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Whirling Chief


Ben Bratt

Ben Bratt is passionate about engaging teams, coaching leaders, and transforming people-related systems. Throughout his 20+ years in Fortune 500 telecom, IT, and automotive companies, Ben gained global experience and broad leadership expertise. Most recently, he was VP of Talent and Organization Capability at T-Mobile US, responsible for Talent Acquisition, Leadership and Organization Development, and Workforce Strategy and Insights. Previously he was with Sun Microsystems, Volkswagen of America, Ford Motor Company, and start-up company Model E.

In his current role as the Principal and Founder of The Team Effectiveness Project, Ben aims to unlock the true power of teams. His Team Elements™ approach helps teams and leaders clarify and de-mystify their team experience, take ownership for their current situation and path forward, and ensure that every voice is included in the process. Ben earned BA and MA degrees in Political Science (Calvin College and Tulane University, respectively) and a MA in Counseling from Michigan State University.

Organizational Development

Nº 119

Teams at the Heart of Transformation

A world of hope, a collective leap of faith

Transformation of any type invites us to an imagined future. It asks us to lay down our tired assumptions and well-worn methods to embrace new ideas and almost unimagined possibilities. It begs us to see incremental change as an imposter. It asks us to suspend disbelief and take a leap of faith.

Organization transformation is no different.

To hold a vision of a fundamentally transformed organization is simultaneously an act of charity and an act of hope. The charity should be applied to ourselves, for we are the defenders and perpetuators of every entanglement in the current state we dislike. The hope we carry must be for those who follow in our footsteps, those who will benefit from the transformation we can picture just over that horizon. We hope that they will judge the transformation to have been beneficial in the long term, worth far more than the effort and resources we invest in it now.

But these things – vision, charity, hope, belief – are compromised by an illusion we keep close to us. This is the illusion of our separateness.

The missing 3rd level

The predominant narrative in contemporary organizations is that transformation happens at two fundamental levels: the Individual and the Organizational. After all, it’s the individual who must participate in the change. Whether or not the individual chooses to lead, “go with the flow”, lag behind, or even resist, we still choose to focus on an action of a single person. As change management supports ramp up, the focus often remains on the individual and what she or he thinks, feels, and does about this invitation to profound change.

At the Organization level, transformation is often broadly and urgently needed (if not, then why are we using the word “transformation”?). Outside factors force organizations to adapt more quickly than ever. The organization’s viability is often at stake.

In this simplified portrait of individuals within organizations, people appear distinct and separate. The picture seems complete. Measures of progress might tell us, “46% of employees in Operations support the transformation initiative.” Our focus then turns to the remaining 54% and what we’ll do about “those people.”

But we’re missing something. The picture is only two dimensional. It’s missing the messy bits we don’t investigate, measure, or support well. Absent from our worldview are the actual small social ecosystems people spend their time in: the Team.

Teams play three key roles in transformation

First, Teams help people connect during times of change. The changes associated with transformation create gaps. Where previously we were bound by understood structures, processes, and networks, we find ourselves disconnected and adrift in instability.

The Team plays a key role for individuals by helping to fill social and psychological needs for grounding and connection. The Team is small bit of gravity in a transforming work world that seems to be floating.

Second, Teams help people make meaning. Individuals seek to incorporate not only basic information about what’s changing, but the meaning to infer from all of those changes. In Teams we ask: “What does this mean for me? And for us?” “What does this say about our company?”

Together in our Teams, we test concepts, ask questions, seek clarification, and determine relevance. We learn. Even the best-intentioned change management programs fail to deliver all the needed information at just the right time and in just the right way. So, we assemble our collective intelligence to sift for the relevant parts. Even if the transformation doesn’t seem to make complete sense, we’ll connect dots until we find some meaning.

Finally, Teams help individuals mobilize for action. Ecosystems thrive, adapt, or die together. As individuals, it can be completely rational to choose not to change. Each of us weighs the costs and benefits of actually committing to the requested change. When there is no social support or accountability, I can simply shrug my shoulders and carry on with what I was doing.

Teams, however, create a vessel for exploring the newness of the transformed organization. They are a crucible for testing different ways of working. When my Team mates say, “Hey, we’re all in this together. Let’s give it a try”, it’s more difficult to turn our backs on the learning we will acquire through experimentation.

The Path

It’s expensive to persist in our illusion of separateness. It’s costly to our organizations when transformations stall or fail to deliver the needed outcomes. Frankly, we should be using every lever at our disposal.

To enable the fullest organizational transformation, we must embrace the Team as a powerful unit of analysis. We must SEE our Teams as not only important to the change process, but embrace them as one of our few key leverage points. In our interdependence, our best attempts at transformation become rich and colored in 3-dimensional complexity. Yes, it may be a bit messier that way, but it’s a fine trade-off.

If you’re in transformation, give some thought to how best to focus and engage your Teams on the journey. Ask them: “How are the 10 of us doing with this whole “transformation” thing? Who’s stuck? Who has doubts? How can we move forward together?”

Once engaged, consider how best to equip them for the journey. Ideally people have the tools, supports, and materials to responsibly bring to life their piece of the overall transformation. Without those key enablers, the Team will pick up the signal that this transformation is no great priority.

