Interview with Krishna Halai on The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
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Interview with Krishna Halai on The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

There are tons of books out there that could be interesting to operations people. However, there are usually two blockers:

  1. Too many examples, and it's often not easy to translate what you learned into practice. The practical aspects are usually missing in business books.
  2. How are they relevant to operations, and how useful are the theories in startups and scaleups?

At Operations Nation, we dive deeper and share the experience from people who have read the books and put the theories behind them to practice.

Krishna Halai: applying The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team in the workplace

We had a delightful conversation with Krishna about her experience running the exercises in the book The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. It's a classic, but how does the fable translate in real life?

About Krishna Halai

Krishna has been an operations professional for many years. Currently working for Pollen, an open banking platform for businesses, Krishna has a background in politics. Like for many ops people, being in operations just sort of happened. But it's made her more efficient in her candle making side hustle. Don't underestimate the power of transferable skills.

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Can you give us a few sentences that summarise the book for you?

A business book in the form of a fable that explores how a team can go from “dysfunctional” to high-performing. Fictional CEO Kathryn identifies 5 "dysfunctions" which interfere with the company's teamwork and helps the employees discover that they can achieve their goals as a team.

It is a well-structured book that indicates step by step how to implement the exercises to your team.

Why did you read this book?

My last boss started a book club and gave us The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team as a Christmas read. The underlying reason for us getting the book was that we were a team of great individuals but definitely weren’t working as well together as a team.

Everyone was pleased to read the book and to try the exercises. We had read so many business books, and none jumped out as much as this one did.

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Can you give a couple of examples of the exercises?

What's your favourite exercise?

Personal histories. After working with the team for a year, it was really nice to see people in a different light. You find common ground. It gives a better insight into how they are and why they are the way they are, which improves the way you work together. Even just realising how many siblings people have gives you extra information about your colleagues without being too personal. You're more willing to help each other. It also teaches you a thing or two about yourself too.

What worked well?

  • The style The book is written as a fable. It's more interesting to read and to engage people with the concept of having a similar experience. So it's natural to put the characters of the book with the people on your team. Not in a bad way, but picking out the positives in each colleague.
  • Assessments They helped us understand our strengths and weaknesses as a team and allowed us to compare over time how we felt we were performing and where we needed to do the most work.
  • Increase in awareness People started identifying the fictional situations with things they observed in the company, like having more important external meetings and rescheduling internal meetings to allow for them. Or everyone is on their laptops during meetings. So it's not because this is about a US corporate that it's not relatable. Which in turn allows the team to work through them.
  • Cadence You don't need to do a 3 day offsite to work at the exercises intensely. As long as you keep a good cadence, you can break up the suggested exercises and find value.

What didn't work well?

  • Time commitment It can be challenging to do this when the team is SO busy because it requires you to step back from everything else. As a result, it wasn't easy to take as much time out as recommended.
  • Motivation At some point, it can start feeling like a chore to you and your colleagues. Once the excitement wears off, it can start feeling less energising, and people engage less with it. It can fizzle out.
  • New team members joining New people could be integrating the team without having read the book and having missed some key exercises. Also, opening up to your new colleagues so soon after starting might not be the most comfortable.
  • Changing priorities Things change quickly in startups, and that's certainly true for priorities. The new priorities will probably cause the progress to stop. Finding the time to continue with the meetings gets tricky. That would be a downside of breaking up the exercises into different meetings spread over time.
  • Personality tests It's interesting to know the personality types of people, but it's not always clear what you can take away from it.

Who should be leading these sessions?

Someone who can put people at ease, who can read the room and who can create a safe environment. You have to be aware of the exercises you're preparing and how personal they can get.

It doesn't necessarily have to be the people ops or ops person. But it helps to be the middle ground between everyone. For example, in the book, it's the CEO who runs the session, and that's also definitely a possibility, but it depends on what people want to get out of it and who's best suited to run it. In our case, the CEO wanted to take a more active part and could not be the facilitator.

However, all that being said, it probably feels the most natural to have the HR, people ops or ops person leading these because the personalities or characteristics of people in those roles would fit the moderation piece the best. You usually have had the most interactions with everyone overall. It's about finding the right balance between empathy and the discipline of moving the conversation along.

Which hurdles could you see being a problem when trying to implement the exercises?

  • Time You have to be realistic about the time you have available to you and the participating individuals. If you have a lot of other priorities that are more crucial to the sustainability of the company, it becomes tricky to keep planning in meetings to go over the exercises. Also, people might not be willing to have yet another meeting on their calendar.
  • Having everyone on board We were lucky that the CEO initiated this, and it was a top-down suggestion. It would help if you had all your team members willing to participate and share. It may be perceived as blurring the lines between personal and professional, and people need to be open to that.
  • Being remote Doing this over zoom is not impossible, but it's not the same. You're speaking to a screen, and the whole point of these exercises is to connect. It would feel weird to get into certain discussions about more negative traits of your colleagues when you've not even met in real life yet. People might hold back. It's not impossible, but it's harder.
  • Team size You can do it in a smaller team, but it would naturally appear that people know each other better, and the five dysfunctions might not be as apparent. In a bigger team, people know each other less, and that's when the exercises come in handy.
  • The way you pitch it to your team If you tell your team you've observed the five dysfunctions, you can come across as very hostile. So bringing up the topic and executing on it needs to happen with the necessary tact and buy-in from the right people.

Which tip would you give another operations professional who wants to run these exercises with their team?

It'll be harder to keep your motivation and determination if you don’t believe in what you are doing as the facilitator.

“The teams that figure it out have a bigger advantage than ever before because most of their competitors are just a bunch of individuals looking out for themselves” - Patrick Lencioni

Invite your team to read the book, and they will start to evaluate themselves; perhaps they can relate to the book's characters and realise the team needs those exercises.

You can change the questions if the questions suggested by the book doesn't work with your team or company culture.

Don't hesitate to speak up and say you're not comfortable leading the sessions if you don't feel like you can be vulnerable during the exercises or you don't feel like you would be the best moderator.

Resources to accompany you while planning the exercises for your team