[Life Back West] November 2008 – “Rocket Science”

Yale professor and statistician Ed Tufte has crisply detailed the unfortunate trail of missed information that led to the death of astronauts and the failure of the Challenger spacecraft mission. In brief the issue was not that NASA lacked the relevant information to make a correct decision: they had the information – they just didn’t understand it.

My coaching work with start-up and leadership teams shares a similarity with Tufte’s work with the Challenger episode: how do you surface the most important information and act on it? And how do you avoid getting bogged down in information that is less significant or that simply blinds or derails?

A first thing I think about when working with a team is how to collect data that is relevant and specific to them. My bias is to use a quick, nimble structured process that is informed from in-person interviews with a very few well-designed questions .

These short confidential “intakes” frequently include questions such as, "What are the one or two things that would raise your team’s performance up a couple of notches?" and, "What are the things that make this group work? – things you want to sustain" – questions which enable the collection of important information to move quickly and which help the group pinpoint their key issues and opportunities. Rather than a templated solution – where the assumption is that all teams have the same issues – this process helps clients work directly with their own key areas (rather than the ones a consultant identifies) – and helps them devise actions steps to correct what needs improvement, and to sustain or improve what’s working.

This approach – part reliable structure, part art in interviewing and collecting data from thousands of such sessions – is part rocket science and is similar to Tufte’s process for visual information. How do you thoughtfully help teams surface the most significant information and avoid being distracted from what is less important? How do you focus – in a team setting – on the sometimes big, but sometimes small things that drive greater performance?

The results side of the equation with the client teams is predictable. Teams that work the process and follow-up on the action steps they’ve identified improve; the rare groups that don’t follow-up stay stuck.

Like Junior Johnson’s quote "When you sit down to a breakfast of eggs and bacon, the chicken is committed but the pig is dedicated” – the difference in performance results is frequently dedication and follow-up.

All the best,

J. Mike

P.S. Ed Tufte will be in the San Francisco Bay Area doing his great one-day workshops in December. More information is here