The Advantage, by Patrick Lencioni

Why I read it:

As you may know, I’m on a quest to understand how staff can thrive within organisations, and have reviewed many books that study this area of working life. The Advantage is written by Patrick Lencioni, an American author who is well known for his charisma, know-how and enthusiasm – having read a lot of research-focused books, I wanted to experience something a bit different in my latest take on ‘organisational health’, and this seemed to fit the bill.

In summary:

Lencioni sets out to write a practical guide to increase organisational health; that is, that everyone in the organisation is pulling in the same direction with purpose, clarity, strong communication, and effective leadership. He splits the process for this into four steps: Build a Cohesive Leadership Team; Create Clarity; Overcommunicate Clarity; Reinforce Clarity.

Each section of the book is very practical, combining theory behind the ideas, along with step-by-step guidance to implement certain initiatives, and then case studies from organisations who have enjoyed success with the methods. What I liked about this book is that it encourages leaders to dedicate time and thought to reviewing organisational health; meetings, away days, and thinking that moves beyond the immediate to-do list that is in front of you, and to the big picture. I found this approach particularly useful given that it’s not always easy to do in education; it took me out of my comfort zone, and helped me to plan more effective meetings for the summer term, as I reflect on how to improve for next year.

Key takeaways:

  1. Open feedback is tough but has major gains: one task that is suggested for a team to have a go at, is to put some time aside, say a few hours. One activity that may foster more open feedback, trust, and reflection is for each member of the team to write down a strength about each other member, and then share them, one by one. Following this, each member writes down a target or weakness for every other member, and shares again. The combination of positive and constructive feedback can be powerful – every member is boosted but also perhaps humbled. It might feel tough at first, but experiencing this as a group normalises giving feedback, and trust between the members to be honest. Do we have healthy, constructive means of giving each other feedback in our workplace?
  2. Six critical questions: these exist to provide clarity; everyone should be able to give the same answer. Why do we exist? How do we behave? What do we do? How will we succeed? What is most important right now? Who must do what?
  3. Overcommunicating your ethos: the leadership team and organisation should keep communicating their ethos, and those six critical questions. Employees should be able to articulate the organisation’s reason for existence, values, strategic anchors, and goals.

Favourite quote:

‘Smart organisations are good at those classic fundamentals of business – subjects like strategy, marketing, finance and technology – which I consider to be decision sciences. But being smart is only half the equation. Yet somehow it occupies almost all the time, energy and attention of most executives. The other half of the equation, the one that is largely neglected, is about being healthy.

Lencioni lists healthy attributes as: minimal politics, minimal confusion, high morale, high productivity, low turnover.

Favourite moment:

‘Better Light’ sketch from the show I Love Lucy.

Ricky, Lucy’s husband, comes home from work one day to find his wife crawling around the living room on her hands and knees. He asks what she is doing. ‘I’m looking for my earrings’, she responds. Rick asks: ‘you lost your earrings in the living room?’. She shakes her head. ‘No, I lost them in the bedroom, but the light out here is much better.’

Lencioni uses the analogy to suggest that leaders look for answers where the light is better, where they are more comfortable. The light is perhaps those measurable activities, e.g. sales, revenue, exam results, data. But organisational health, the way that staff are thriving (or surviving!) is less tangible, will provide ambiguous answers, and takes time and self-reflection to improve. That is our challenge.

Question and reflect

The Advantage discusses how away days and meetings to reflect on our work can be so important to review culture and organisational health. In schools, we are generally time poor – the timetable isn’t going anywhere! My new school has annual away days for various teams – an idea that raised my eyebrows at first. But the more I reflect about taking time to think about who we are, what we are doing and why, away from the fray or the immediacy of work which may influence our long-term plans, the more I’m coming round to the idea.

In that sense, reading a book that is mostly about organisations outside of education is a mixed blessing. Sure, there are ideas that just couldn’t work in school settings, but those are few compared with the others that you wouldn’t ordinarily consider, but could be adapted to your school setting. There is a richness in exploring other contexts.

Read this if…

You lead a team

You want to reflect on your team / organisation for the coming year. Perhaps you are considering your six critical questions, your general culture of behaviour, or want to set new goals.

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