When we look for excellence, looking at extreme examples can help to change expectations. When building a team, we expect that that it takes time to move through stages until the team becomes “performing”. We expect that to take time; many weeks to months.
What about forming a team in an hour? Can that be done? A team that collaborates, with individual contributors making their voice heard, each person bringing their own skills, each person working outside of their comfort zone? Is that possible in an hour?
My experience of jury service showed me that it is possible, but: can we replicate that in our own teams? What are the causes? What are the limitations?
Juries in the UK are drawn from the adult population; anyone on the voting register can be selected. That means that the jury is diverse. In our case we had a couple of people in their 20s, and up to people in their late 60s. We had, men and women; professionals and non-professionals. Retired accountants who were school governors, carpenters who were part time firefighters, grandmothers who stack shelves in supermarkets, teachers, project managers, sick and healthy, old and young. So you could argue we had no useful skills; but really on a jury the only expertise is life. The more diverse your life experience the better you are at seeing in the motivations and excuses that are the bread and butter of a court case. You might argue that experts in justice would be better, but the fresh approach that a new jury brings means that trials are heard fairly; if you spent all your time in court cases where half the people were lying, you quickly slip into cynicism. Also, evidence in court cases is rarely complete; you have points of light from physical evidence but even that can be interpreted. The more diverse a team is, the more angles they can examine from. Diversity is strength.
Key point: Juries are fresh and enthusiastic. Juries are made of diverse individuals.
One thing that helps juries bond is the seriousness of the situation. From the moment you step into the court you are under no illusion that these people are not messing around: the silence, formal etiquette and formal dress code all reinforce that. The judge leads the court, both the jury and barristers. The instructions given to jurors are unflinching in their seriousness: that we are expected and required by law to make a good job of this. We take no breaks except when given leave by the judge. There are legal penalties for failing to attend. However, the judge also gives relief to juries; they need not know the law, they need not concern themselves with anything but the evidence; and in the evidence they have free rein to interpret it anyway they like. Even if the barristers or the judge give advice, in matters of evidence, the jury may ignore it. You’d think that there would be little room for interpretation of evidence and the law, but no case gets to court unless it is complicated and subtle. If there was clear physical evidence then the case would not be heard at trial. For a jury, there are no facts only interpretations.
However, even though juries need not know the law, the evidence is a heavy burden. Outside we might joke about how “they are all guilty”, but in the court you never joke like that. There is no doubt there is a moral duty, to the victim and the accused. We are asked to aspire to the highest standards; way above what we follow in our day to day lives.
Key point: the judge gives clear and unambiguous executive leadership; setting standards and burdens way above our expectations, then asking that we rise to them.
But how do juries form into a team? Especially one that has no time to form, and little common ground outside the court setting. We aren’t allowed to go out together and discuss the case (in fact we aren’t allowed to discuss the case at all until evidence is finished). Then we aren’t allowed to do anything else other than discuss the case. We can make only small talk until the discussions start, then we have to go into a room and only come out to take bathroom breaks and to go home if there is no decision. We all had to go for cigarettes together, even those who didn’t smoke. There can be no discussion that is not heard by all, and no discussion that can be heard by anyone who isn’t on the jury.
In my experience – and I can’t say too much about what we discussed – the high standards we were set encouraged us to all respect each other, and allow everyone time to speak. We quickly created a minimal process for round table discussion and everyone had something to say. In juries, all are created equal; education, race, age, creed all are relevant but none grants superior point of view. All are equal, everyone has the right to speak, none has the right to compel anyone. As discussion progressed, some people brought their talents to bear; technical skill helping others examine CCTV evidence, patience in balancing argument, being willing to lead a discussion.. Or stop one. Creating mechanisms to progress discussions and drive consensus.
Key point: clear rules of equality are established, then let the team run itself.
The output of a jury is clear, and is commanded clearly by the judge: first prize is a unanimous decision. If agreement can’t be reached, then a majority decision of 10:2 is sufficient. We all know what we are trying to achieve and all of us an equal stake in that. For my own part, we worked together bringing our own viewpoints but my verdict was my own. It was painful, but reaching my own decision was accompanied with a sense of peace and achievement that contrasted sharply with the uncertainty and weight of the process.
Yes, of course there was disagreement. Probably the worst of which was – I’m not proud to say – caused by me. What’s the only thing you can do wrong on a team trying to achieve a consensus? You can try and block or influence someone else with the force of your personality rather than the quality of your argument. I overstepped the line and was put in my place, immediately. I wonder if we would have been able to manage individual underperformers or lack of engagement; the matter didn’t arise the situation and the case so serious.
When we reached our decision, many people tried to express their feelings on being on the jury; it wasn’t one of enjoyment as such. Put a powerful sense of fulfilment; high standards had been reached and we’d really done something and done it together. Mostly people spoke about how proud they were.
Key point: when expectations are above and beyond, people don’t want to be the one that lets team down.
So why don’t all teams form this way? For starters, this environment of genuine importance can’t be faked. People take it seriously because it’s serious. Young lives are being ruined on both sides of crime and that gives depth to the experience. Other careers may experience similar moments of crisis, but crisis can’t be faked. The intensity can’t be maintained in a work setting; not everyone is dedicated like that to their career and the imbalance would quickly create tension that would not be resolved. The unity of purpose of a short sprint meant that the diverse team could hold together for that period but it would not be sustainable.
The following week, I was on a second trial. It wasn’t jerry springer but compared to the violence and chaos of the first case it was positively recreational. That allowed us to step down gently, and return that amped up feeling of importance to normal.
Key point: put teams under pressure to achieve exceptional results; but don’t try and maintain those sprints. It can’t be done. Allow teams time to unwind and process the experience they’ve been through.