Creating high-performing teams is incredibly important. After all, who among us has been spared the drudgery of being on a terrible team where we felt our time was wasted, our opinions were not valued and the quality of the work was shamefully inadequate? Nowadays, most of us work in some kind of team. Even as a sole proprietor I have regular collaborators, and when we work together we are a team. Moreover, when I am working with clients, whether as a speaker, trainer, coach or consultant– we are a team. Along with wanting to be part of great teams, the teams we are already on need to find ways to improve and optimize their work. The process of doing that, of continuously improving the work of a team, can be fraught with challenges. Inevitably, some people are more vocal than others, or folks get their feelings hurt, some participants may be uncomfortable speaking in a group, or simply be shy, or someone may find another team member inexplicably irritating. Along with causing conflicts, natural variation in personality types can create inequality in how much everyone contributes and that inequality can mean that the final product misses valuable contributions from those at the low end of the equation.
One of the best processes for improving a team or its output comes from the world of engineering and Six Sigma™. It is a process called “Plus-Delta”. The idea is that at the end of a meeting, or a milestone, or some other regular and predictable increment, you have a session in which every member of the team states what, in his or her opinion, was the most positive, productive or excellent part of the meeting, process or product (the “Plus”) and what aspect of it was least positive as compared to an ideal version of the meeting (the “Delta”). Plus-Delta is not just another way to say “what was good and what wasn’t”. It is an exercise in distinguishing what would bring the process closest to its most perfect iteration. So the Pluses are those aspects of the experience that express the best possible version of the process, and the Delta’s are those areas that diverge from the best possible. “Delta” in this context is taken from the mathematical concept of change, or difference between one state and another – not “bad” or “wrong”.
So in a team of four people, one person starts and says “I thought X was really effective”, and then the next person says what they thought. There is no reason why everyone can’t say the same thing – and so it’s important that people not feel they need to be original. The idea is to be honest, so that the strongest parts of the meeting can be identified and strengthened. Oftentimes, if several people say the same thing, that can be great evidence for deepening or focusing on a certain method or approach.
The second part of the process is the Delta. Again, this is not the “Minus” or “Bad” aspects, but the ones that… if the process were utterly perfected, would change. In other words, the Delta’s are the areas of change to move the process toward its most perfect version. It can be helpful when a team is first doing this process to actually preface the comments by saying “In a perfect version of our team meeting…”. For example, “in a perfect version of the presentation there would be much less text”. Or, “in the best version of our meeting, Amie would talk less and Daniel would talk more”. In really strong examples of Plus-Delta, the comments are that succinct and direct. There is no need to explain, justify or convince. Everyone gives their Pluses. Everyone gives their Deltas. One important point. In Plus-Delta someone records the entire conversation by listing and keeping the Pluses and Deltas each and every time it is performed.
In my experience there are a lot of processes out there that look like Plus Delta but fail to deliver its incredible power. For example, lots of teams apply a sort of “Plus/ Minus” assessment, or “What worked/ What didn’t work” process. Plus-Delta is subtly and powerfully different than both of those. For one thing, Plus/Minus or Worked/Didn’t Work presumes a value judgment. That is not the case with Plus-Delta. Plus-Delta assumes a comparison of the current process to an idealized one. It is a subtle but critical distinction.
Secondly, Plus-Delta is documented. By noting and keeping all of the Pluses and Deltas the team generates an archive of its own evolution and self-development. This builds on itself. So the Plus-Delta process becomes stronger the more a team uses it, and as the team adopts its recommendations, it grows more effective and better at the process. In that way, Plus-Delta is a self-reinforcing process that gives rise to a virtuous cycle of continuous improvement. The trick is to use it consistently and with an understanding of the underlying principles.
Obviously, the power of this process depends on some very important team attributes. Perhaps the most important one is that the team must provide a psychologically “safe space”. For people to feel free genuinely to give their opinions, they must feel comfortable that what they say will not be taken personally, and they must trust that what they hear is not personal. As it turns out, “safety” is one of the most fundamental qualities of high-performing teams. As part of a commitment to optimizing their work, Google has researched and generated copious quantities of data on the quality of its own teams, and why those that work succeed – as well as what undermines those that do not. There is a great deal of wisdom to glean from their data, and I will cover more of it in a later post. Thespecific finding that is so pertinent to this post, is that “psychological safety” was the single most important determinant of a team’s success. When using Plus-Delta, that safety is challenged if the comments are mean-spirited, personal or include lots of commentary. To be effective, comments should be short, unexplained, and not intended to personally attack (which is not to say that they won’t address the behavior, work product or performance of individuals). But obviously, commenting that an individual’s behavior or performance is the subject of a Delta can be tricky. Some of the following tips will help with that, as well as with mastering the whole Plus-Delta process.
The key points to effectively employing Plus-delta on your teams are:
- Do it regularly, after each team meeting or workshop, presentation or substantial call.
- Appoint a recorder for each session. Document and save the Pluses and Deltas.
- Do all of the Pluses than do all of the Deltas.
- As your team is learning how to do the process, start each Delta by saying “In a perfect version of our meeting/process/presentation…”.
- No explanations, persuasions or examples.
- Don’t take anything personally.
- Don’t mean anything personally.
- Set a hard time limit of no more than 1 minute for each comment. Use a stopwatch at first.
As simple as this process may seem on the surface, it is a highly sophisticated and powerful tool for building super high-performing teams. Try it for a few weeks or months and I promise you will see incredible and measurable results, both in the quality of your team’s dynamics and in its output!
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