“Hell is other people.”

– Jean-Paul Sartre

Have you ever wished ‘they’ would get GTD®? Ever thought that it would all be so much easier if your colleagues would finally pull up their socks and start being a bit more like your very fine and virtuous self? If so, Sartre might just be the philosopher for you. He clearly wasn’t much of a people person, but for those of you who are getting the benefits of using GTD but not feeling any reciprocal joy from your colleagues, Sartre captured a world of pain in just four small words.

I was reminded of the quote as I was doing a Level 2 seminar with a leadership team recently. They were lovely, but the idea of others using – or not using – GTD was very much in the room. Our focus was on refreshing and deepening their individual practice of GTD, clarifying how they wanted to use GTD principles on their team, and on helping them think through how they could help their people outside the room get the maximum value from the GTD trainings they were making available in the organisation.

It occurred to me that we were actually working on three levels:

  • Me
  • My Team(s)
  • Our Organisation

The ‘Me’ level is the one that GTD is best known for – helping individuals to get on top of their lives and get more of the things they care about done with a minimum of stress. Although pretty much everyone in the room was what I’d call a GTD champion the refresher was still helpful, as for some of them their first exposure to the material was four or five years ago. Over time, pretty much everyone introduces bespoke ‘enhancements’ to their system, and some of them are very useful. Others not so much. In the workshop we were able to pick them up where they were at, fill in gaps in their understanding and practice, and suggest changes to the ‘hacks’ (read: ‘complications’) they’d introduced to their system that were no longer serving them.

My Team

The team level was interesting, because each member of the leadership team was also a leader of their own team as well. So at various points through the seminar we could step back to help them think about how they wanted to work together as a team using GTD principles, and also about how they could use those same principles to lead their people in a way that would help them work more effectively, and with less stress on the team.

The desired outcome was to create a ‘constructive learning context’ for those still to attend a GTD seminar, or a culture that picks up learners as they return from a seminar or course, and offers them live examples of how best practice is used day-to-day in the organisation.

Our Organisation

At the organisational culture level is where there is the most leverage for change, but also – of course – where it is most difficult to make changes. This piece of organisational identity creates the default setting for ‘how we work around here’, or ‘what is normal for us here’. Despite decades of trying and thousands of books on the subject, changing organisational culture has proved fiendishly difficult to do, particularly when working with broad concepts such as ‘We respect the individual’ and such like. Love the sentiment, but what do I do about that on Tuesday morning at 9.05?

There is also plenty of flux at the organisational level in our era, as more and more organisations attempt a leap from being top-down and hierarchical to becoming more agile and self-directed. With the team I was working with the culture was still quite hierarchical, but with a visionary leader who was attempting to give the teams tools to empower themselves. Other teams in the same organisation had tried to make the leap in one go, but then found they really needed the tools of self-mastery and self-organisation to be self-directed in their work. It is, of course, pretty much impossible to be self-directed if you are totally lost in the volume and complexity of what is coming at you.

Where we got to was that if ‘Respect’ was the value, it might be useful to be clear on what that actually meant for the members of the team in terms of some pretty granular things, like responsiveness to requests and showing up for meetings when agreed. Not big things, per se, but when those small things start to accumulate then they are the very embodiment of respect for the people working with you on a team.

How are you as a leader thinking about culture on your team?

If you don’t like Sartre’s take, is there anything you want to do about that? If you want to move towards a healthy high performance culture, our suggestion is to take care of the details first, before starting on an expensive organisational change project. If you get enough of the details right, you may find there is no need for huge changes at all.


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