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A leader can reframe a situation. By recognizing that her own perspective may be incomplete, the leader can expand her frame to include more options for action than simply repeating herself.
Pharmaceutical teams bring together people from different organizations, cultures, and disciplines. They view their common project from different perspectives, yet they're expected to collaborate under pressure to achieve ambitious goals. Team leaders often take a results-oriented approach—usually one that targets only the goals of their own projects. But this single-minded focus can make teamwork difficult. Instead of defusing conflicts, it reinforces the disciplinary loyalties and silo-thinking that spawn discord between team members.
By reframing their role, from leading the team's work to building the team's knowledge, team leaders can achieve better overall results. In order to generate learning among one's team, leaders must learn how to identify the early-warning signs for unproductive interactions, and understand how to steer team conversations in more productive directions. By increasing a team's capacity to share perspectives and points of view, leaders increase everyone's likelihood of producing desirable results.
A manager from a multi-national pharmaceutical company brought this case to a leadership course that I teach at the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development (CSDD). On a team teleconference, Pat, the program leader, wants to discuss a protocol amendment with Mike, who works in a different location and reports to a different functional organization. Pat and Mike exhibit a dynamic called the "cross-functional reaction." It turns out to be a black hole.
Pat: We've discussed this protocol amendment and think we absolutely need it.
Mike: No, I don't think so. We have enough, and if the medical director wants more, he'll ask us.
Pat: But this may delay the review process.
Mike: We have so many higher priority things to do.
Pat: How much time would it take?
Mike: I couldn't say—our group has to look at all the details.
Pat: It isn't that complicated. With help from our end, you should be able to do it by the end of the week.
Mike: No, it'll take much longer.
Notice that Mike does not accept Pat's goal. He is defending his own. Pat reacts automatically, thinking, "Mike's got it wrong," and tries to fix the problem. Mike sticks to his guns and makes it clear that nothing needs fixing.
As team leader, Pat is playing by the classic management rules, focusing on the results for which she is accountable. This point of view blinds her to Mike's goals, and to the team's conflicts. So Pat and Mike do not realize that they see different aspects of the project, and therefore, focus on different results. Because they don't know where they differ, they're vulnerable to being surprised—as Pat is when Mike dismisses the amendment. They underestimate the impact they have on each other, so they're vulnerable to perceiving a differing viewpoint as interference—as Mike does when he argues that he has bigger priorities.
Every cross-functional team, by its very nature, delivers a steady stream of surprises to its members. People don't know what is unique about their own point of view, and if they don't learn anything about their teammates' perspectives, they will continue to be disappointed by others' responses. In fact, in this short conversation, Mike and Pat play through the same cycle four times, with no end in sight. They spiral deeper into the black hole. (See Chart.)
Spiraling Deeper into the Black Hole
Instead of focusing on the results as she defines them, and defending her version of the problem, a leader can reframe the whole situation.
When Mike first does something that doesn't further Pat's goals, she doesn't have to think, "Mike's got it wrong," and automatically try to manage the situation. She can tell herself instead, "This is a clue to something I don't understand. It might be a clue to something Mike doesn't understand." This reframes the issue entirely. By recognizing that her own perspective may be incomplete, Pat can expand her frame to include more options for action than simply repeating herself. Pat can do the following:
All of these actions expand the knowledge of the team. When leaders take this approach regularly, team members gain multiple perspectives, expanding the resources they bring to bear on issues. They become less vulnerable to being surprised or to interfering with each other's results.
If reframing is so great, why doesn't everybody do it?
For one thing, the human brain is hard-wired for the classic reaction response. As cognitive scientist James Reason points out in his book, Human Error, the brain is quick to transform a few data points into a fully formed image of a situation. Unfortunately, the brain needs much more time to determine if the interpretation is correct.
For another, this defensive reaction cycle is nearly universal. In their work on organizational learning, Harvard's Chris Argyris, Bob Putnam (co-facilitator of the Tufts CSDD course), and Diana Smith point out that almost all members of organizations follow unspoken rules, including: "Achieve my purpose as I define it," and "Win, don't lose."