Finally, knowing your Team the way you do, brainstorm how to best reward them for their dedicated effort and accomplishments. Teams that drive together thrive together. Make it clear that their extra attention to the transformation was well worth their time and effort.

Engaged in this way, your Team will be preservers and defenders of your most important assets in a transformation process: vision, charity, hope, and belief.

Join the conversation


  • 5 June 2017
Whirling Chief

Leadership & Team Development

Nº 91

Making Our Teams Matter


It’s not that teams aren’t important. They are. We know they are. Yet we live in a swirl of teams, often too busy or overwhelmed to see their true richness and tap their tremendous opportunity.

The issue? We don’t know what to do with the importance teams have in our lives.

Take a look at what we already know about the ubiquity and consistency of the importance of teams in organizations:

  • In my coaching and consulting company, when we begin working with a team that desires to improve effectiveness, we start with a simple question: “How many teams are you on here at work? How about at home and at play?” Over 10 years of asking this question, the answer is quite consistently around 8 or 9 teams.
  • You might wonder how many teams exist within your own organization. One good way to estimate this is to divide the number of employees by 7. If you have 14,000 employees, yes, it’s quite possibly you have 2,000 teams at your company, more or less.
  • Josh Bersin’s 2016 analysis of Global Human Capital trends seeks input from thousands of executives around the world. These executives’ number 1 concern, even higher than leadership development, culture, or workforce analytics? How to structure their organizations into highly effective and agile teams that can work across functional and organizational boundaries (pg. 3-5).
  • Global powerhouse Google spent two years studying their teams to determine which variables predict better team results. [Google, like Cisco and others, focus on and invest heavily in teams as the fundamental unit of productive work.] Certainly, they would find that the teams with the best results were made up of the most brilliant individuals, no? No. The teams with the best business results were ones with behavioral norms around empathy and listening, and in which leaders helped create a sense of psychological safety.
  • Finally, let’s return to Bersin, but this time his predictions of Human Capital trends in 2017. Not only is “designing organizations around teams” the number one trend (pp 6-8), but he now shows that our entire way of thinking about organizational management is evolving past the Industrial, Hierarchical, and Collaborative models, and now into Team-based management (Figure 9, pg. 19).

At a later date we can debate the merits of this shift to “Teams” as THE primary way of organizing and executing work in organizations. The difficulty at the moment is that the vast majority of us are simply not good at working collectively and fluidly in teams.

Remember that first question we ask clients? “How many teams are you on?” The next question we ask is: “What percentage of all the teams you are on would you rate as effective or highly effective?”. Over 10 years, the average answer is 20%. Put another way: 4 of 5 teams we put our lifetime of effort into don’t meet our own acceptable threshold of effectiveness.

And the kicker? When we ask our third question, “What percentage of struggling teams get any help improving their effectiveness?” the answer is a predictable and disheartening “less than 5%”.

The Pain

All of this is part of the continuing, unfolding process of organizations adapting to pressures. “Move faster. Change course with agility. Explore global opportunities. Leverage new technologies. Find ways to work with companies who were once our competitors, but now must become our partners.” Utilizing teams as the primary unit of work is simply our current answer to some ongoing, fundamental questions embedded within contemporary global organizations.

But it’s not a pain-free answer, and we have not created a trivial situation.

While organizing into Teams makes a lot of sense, and their importance is clear, it can be psychologically (and even physically) painful to be on a team that is struggling. Rather than feeling reasonably safe and trusting each other, we live on the edge of ‘fight or flight’. Rather than having the confidence that comes with clarity around the “why, what, and how” of our team, we emerge from conference rooms unable to comprehend why we tolerate such cluttered nonsense. We sleepwalk through conversations that could be deeply engaging, and we cling to habits that dull the senses.

The Crucible

Thankfully, we have choices.

Instead of being victims of our team experiences, we can choose to see teams as our most important organizing devices, and therefore worthy of investment of our attention, time, and resources. And if we did, we could begin to see teams for what they really are – the vital crucibles where we and our teammates find:

  • Goal Achievement and Performance
  • Relationship and Community
  • Context and Meaning
  • Feedback and Development
  • Conflict and Resolution

In this world, we now own our teams. We have deep sense of pride for how our team works and the things it produces. We are honored to be on a team and work to play a role in making each one more effective in its own unique way. We embrace and find wonder in these small social ecosystems that counteract the natural alienation we humans find in large, impersonal organizations.

The Ownership

Remember the last time you washed and waxed a rental car before returning it at the airport? No? That’s because no one does that. But the car we own? THAT ONE gets at least some level of differential treatment. It is an indispensable part of our daily journey. It safely carries our precious cargo. It brings us to new vistas. Without it, the destination is impossible.

Just like that car, that team…that’s one worth investing in. That team is an indispensable part of our journey together, it holds precious things, and it brings us to new and different outcomes.

If we can see that team, name its strengths and weaknesses, own its current and future state, then we earn both the right and responsibility to work towards its betterment.

When our primary challenge with teams is that we don’t know what to do with the importance teams have in our lives, seeing, naming, owning and working toward better outcomes is a path to a far preferable future. And it’s our choice.

Join the conversation


  • 27 February 2017