Imagine you have to lift something heavy – a box of books or small kitchen appliances. You crouch down, get a good grip, maybe make a small partial lift to get a sense of the weight (wow, heavier than you thought). Then you stand up with the box (lifting with your legs and not your back, of course). Ta-da! You adjust your feet a bit, and get used to the balance (the box is a bit heavier on one side, and the contents move around a bit), and try to get comfortable. After a few minutes you put the box down.
If that box was your project, you might say, "All done. Next!". But if that box was your team or your organization, success is more than just picking it up once. You have to be able to stand with it for a long time - for as long as it's your responsibility. You have to keep holding it when someone comes along and rummages around it in, looking for their copy of War and Peace or that attachment to the blender that they need for crushed ice. You have to keep it level and stable when another person (or project or team) balances a glass of water or vase of flowers on top (they should come back and get it eventually, but until then...). And at some point, you have to pass that box to someone else, ideally without putting down.
You have to hold it up for a good long while, adapt to change, take on new things, and pass it on when your time is through. Success means sustaining.
Sustainability is defined as, “the ability to maintain or support an activity or process over the long term.” It’s more local than environmental sustainability (although definitely related), and less about the bottom line than business sustainability. Team sustainability is about building a environment of successful people working interdependently in a valid, empowered and proactive way to keep the team working well regardless of who’s holding the box.
I came to this topic through work with my coach, and exploring a new-to-me approach called The Bigger Game®. A very quick review of it and I was asked to pick the element that seemed the most immediately relevant to me. Bingo – sustainability: having a lasting impact.
As I look ahead in my own career, sustainability is part of my big game. For me, this means working to make myself unnecessary – creating a team and organizational environment that is empowered and challenged, and can sustain and validate itself through the interdependent work of the teams and leaders of the present and future. In other business lingo, this is part of succession planning and that’s a bit true for me (still a few years left yet, but never too early to start planning). More immediately I’m working to ensure that we challenge and grow in our teams for the near to medium term, so the great things we're already doing can continue as part of our processes and culture, and keep enabling great things to happen.
In an innovative research department, a leading-edge technology environment, sustainability is sometimes seen as incompatible with success; to succeed, pushing the envelope is essential. Sustainability is also essential in an environment where risks are a part of the game. If you can control and manage some things like organizational structure, administrative processes, and clarity of vision, you give the team or organization a stable basis from which to push out towards that next discovery or idea. We can reduce the risk and enable greater opportunities by keeping in place the things that are already working well. This has to be more than just one person or one leader. It has to be about a sustainable environment of committed, empowered, talented and experienced people, working so well together may not even notice how well they're doing. Making the difficult look easy.
This is hard when what you’re making and sustaining is systems and processes. The legacy is ineffable. (As I said to my coach, “it’s not like I’m building pyramids.”) But the legacy can still be critical and memorable. And unlike a pyramid or other monument, organizational legacy is about the people and not the person. After all, monuments are not always sustainable.
A sustainable team and organization gives us a safe place to land, when reaching for the stars doesn’t work out. It holds the ladder steady when someone needs to stand on the top step. And it is ready to help or take over holding the box, with ease, grace and minimal fuss.
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.