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How NASA Gets High-Functioning Teams To Improve

NASA found that teams working with the International Space Station were up to 25% more effective if they “debriefed" after completing a project. That means they met as a team and discussed everything from the process they used to how well individual team members communicated with each other and with the group. 

It’s easy to see why they would study themselves so carefully, since every decision they make and every action they take has life-and-death consequences. But it’s also easy to acknowledge that any team working with the International Space Station would have to already be really high functioning. That means that the debrief meeting took a world-class team and made it function even better.

We deal with executives in a similar situation all the time. Most of them already have great teams that they’ve groomed and trained to be high functioning. They come to us because they’ve hit a plateau. They want to get back into growth mode, and they know that their team does, too. 

So following NASA’s lead and helping your existing staff create a 25% improvement can be a great way to ramp up the great teams you’ve already created. How do you do that?

Debriefing Major Tom

The way you structure your debriefing will have a huge impact on how well it works. Research by Google found that great meetings happen after five essential factors have been established in your work environment. Executives hitting a growth plateau almost always have at least a few of them in place already. 

But the first one, the one that Google found to be the most significant because all the other ones depend upon it, may also be the most difficult one for you to gauge. If you’ve hit a plateau, then it’s highly likely that your solution is hiding in it somewhere. This factor is psychological safety, which Google defined as being able to “take risks on the team without feeling insecure or embarrassed.”

This impacts even senior employees more than most executives realize, and it’s the littlest things that seem to have the biggest impact. When a contribution at a meeting is greeted with the wrong type of smile, for example, or the wrong type of grunt, for another, it can shut down all further contributions. No one is immune. 

Floating in a Tin Can

The best way around this is to discuss it openly. Creating psychological safety at a meeting begins with telling everyone, straight out, that you want them to be psychologically safe. Explain that it means everyone should feel free to contribute whatever comes to mind. It means that each person's contribution will be welcomed by everyone else in the spirit of teamwork and exploration. 

Tell them that you want to discuss communication styles first, specifically so those little tiny behaviors and habits are addressed. Start with yourself, saying something like, “Sometimes, I know that I…” Then open the discussion. It’s a challenging one, because you need to try to simultaneously discuss behaviors and change them. But it’s a critical part of the debriefing process.

Two more of Google’s five factors for an excellent meeting follow directly from the first one, and most executives hitting a growth plateau have them covered in spades. They are the meaning of work and the impact of work, which are two essential elements that any employee in today’s economy needs to understand and believe before they can buy-in to your vision. Your team already feels that your business ought to exist, which gives meaning to their work. And they already feel that the business and their part of it have a positive impact on the community and the world as a whole. You may not get much of that 25% from here because you’ve already maxed it out.

Engines On

Two more of Google's factors, however, often need tweaking. The first one is dependability. Don’t touch this one until after you’re certain that you’ve established psychological safety. Dependability means being able to count on someone to create quality work on time. Since your team plateaued at a high level of performance, it’s pretty clear that they’re a NASA-like dependable group. But since you’ve plateaued, it is also clear that there is room for improvement. Where? Can quality be increased within the same timeframe? Can the same quality be created in less time? How do hand-offs work, and how could they work better? Does each person always feel that they have a clear concept of the what, why and how surrounding the hand-off?

Not every contribution will be good or actionable. But you’ll certainly uncover some real gems. And that brings us to Google’s fifth, and last, element of great meetings: structure and clarity. As you can imagine, in the absence of structure meetings about “psychological safety” or “dependability” could easily last for days or weeks.

Structure keeps people on point, which for a business means that they remain focused on advancing the organization. It includes an agenda and it relies upon the professionalism you've already established.

Clarity happens when you reach an understanding – and you record it. You don’t need to reach an academically complete definition of “dependability,” but if the discussion reveals a way to improve the dependability of a hand-off, you need clarity. Have the people at both ends of the hand-off define precisely how they’ll do it differently going forward. Clarity continues at the next meeting, and the one after that, when you review the hand-off and find out how the changes are working. If you can measure it with an objective metric, that’s even better. But the main point is to record what’s been agreed, and to evaluate it later. 

That's the essence of how NASA debriefs it's team, both in and out of orbit. Use it to launch your team off the plateau and back to the high-flying growth mode you all love and enjoy.