Smooth socks of success

Tue, 06/03/2018 - 09:32

As creative teams work to create something from scratch and disrupt the status quo, they have to fight for the things they believe need to exist in the world. And in order to do this, they need to have “smooth socks”. Let me explain.

John Wooden was a basketball coach for many years at UCLA and was subsequently one of the most successful in his field. Wooden coached many teams to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships and as a result had many future all-stars under his wing, such as Kareem Abdul Jabbar. In fact, it was while being interviewed with Jabbar that Wooden dispensed the following wisdom:

“To be good, you have to change your direction, change your pace. That’s hard on your feet. Your feet are very important. And if you don’t have every wrinkle out of your sock you’ll get blisters… and those blisters are going to make you lose playing time…”

This is a practical lesson in its genius for a few reasons. This learning can be seen, understood and practised, and most importantly, it’s a simple solution to bettering performance. 

But can “sock smoothing” be responsible for driving innovation and improving team dynamics? Look at the phrases and questions we use every day and reframe them to actually improve our performance as a team.

“I don’t know”
A culture where people regularly admit their uncertainties helps create the psychological safety necessary for team success. To create innovative solutions to complex problems, you need to understand the boundaries of your team’s knowledge. 

If we use the approach of “I have the right answer” across all interactions of an organisation or team, it can do more harm than good. Successful teams can assert a compelling point of view based on limited data while also acknowledging the areas where their understanding and experience are lacking. Teams that create space for wonder and embrace uncertainty are more innovative and successful.

“I was wrong”
Where the phrase “I/We were wrong,” and “I/We failed,” is part of the everyday speak, it creates a safety net necessary for experimentation, creativity, and speed. Through this, teams will be truly able to reach innovation. 

It’s not just enough to admit that you (or your team) were wrong or failed. This needs to be coupled with active reflection on why you were wrong, and what you learned.

“What do you think?”
Engaging in productive debate is not easy. Healthy debates are ones where the priority is knowledge creation. In unhealthy debates, knowledge creation takes a back seat to groups trying to prove they’re right or get their way.

Some people are more uncomfortable with conflict. If you’re someone who enjoys lively disagreement, and you usually assume the “alpha” role in groups, the question “What do you think?” is critical. It creates a safe space for others who are less inclined to engage in debate to speak up.

Smooth socks and simple phrases
The goal is to make the practice of cultivating winning teams more manageable through simple behaviours, simple rules and smooth socks. The simplest way we activate this is by looking at phrases used in everyday interactions in the team dynamic. And how our behaviour or reactions to them cultivate success.

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