Consulting in Action: A Success Story
July 2005 | Seattle Based Company
A Car without a Steering Wheel

Imagine driving a car without a steering wheel. Didn't get very far?

An executive team had been stuck on an operational issue for over half of the weekly meeting; one of those instances where no resolution was in sight. Sound familiar? People were frustrated, defensive, tired-as this had become a regular routine for the weekly meetings: unproductive and ineffective.

In scanning the room, there was an apparent lack of team alignment, which in this case was inhibiting an effective channel of communication. The team had become so focused on individual activities that the actual function and responsibility of the team had become overlooked and forgotten. Each team member had lost sight as to how their role contributed not only to the core function of the team, but the entire organization.

Ah-ha-a team coaching opportunity! Only this time, we moved outside of the familiar common language. It was time to talk Cars.

I invited the team to look at their organization as a car and what part they might identify as symbolic of their role. For the first few moments there was silence, which quickly moved to chuckles and then progressed to laughter. What were they laughing at?? How remarkably similar their role, and function of their role, corresponded to a particular part of a car. We heard everything from the wheels, gasoline, and spark plugs to the engine and driver of the car. People were not only naming their own parts of the car, but started to recognize how other people on the team filled a certain function of the car: "without the gasoline in the HR department, we would lack personnel," "If we were missing the control panel, we would have no streamlined operational measurements from the finance team."

However, within this spirited shared dialogue, the team identified that a fundamental part of the car was missing-the steering wheel. What happens to a car without a steering wheel? What happens to a team and organization without a leader who has a clear strategic direction? This simple "ah-ha" began to address the lack of clarity and alignment among the team. Not only did the team begin to experience a paradigm shift, but the simple metaphoric car exercise created the "space" for the team to re-examine themselves as a working system, and to recognize how each role is an integral component to creating a sustainable, high performing team.

The exercise gave birth to a long-term training initiative focused on answering the question: how can we make the changes we need, and do it in a way that creates high energy and yields extraordinary, sustainable results? The team recognized a need create a course based on two powerful foundations: high involvement and a systemic approach to improvement. The course design utilized several methodologies related to defining roles and responsibilities, identifying group norms and leadership styles, giving and receiving feedback, creating breakthroughs, and implementing action steps.

By using these high leverage change methods, people began to see the possibility of contributing to something larger than themselves. The emphasis shifted from focusing on why something can't be done to "how can we make this happen?" As the team began to understand their system at a deeper level, they recognized interconnections among departments, processes, and relationships. As Rosabeth Kanter from Harvard Business School observed, "change is disturbing when it is done to us, exhilarating when it is done by us."

The car exercise was the catalyst for implementing a highly effective and sustainable change effort-- ironically, it is often the simple and subtle opportunities for training that have the greatest long-term impact.