"Unite" is one of my favorite words. It can be defined as "to join, combine, or incorporate so as to form a single whole or unit."

The "United States" would be an example of this -- 13 independent states forming a union to unite the states. The founding fathers of our country envisioned independent, free states that were joined by their common interests. A united set of states adds on to the strong, independent states by making the states stronger through that union. We know that when we, as U.S. citizens are divided about security/war, we can become weaker and more vulnerable. But we also know that when the citizens of the United States unite, we are a force that is difficult for any enemy to deal with.

"United" is a very popular word as part of a name of organizations -- United Airlines, United Healthcare, United Way, United Nations, DC United, First United Methodist Church, United Technologies, United Steel Workers, United Space Alliance, United Press International, United Artists, etc.

A team in an organization has so much potential to achieve great results and gain a competitive advantage when it unites. It doesn't mean that there wasn't debate and disagreement. Sometimes these disagreements are not productive. Sometimes they get passionate. And sometimes the disagreements can feel personal. But effective teams know after they, as team members, have been able to weigh-in and their ideas have been heard, then it is time to unite behind a plan of action - A Game Plan.

Being a Heartbreaker

One great example of that might be in the world of sports -- my wide world of sports. As some of you know, I play in an adult baseball league. About 4 or 5 years ago, I played on a team called the Heartbreakers. Our manager, Dave Deal, picked the name. It was not the typical team name like the Astros, the Cardinals, the Yankees, etc. We were the only team in the whole league without printed uniforms. We wore plain black shirts with no letters/numbers/logos on it and plain black hats with nothing on it. Dave wanted us to be underestimated. Dave wanted to "break some hearts" - in baseball that is. Based on how some of the other teams would snicker at our lack of baseball fashion, they did underestimate us in our first season until we proved we were for real -- finishing in 2nd place. We worked our way through the playoffs to play in the championship game against the Rangers -- perennial champs. Unfortunately the timing of the championship was not good for us. That day of the championship - only 7 of our players could show up. As most of you know, you need 9 players to field a full team. But in our league, you are allowed to play with 7 players. You can borrow 2 fielders from the other team but they don't bat for you. When their spots in the batting order (8th and 9th in the batting order) come up, you take automatic outs (but not if the automatic out would be the third out of an inning.)

But Dave had his own game plan and we all got behind it. He proposed that we not borrow 2 fielders and play with only 7 in the field. Of course, most would say that is a crazy strategy to build a game plan around -- playing in 95 degree June heat without a second baseman and an outfielder on a field almost the size of a major league field. But then we wouldn't have to take any outs while we batted. When Dave presented his rationale to us, he made the following points:

  • He preferred our 7 players in the field to having 9 fielders including 2 of their players who probably wouldn't play their best
  • He liked what our 7 players could do to produce runs and didn't want the disadvantage of having to take an automatic 1 to 2 outs when we were batting
  • He believed it would be a lot more fun because we would all probably bat 5 or 6 times
  • He thought this might make them overconfident since how could a team with 7 players win a championship game (his strategy of being underestimated)

It didn't take him long to convince us. We knew we had nothing to lose and everything to gain. We quickly developed our game plan. Dave prepared the batting order and the rest of us began making our fielding adjustments. I was our team's right fielder, but that day, I shared the entire outfield with another player. He was the left center fielder and I was the right center fielder. The infielders also had to make adjustments where the shortstop and first baseman had to determine when each of them would need to cover second base and when second base would not be covered. What Dave didn't say -- we all knew. Dave was probably the best pitcher in the league even with very bad knees. Dave would keep us in the game. We just needed to make plays in the field as best as we could.

I learned a lot about how a team can unite with an effective game plan:

  • The best strategy is one that exploits your advantages -- even if you are disadvantaged
  • A team's leader can make the best decisions for a game plan, autocratically. But to unite the team, he/she has to engage the team to get feedback -- by having a debate or by persuading the team as to his/her rationale.
  • You need to have the right players to execute your strategy - talented, skilled, optimistic, team-oriented, etc.
  • When you don't have the resources you need, you need to set priorities to maximize what you can accomplish as a Team
  • You have to adjust your roles and responsibilities to fit the strategy
  • The right game plan inspires confidence in the team members and stretches them to perform at higher levels

So I know you would like to know -- did we win the game? Did we deliver the championship? The game was very close right up until the end. Clearly the Rangers were frustrated that they couldn't dominate us. Our team's positive attitude and belief that we could win this game was fueling our playing above expectations. We played with aggressiveness and with hustle -- to make plays in the field. We all batted at least 6 times and put 9 runs on the board. It was tied going into the latter stages of the game when the Rangers put runners on 2nd and 3rd and an unlikely hero hit a ground ball right where the second baseman would have been (had we had one) to score two runs that were the game winners.

