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Understanding How Mindset Can Help You Build High Performing Technical Communication Teams

An Interview with Andrew Lawless, Strategic Interventionist, Team Lawless

By Scott Abel | STC Associate Fellow

In the digital age, change happens quickly. This column features interviews with the movers and shakers—the folks behind new ideas, standards, methods, products, and amazing technologies that are changing the way we live and interact in our modern world. Got questions, suggestions, or feedback? Email them to scottabel@mac.com.

I admit it. I’ve spent a fair number of years working much harder than I needed to with less-than-satisfactory results. Chances are good that you have, too.

I used to be a firm believer in the idea that if you work really hard at something, you will be successful. I don’t believe that anymore. While it’s true that hard work can lead to success, science provides us with evidence that hard work alone isn’t enough to guarantee it. Success is most likely when we assign tasks to the people whose innate skills make them an excellent fit for the job.

In this “Meet the Change Agents” column, I introduce you to strategic interventionist Andrew Lawless. He’s a content industry entrepreneur turned performance coach whom I have asked to help us understand how to best build high-performing technical documentation teams.

Scott Abel: Andrew, I’m a big fan of yours, and I have been for several years. Thank you for taking time out of your busy travel schedule to help our audience understand the reasons some teams outperform others—and how we can use science to build teams with the best chances for success.

Before we begin, tell us a little about yourself and your career focus.

Andrew Lawless: I coach leaders of content teams to implement tough decisions without isolating themselves. I have done that for about 30 years in publishing, localization, and technical documentation.

I am certified in Strategic Intervention, which is Tony Robbins’ coaching methodology. I am also a certified Kolbe Consultant and a Finalist for the Kolbe Professional Award, which recognizes the top tier of Kolbe consultants for making a difference in leaders and their teams around the world.

SA: What made you chose content industries as your well-defined niche for coaching?

AL: Early on in my work, I learned that the quality of localized content is directly dependent on the source material. In one case, a client had 109 different translations of the same product name in the English source material alone. U.S.-based salespeople sometimes did not know whether two specification sheets referred to the same product.

What surprised me is that translators and technical writers operated in different worlds. Technology developers did not help matters, either. One example is terminology management. For technical writers, it is equally essential to know deprecated terms as it is to implement preferred terms, yet terminology management on the translation side ignored that vital piece of data for translators for a long time. Deprecated terms were deprecated from localization for a long time—never mind the data exchange standards. People’s heads were wired differently. I wanted to change that.

SA: What was the key challenge that you discovered?

AL: Twenty-two years ago, I orchestrated the company turnaround at Berlitz (now Lionbridge) in Central and Eastern Europe and then optimized the way the World Bank localized content for developing countries. At the time, there were very few people that genuinely understood the challenges of automating the entire content value chain—and how to connect a translation management system to a communication satellite. My peer group had five people in it.

However, the real challenge was not technology. It was user acceptance and adoption. It still is. The first workshop on automating global content was a collaboration between Alison Toon (then Globalization Director at Hewlett-Packard) and me. Change management was a dominant module from day one, and I initially incorporated change leadership lessons that I learned from Ronald Heifetz and Richard Hackman at Harvard Business School.

These great thought leaders gave me unique insights, but their tools and implementation advice were not practical enough for me. I eventually developed my own, learned how to master influence from Tony Robbins, and gained additional perspectives when I worked as a consultant to the Global Hostage-Taking Research and Analysis Program of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Behavioral Science Unit.

SA: What did you learn from your pioneering process automation for content development and translation?

AL: My most significant learning about modernizing content development was that it is not just about processes and hand-offs. I spend most of my time coaching managers that automation is equally about people and relationships. Automation projects fail, because people perceive the pain of change to be stronger than the pain of working the way things currently are. Coupled with the real possibility of automation killing jobs, there is often little incentive for teams to change.

There are two basic forces that determine our behavior:

  • The need to avoid pain
  • The desire to gain pleasure

The need to avoid pain is always the stronger one. That’s why well-meaning managers experience push-back from their teams when they introduce new ideas with the best of intentions of building a better future. The two big questions in everybody else’s head is: “Will I be good enough, and if I fail, will I get fired?” Either way, in their mind, their own future might not be so bright.

SA: You call yourself a strategic interventionist, a term popularized by life coach and best-selling author, Tony Robbins. What is a strategic interventionist, and how does it help team managers?

