Teams are Organic Systems; Therefore, by Definition, Unstable.

As you continue to explore team leadership being different from team management, you now need to look at another aspect of the team.

A team is also a system. When you look at it from that angle, you need to recognize that systems come in many forms. One way to look at them is either mechanical or organic. Mechanical systems are things like computers, cars, and factories. Mechanical systems are, by definition, stable. You may feel that your car is "moody," but that probably reflects more about you than the car. The car just either works or not. Meaning, it continues to work up to a point, then it snaps and goes kaput.

Human beings—the core elements of your team—are organic systems, as are cats, cauliflowers or caterpillars. By definition, organic systems are unstable. They are always in transition from one state to another. Humans go from happy to excited to sad, from wide awake to drowsy, from enthusiastic to reluctant and back again—on and on it goes. Change is the only constant in life.

If you try and handle this instability with only team management tools, you quickly get into trouble. The whole principle of team management is that you can set up rules, and ways of doing things that can be replicated every day no matter what. Great idea if you are working with a stable system, but quite tricky if you are working with an unstable system. Add to that the complexity of having team members who don't transition from one stage to another in an orderly and synchronized manner, and you've got yourself in a bind. Team Member A is happy, but Team Member B is frustrated and Team Member C is indifferent. Tomorrow, it may be the other way round.

However, the instability is not completely random. You just typically shift to a new state as a result of some stimulus. This can be due to a change in weather, a remark from a colleague, or a difficult task, among others. The list is endless. This is where you see the big difference between organic and mechanical systems. Your car does not get sad when it rains, happy when you are going downhill or frustrated by all the bigger cars on the road. It just does what it's made to do in the same state, no matter what.

Now all this may seem obvious to you. But in my day-to-day work as a coach, I keep running into team leaders who are assuming that everyone on their team is operating like a machine, having two states, "on" and "off."

The first step is to acknowledge and accept that this is what's going on. Learn to live with the fact that everyone around you is unstable, including you.

Secondly, if you are the kind of team leader who is highly volatile, moody, or otherwise prone to dramatic shifts in your states, you need to learn to manage your states.

Thirdly, now that you are aware that this is what's going on, you need to help your team members better manage their states, which will be discussed in the next blog post.


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Mike Hohnen, MBA is a coach, trainer, author and public speaker who supports leaders, managers and their teams in implementing the principles of the Service Profit Chain.

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