for the team must be established. Confusion results if a team is not aware of how far it can go and what is outside its scope. There are three elements:

  • work over which the team has total control and is fully empowered to act;
  • where there are limitations and approval must be obtained; and
  • the outer edge of the boundaries, beyond which the team is not authorized to go.

If the team participates in developing these boundaries they will “own” them and be more committed. Boundaries should also be periodically reviewed.

And the second step?

Harold S. Resnick:

To clarify the team purpose. Once there is a team leader, a sponsor, a purpose statement and a set of boundaries, the core team members can be selected. Those chosen should have appropriate knowledge and skill to make a contribution, and together they should reflect a range of experience. Less experienced people may challenge assumptions which others take for granted. Diversity in terms of function, specialties and other characteristics will also bring different perspectives.

Team members should be flexible enough to realize that they still have to learn, and can do so from each other. They must also exhibit the kind of behaviour the team requires for success.

When the team members have been chosen, they can review the purpose statement, and refine it to produce a mission statement and specific business goals or results. These objectives might come under functional categories, such as marketing or manufacturing, or might relate to broader concerns such as customer satisfaction or core process improvement. The goals form the basis of the team’s work and provide guidelines for assessing performance.

Assessing performance will then require clearly defined accountabilities?

Harold S. Resnick:

Yes, and setting responsibilities is the next point. Having defined its required results the team can identify its core responsibilities. These represent what the team is fully responsible for, and must be “owned” by each member. From the team’s responsibilities come individual accountabilities for each member, based on where they feel they can make the best contribution. In high-performance teams, the sum of the individual responsibilities will exceed what is required to achieve the team’s objectives.

Such teams are clear about individual and collective responsibilities, and will help and support each other to ensure they are achieved. No one operates in isolation, and a complex web of interdependencies will develop. As the team is setting its own responsibilities, it should also identify the key resources, results and inputs required from elsewhere in the organization. Identifying these shared responsibilities has two implications: the team will monitor performance against them, and provide assistance as required to guarantee their fulfilment. In the best teams there is no defensiveness or blame, everyone realizes it is in their interests to support each other in achieving the organization’s goals.

Where do we go after setting responsibilities?

Harold S. Resnick:

From there the team develops operating guidelines. Teams which have been operating for a while develop a particular way of working, or style. This includes who makes decisions, how new ideas are drawn out, how conflict is managed, how communication is achieved and how members participate. After a time these become unconscious norms.

However, behaviours may develop which are not entirely positive and detract from the team’s performance. Because of this, it is useful at the beginning of a team’s existence to make a conscious effort to set operating guidelines. These cover the functions which the team will perform most often. For example, guidelines can be created for:

  • setting goals;
  • defining roles and responsibilities;
  • communication;
  • team meetings;
  • team decision making;
  • measuring team performance;
  • issue resolution;
  • managing change;
  • addressing inappropriate interpersonal behaviour; and
  • avoiding “groupthink.”

Several approaches can be taken to creating these guidelines. One is to devote a working session to discuss each area and decide how it will be addressed. A second is to conduct a “what if” exercise based on a hypothetical situation so the team can assess the most appropriate behaviour. Or, it may be sufficient to identify the categories under which the guidelines will fall, but leave their definition until the team encounters the problem for real. A review of their response will allow an operating guideline to be decided upon.

Most teams use a combination of these approaches. While they may set core guidelines up front, others may leave it to the test of time. They also appreciate that operating guidelines are not cast in stone – they must be reviewed and adjusted as circumstances change or as they are proved to be limiting or inefficient.

The guidelines which are set should be shared with people who are involved with the team. They also constitute a valuable tool for orienting new team members.

Then, after developing the team operating guidelines, we move to the next step which is to develop interpersonal behaviour guidelines.

“Particularly where the team has had problems in the past, it may be necessary to set rules for interpersonal conduct. These govern such areas as commitment to goals, decision making, exploring all options, and being positive about new ideas.”

Operating guidelines define how the team will work together and with other parts of the organization. In some circumstances it may be necessary to formulate additional guidelines for how individual team members should treat each other and the team. It is essential if there are some team members who do not tend to work well in teams or who have been antagonistic toward each other in the past. Areas in which such guidelines are appropriate are:

Core values. The organization’s values may be sufficient to guide behaviour, but some teams decide they want additional values specific to their mission. Values are what people fall back on when they are unsure what to do. They guide in resolving judgement calls. However, they are often expressed in somewhat nebulous terms, and so can be interpreted differently. The best way to word a value is to describe it and create an operating definition at the same time. For example, integrity as a value may mean “we will stand by our word and meet our commitments“.

Guiding principles. These operating definitions may also be expressed as guiding principles, derived from the values and describing appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. For example, “Respect for each other is essential to our integrity as a firm. We will demonstrate our respect by actively listening to each other and not treating any human being in a demeaning manner”. They are more personal than the guidelines defined for the team’s behaviour as a whole, and once established will guide every team member’s individual actions.

Particularly where the team has had problems in the past, it may be necessary to set rules for interpersonal conduct. These govern such areas as commitment to goals, decision making, exploring all options, and being positive about new ideas. They should be clearly stated to prevent inappropriate behaviour.

Conflict resolution. It is not the intention of teams to avoid conflict at all costs, but rather to use it constructively, using creative tension to solve problems rather than cause discord. There are six fundamental approaches to conflict resolution, these being:

  • Win-win – “Let’s find a way together.”
  • Compromise – “Let’s make a deal.”
  • Win-lose – “Be reasonable and do it my way.”
  • Lose-win – “I give up.”
  • Avoidance – “We won’t talk about this now.”
  • Lose-lose – “If we can’t play my way I’ll leave and take the ball with me.”

A team should learn to recognize the symptoms of each approach, and choose its dominant and back-up styles. Then they can identify what will show something is going wrong, so they know when to call “time out” to reconsider their processes. An outside facilitator can often help to resolve conflict productively.

Which brings us to the final step?

Harold S. Resnick:

This is the endorsement of the charter. Endorsement represents the organization’s approval, commitment and support for the charter. It should be obtained from the team’s sponsor, and from the next level of management or board of directors, as appropriate. This will give the team confidence that its requests for resources or assistance in the future will be heard and acted upon. Once fully endorsed, the charter should be shared with all stakeholders – a summary may be better than the whole document.

Thinking about the points you’ve discussed, the chartering process turns out to be a major undertaking!

Harold S. Resnick:

Chartering a team is not a search for the “feel good” factor, nor is it something to be accomplished in an afternoon. It is real work, defining how the team will operate and what its common goals, measures and rules will be. It is essential for building collective commitment and accountability, and for achieving clarity about its purpose, which distinguishes a high-performance team.

May 2008.