Like any new skill, reframing takes practice—trying out new actions and seeing what happens. In the Tufts course, participants share leadership challenges from their professional experience and offer them (anonymously) to the class for resolution. We analyze the issues, re-design new actions for the leader, and have participants test out the new approach in role plays.
Here's a real case that course participants tackled recently: The leader of a new clinical project in China believes that on a previous project, the time from last patient visit to the delivery of a clinical report—12 months—was too long. She organizes a meeting with the regulatory affairs manager for Asia (RA), and the data manager (DM), who is also in charge of report writing.
Leader: Thanks to both of you for agreeing to this meeting to find ways to reduce our timelines. Do you have an explanation for the previous project's delay?
DM: We have followed our usual procedure, which applies to all our development studies.
RA: The problem could be that the standard report provided by your department has to be rewritten in Chinese and in another format by the Chinese coordinator, and then translated back into English and validated by us. This may explain the delay.
DM: I was not previously aware of this.
Leader: To save time, would it be possible to use the format of the Chinese report from the start of the process?
DM: It is not easy for us to modify our procedure for a single country. We need standardization to ensure quality.
Leader: This project is considered a priority by our top management. If it is not possible to adapt our process, can we consider the option of subcontracting the report to external parties in China?
DM: It was decided to keep the data management internally to ensure good control of the whole process. I will check what we can do and come back to you.
"The leader focuses on timelines," said Norma Lynn Fox, senior director of clinical research at Human Genome Sciences in Rockville, Maryland. Fox was one of three class participants who tackled the case study. "But the data manager wants to follow the process exactly." Instead of explaining her issues or asking about the data manager's concerns, the leader just keeps pushing the point about timelines, Fox's group showed. In the end, the regulatory affairs manager bunkers down in his silo, while the data manager essentially argues that the leader fails to see what is required for a quality report.
Fox and two colleagues, Eric Bouilloux, global project leader at Ipsen in Slough, UK, and Linda Wolf, leader of emerging markets and services for BBK Healthcare in Newton, Massachusetts, came up with a new version. Here, the leader reframes the goal from shortening a timeline (a result) to soliciting ideas (expanding group knowledge).
Leader: Thanks for agreeing to meet. This project has high priority, plus speed is important. We need to generate some options to speed up. Maybe we could take some time to look at the 12 months of time it takes to produce case reports.
DM: It takes six months for us.
Leader: (To RA) What do you do?
RA: The Chinese coordinator has to take data management's standard report, translate it into Chinese, and re-format it. Then, it's translated back into English and validated by us. Could we reformat the reports at the start?
DM: We need six months to get the reports done on our end.
Leader: I'm hearing that you, data manager, need six months and then you, regulatory affairs manager, need an additional six months.
RA: I think we should use the Chinese format from the start.
DM: No, I think we should...
RA: (Interrupts) If we started with the Chinese format, we could save a lot of time.
Leader: DM, I'm hearing you have another solution.
DM: We could provide a format to the regulatory affairs manager that would work for both the Chinese coordinator and for our system.
Leader: Good. We found one place to save time. It's still a 12-month process. Are there other options? Other people who can help?
DM: Give me two weeks and I will get back to you with additional ideas.
The class noted that the new version does not show the data manager being blamed. Instead of talking about a "delay," the leader showed the previous timeline and explained the rationale for speeding it up. Sticking to her reframed goal, she asked questions instead of pushing points. In the first case, she triggered protective responses. In this version, she inspires new ideas. In the original case, the regulatory affairs manager spoke once and walked away. In the reframing, he's an active participant.
"Take this one home," suggested classmate Gail Mazzara, vice president of R&D at Therion Biologics in Cambridge Massachusetts. "Focusing on results is the least likely way of getting results."
Merle Kummer is principal of Kummer Consulting, and directs the leadership programs of the Tufts CSDD Institute for Professional Development. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.