Although we lost the game, I was only mildly disappointed. The outcome would not likely have been any better if we borrowed their fielders. If you saw us walking off the field that day and didn't know the score, you would have thought we won and if you saw the looks on the faces of the Rangers walking off the field, you would have thought they lost that game. Clearly we united as a team behind Dave's game plan. The Rangers had a clear advantage that day but they did not unite as a team like we did. We had just as much opportunity to win that game as the Rangers did and that felt like a victory. Dave and I recently reminisced about this game. Yes, a victory would have been "sweet." We were so close to being the ultimate "heart breakers."

Growth in Food Intake

This multi-unit restaurant company was in the early stages of a rapid growth cycle. This company was a client for a number of years while they grew from 5 units to 25 units. This early stage of restaurant unit growth was very challenging because the company lacked the systems/process infrastructure for growth but the company needed the growth to be able to justify the investment in systems/process infrastructure -- a classic "is it the chicken or egg that came first" dilemma. The company had some very good people but were more experienced at driving profit in a unit-by-unit basis than driving more cost effective new units by a "cookie cutter" replication approach.

I helped the management team implement a planning process that included a three-year strategic plan and one year annual plan for the company as well as one year annual plans for each unit/function. The three-year strategic plan helped unite the management team on the steps for achieving their vision for rapid growth expansion. The one year company plan and one year unit/function plans helped align the segments of the company towards achieving needed business performance improvements. They united behind those plans that year and achieved significant improvements in operating results - 10% increase in Same Store Sales and 12% increase in net operating profit on those same stores. Those were significantly higher than the previous year.

And You Turn It All Around -- That's What It's All About

Having the right game plan is subject of much discussion these days when we talk about deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. There will be debate for years about whether BP had the right plan and was united around that plan. BP (and Amoco) has been a client for many years. About 10 years ago, I had a consulting assignment with a BP project team. This project team united with the right game plan and had the results to prove it. One of their Gulf of Mexico deepwater production platforms (a joint venture) had to be shutdown both for a maintenance turnaround as well as some expansion of the platform. Since the production for this platform was $2 million per day, a timely and effective project was important. It was expected that the platform would be shut down 35 days.

Since the project involved many people representing different disciplines (engineers, electricians, construction managers, safety, environmental, etc.), it was important that roles and responsibilities were aligned to minimize delays, communicate between changes, etc. We had a two-day meeting right before the shutdown and most of the 50 people involved in this project were at the meeting. Each discipline identified their primary responsibilities and what they needed from others to execute on those responsibilities. The issues were identified and some plans were put in place to solve/address those issues. Handoffs and communication were key issues if the project team was going to be able to execute this project within the 35-day expectation. The project leader was very satisfied with the outcome of the meeting. I heard from the project leader about 6 weeks after this meeting about the results of this turnaround and expansion project. They did not complete the project in 35 days. They completed it in 28 days which had a $14 million impact in that year's financial results. He believed that the roles and responsibilities alignment put them on the same page right before they headed into the turnaround and helped the team go forward with a plan that reduced delays, kept them on their critical path, etc.

*      *      *

Being clear on the team's priorities, exploiting your strengths to your advantage and aligning your roles and responsibilities are just some of the characteristics that are part of an effective game plan that can unite your team to achieve the expected results.

I learned a lot from my friend Dave Deal. You can achieve more than is expected if you have the right game plan -- even if you don't have the resources you need. So unite your team with the right game plan. Then maybe some day you, too, can be a Heartbreaker.

© Michael R. Goodfriend, Goodfriend & Associates, Inc., 2010

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"Mike, thanks for sharing, some good learnings and enjoyed the correlation. I will have to use this on my British colleagues."

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  A clever way to explain and consider the Birkman Method. I appreciate you sending this to me!

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