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RCME Presents


Kathleen Ryan

Kathleen Ryan

Extraordinary Groups: How Ordinary Teams Achieve Amazing Results

by Debra Black

For thousands of years, humans have been forming groups for survival. Even introverts need groups. And in the world of work, groups are the way things get done.

"Work is complex, the problems are multi-faceted, the opportunities require different strengths and skills, and so we need each other. Since groups are the way we get things done, we might as well make the most of them," according to Kathleen Ryan, an organizational development expert who has been working for 30 years to help build high-performance, trust-based, collaborative work cultures.

On June 22, Ryan shared her ideas about extraordinary groups with members of the Retail Consortium for Management Education (RCME), and offered practical tools for applying the material she presented.

Through discussion, exercises, and reflection about their own standout group experiences, Ryan guided participants through several chapters of Extraordinary Groups, the book she co-authored with Geoff Bellman.

"If you expect the extraordinary, you'll get extraordinary results from ordinary people. It's a matter of expecting it. That opens you up to doing," said Ryan.

To conduct the field study for their book, the duo interviewed 60 people about their peak group experiences. Two-thirds of the stories Ryan and Bellman collected were from the world of paid work, and one-third was split evenly between personal and volunteer community experiences.

"The word 'magic' kept appearing. So we got to thinking about when we've had that extraordinary kind of experience, when something was amazing, outstanding, magical," she said. Three basic questions emerged:

1. What do these groups have in common?

2. Why are they that way? What differentiates these groups from all the rest?

3. Is there something we can intentionally do to create these kinds of groups?

"The good news is that we in fact discovered what causes them to be extraordinary. In the teams that you participate in, there are things that you can intentionally do. If you have an amazing group experience in your family, it will carry some of the same kinds of experiences and qualities as an amazing group experience at work," she said.

An extraordinary group achieves outstanding results while members, individually or collectively, experience a profound shift in how they see their world. There's something that happens to us when we're in these groups that causes us to be different, said Ryan.

"Because of this transformative quality, we use words such as terrific, one of a kind…we don't know how to talk about a transformative event. If you overhear some of your co-workers or family members say, 'it was so terrific,' you can trust that that person has had an extraordinary experience that was transformative."

Based on their research, Ryan and Bellman discovered eight performance indicators for extraordinary groups:

1. Compelling purpose: We put the team first and the purpose first over our own comfort zone. It's about the passion, the inspiration.

2. Shared leadership: A sense of ownership and accountability for all group members. Half of the stories from Ryan's book involved facilitative leaders who led in a way that got everyone involved; the other half were basically self-organizing teams.

3. Just enough structure: A vision or mission statement of direction and goals that were doable but also caused people to stretch.

4. Full engagement: With plenty of room for spontaneity, tangents, shifting roles, and even arguments, these groups are highly creative and collaborative, and do not worry if things get messy.

5. Embracing difference: Over 60 percent of the people interviewed said, 'we were so different' and learned to see differences as strengths. Because of an impassioned sense of purpose, group members realized they were there to make something important happen.

6. Unexpected learning: Groups are not generally thought of as a source of learning about ourselves, yet people interviewed for the book learned skills and knowledge that were useful in other parts of their lives.

7. Strengthened relationships: Group members formed new friendships and deepened existing friendships, bonding and connecting with each other because they came through something together.

8. Great results: Results exceed the expectations, creating a sense of satisfaction and remarkable results, both tangible and intangible.

Ryan advised RCME members, in their leadership roles, to give others feedback on the impact of their behavior, and to pay attention to the unique strength that each person brings to the group, including the degree to which they can be collaborative because of the passion or inspiration around the purpose.

"A really important strategy is to help people understand the inspiration in your group's purpose. Is this group of bricklayers building a wall, or are they building a school, a cathedral, or a recreation center? What is the meaning in the work they are doing? Many groups miss the opportunity to find inspiration in the purpose that brings them together," she said. "It's the larger meaning that creates that sense of purpose."

Ryan asked RCME members to recall the feelings and emotions that their own extraordinary group experiences inspired. "Unconsciously or not, when we come into a group by choice or by request, we long for certain things to happen. And when those longings are satisfied by the group experience, then some pretty amazing things start happening," she said.

In their research, Ryan and Bellman arrived at six needs that humans bring to groups:

1. Accepting oneself while moving toward one's own Potential. "It's about accepting yourself for your strengths and warts, and your sense of moving into more than who you are right now."

2. Bonding with others while pursuing common Purpose. "Trust, connections, building friendships, getting to know each other in new ways, while we're in the framework of coming together to make something happen in the world."

3. Understand Reality of the world while making an Impact. "Accepting the world as it is, with an intention of making a difference in life. It's a big deal. We want to know that our lives and energy and intelligence count for something. It's hugely satisfying."

As the needs that we bring to groups are being met, a personal shift occurs, according to Ryan. Individuals feel energized, connected, hopeful, and positively changed. Here, at the heart of the transformation, is where ordinary teams achieve the amazing and the extraordinary.

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