A business leader recently reached out to Afterburner for help with a challenge they were dealing with. This leader’s team was experiencing rapid growth, having doubled in size over the past twelve months.
If you’re wondering where the problem was, we don’t blame you. Most teams, of course, see hyper-growth mode as something to aspire to.
But in business, sometimes positive indicators can cover up brewing problems that can threaten your team culture, strategy and, most importantly, revenue. In this case, the team’s rapid growth had outpaced their systems and protocols for keeping everyone strategically aligned. As teams grow, strategies shift, and if you don’t have the structures in place to keep old and new hires apprised of real-time strategic changes, even as you’re rapidly adding headcount, your growth is bound to hit a ceiling.
“Sometimes positive indicators can cover up brewing problems that can threaten your team culture, strategy and, most importantly, revenue.”
The business leader had learned this lesson the hard way. Fortunately, we were able to help this person empower their team to develop the one attribute most valuable to teams dealing with these kinds of growing pains: a common mental model. Fighter pilot squadrons in the Air Force rely on a common mental model to fly in tight formations and achieve high-stakes missions – and it’s just as pertinent for teams in the business world looking to keep their momentum and accelerate their growth.
What is a common mental model?
At Afterburner, we define a common mental model as a team-wide alignment in areas from culture, to strategy, to mission objectives, and beyond. Building a common mental model means making sure each team member has a 360-degree understanding of planning and execution protocols, believes in your mission and strategy, and feels fully invested in each other’s success.
“As teams grow, strategies shift, and if you don’t have the structures in place to keep old and new hires apprised of real-time strategic changes, your growth is bound to hit a wall.”
Teams with a common mental model are excited and inspired to tackle their mission. They’re also better equipped to handle the quick strategic pivots that growing teams often face without getting their wires crossed and succumbing to confusion.
How to develop a common mental model
If you’re a leader looking to create a common mental model across your team, a good place to start is with the four Flawless Execution (FLEX) pillars of planning, briefing, executing, and debriefing. First, make sure those steps are actually implemented into your processes – many teams, for example, make the mistake of going directly from executing on one mission to planning for the next, without taking the time for a debriefing session to evaluate lessons learned.
Once you’ve implemented the FLEX pillars, build structured, replicable systems for handling them. For the planning stage, for example, try to establish, as concretely as possible, the answers to questions such as:
- What does the planning process look like when you’re developing your strategy and goals for the quarter?
- How far before the start of the quarter does it take place?
- Does it take the form of in-person, team-wide brainstorms, or smaller syncs between leaders and team members?
- Is it organized in a top-down fashion, with the team leader handling the bulk of the decision-making? Or is it a more democratized process?
When everyone on your team has a firm grasp of the workings of these processes, they’ll know exactly what to expect if and when they face a short-notice strategic shift, and will be able to stay synced up as a cohesive unit until they get to the other side of it.
“Many teams make the mistake of going directly from executing on one mission to planning for the next, without taking the time for a debriefing session to evaluate lessons learned.”
This covers the scientific side of things. But building a common mental model also means creating a culture based on collaboration and communication – and that aspect of it is more art than science. How will you condition the members of your team to see themselves not just as individual contributors, but as part of a greater whole? This is an intangible project – there are no concrete steps guaranteed to create the desired outcome – but a crucial one for any leader hoping not just to get their growing team aligned, but to make them feel invested in staying that way when their rapid growth creates the need for strategic pivots.
Get in touch to learn how Afterburner can help your team overcome growing pains and take your growth to new heights by developing a common mental model.