[Life Back West] May 2009 – The Ties that Bind

This Sunday approximately 3,500 people, many of them strangers, will hop on their bicycles or take up their ride support stations and start a 545 journey that will last seven days from San Francisco to Los Angeles for AIDS LifeCycle 8 . It’s the 16th such undertaking dating back to the mid-90’s to raise money for AIDS support groups in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

With a mantra of “How many experiences do you remember for a lifetime?” many of these cyclists and support “roadies” will have done a ride, or three or ten before. Surprising, the same things that keep these group of riders coming back for more (“Welcome to the cult” can be overheard) are the same elements that keep formal groups together, purposeful and moving forward.

This critical ways groups connect – whether seemingly ad hoc like these cyclists or like the higher performing business groups to which you and I might belong – is through shared interests, values, and /or experiences.

For groups to endure, these types of bonds must be passed along, communicated from one “generation” to another. A key to making those bonds durable is to bring them to life through shared experiences such as rituals or active practice, passing the DNA from one generation to the next. As noted in research on the subject of higher performing teams , part of the way they become effective is to be conscious of their own workings.

As one example, a board with which I work is in a two-year transition mode. Right now it is integrating a cohort of new trustees, and anticipating a large group of incumbent trustees departing later this year. This board has the luxury of cementing basics, such as board governance and process, an advantage gained from being well functioning and mostly devoid of the crisis du jour.

In this group’s case, the tasks at hand, though real and important, are not urgent and critical: board leadership has a chance to pause, think things through, and ensure that some of the key practices and mindsets of the trustees are evidenced in real-life board situations.  In their process, people can see how things get done, understand the context of how values and processes have been applied, and have the chance to drill down, work them and remember them.

There’s a self-serving payoff to this approach: groups that take these steps come up to speed a little faster, perform at a higher level, and are usually both more efficient and more effective in their work. The overarching goal is to sustain an effective work group similar to Rensis Likert’s model .

Work groups require upkeep and maintenance – not unlike personal relationships – and must be nurtured to endure and flourish. As Bruce Springsteen wrote in a 1980’s release of the same name :

You sit and wonder just who’s gonna stop the rain
Who’ll ease the sadness, who’s gonna quiet the pain
It’s a long dark highway and a thin white line
Connecting baby, your heart to mine
We’re runnin’ now but darlin’ we will stand in time
To face the ties that bind
The ties that bind
Now you can’t break the ties that bind
You can’t forsake the ties that bind

In the case of the riders on the road to Los Angeles, the “instant community” will be jelled by a series of iteratively communicated instructions to both cyclists’ hearts and heads on how to behave that apply to both biking  (“ride safely”) and participant citizenship (“be respectful of others”).

Effective teams and business groups that do the same – taking time for clarifying the purpose, being clear in communicating the means – get the same rewards: high performing groups comprised of people tied together by common bonds.