AL: What I learned from the FBI is that you can convince a hostage-taker to surrender knowing that he or she will face the death penalty. I figured that if I could make a criminal put down a gun, I can motivate a technical writer or translator to give up unstructured authoring. I wanted a tool and a methodology that works fast; one that achieves breakthroughs in an hour, not in a year.

Most coaching approaches work well if you believe in them, but they take too long. Ron Heifetz’ work on change management has influenced me very much, but his frame of reference is Moses wandering around in the desert for about 50 years to figure out how Israelites can become a self-governing society after their escape from Egyptian slavery. In 2002, my time frame was five months, in 2012 it was five days, and now it’s five hours. In reality, you have five seconds to build rapport when you want to change someone’s behavior.

Strategic Intervention is the most potent toolset you can find in behavioral science. It is aimed at identifying and disrupting beliefs and behavioral patterns that once served us, but no longer do, and then replacing these with new and more helpful ones. It also fundamentally pre-supposes that all people have the right to dream, the desire to give their gift to the world, and all the resources they need to achieve success.

Once you understand all of that, you will stop convincing people with facts. You will approach change management differently. You change perceptions and mindsets instead—including your own. My research indicated that Strategic Intervention is the most practical and applicable approach. I also believe that if you want to learn something, you should learn from the best, so I went through certification by two of the co-founders of strategic intervention, Magali and Mark Peysha.

SA: Andrew, some technical communication shops (and by extension, translation and localization teams) struggle to master the art of collaboration. When they organize themselves into groups and fail to produce the results they desire, team members sometimes blame their lackluster performance on inadequate funding, a shortage of time, or the wrong tools. While all of these things can impact the ability of teams to be collaborate effectively, these challenges are seldom the main reason a team fails to perform at its best.

What is the most overlooked factor in building a high-performing team, capable of working together to achieve its goals?

AL: Resourcefulness. There will never be enough money, time, or product features to get things done in a way that satisfies everybody. How we use existing resources to get us the results we want is critical.

However, when we perceive a project as going wrong, we tend to focus on the negative. Who caused the issue? Who is to blame? Whom can we charge? Who else pays for this? What stop-gap measures did we forget? And so on.

Resourcefulness means spending 80 percent or more on the solution and 20 percent or less on the problem—and only if it is useful in finding a solution. Most teams do the opposite. They might call it triaging, but it’s typically focused on what is not working.

As with everything in life, we have choices. We can focus on all the struggles and worry about the challenges we face. All it does is bring us down. We will find more evidence that gives us reason to be anxious—a bundle of nerves at our brain stem makes sure of that. It allows our minds to focus on only those pieces of information that we deem important. That’s why you see more silver Toyotas on the street once you have purchased one yourself. It is also the reason you start hearing a word all the time when you’ve just learned it. That’s where your focus is.

This bundle of nerves is called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS makes you see more of what you are focused on and determines how you feel about your situation. Your emotions cause you to take specific actions, and your actions create results.

If you believe that structured authoring is the worst thing ever, you will find all the reasons to support that belief. And guess what is easiest to pinpoint? That’s right, not enough time, money, and features. It always works, because by definition, these are not abundant in projects.

If, on the other hand, you believe that structured authoring is a blessing, your RAS will filter through all evidence to support your conviction. You will get more proof, better ideas, and greater creativity in making it work.

Change your focus, get different results.

SA: Like you and some of the readers of this magazine, I’m a participant in Strategic Coach, a “sky’s-the-limit” growth-focused entrepreneurial program designed to help us build a company—and a life—that’s meaningful, productive, and prosperous. It was during my coaching sessions that I first discovered a concept about which I had no previous knowledge: the conative. It’s a hot topic in the behavioral sciences arena, but a foreign word to many others—even my spellchecker doesn’t recognize it as an English word.

Can you talk a bit about the conative (what it is, and why it’s important?)

AL: Whenever I ask a group of leaders if they had ever taken a time management course, about 80 percent say “yes.” When I then ask who is using what they learned, most hands go down. Isn’t it interesting that there is a multi-billion industry around a product that only a few people use? Why is that? These products are thought through very well, and the buyers highly educated.

It is also true that knowledge is not power, it’s just potential power. Only knowledge in action produces results. Every ultra-successful person will tell you that doing is more important than knowing. That’s why many millionaires and billionaires are college drop-outs.

Knowledge sits in the cognitive part of the mind. But it’s the conative that determines how you take action. The sequence you use to solve problems is most likely always the same. Some people begin the solution-finding process with researching data, others first brainstorm possibilities, while a third group of people organizes information in their initial move. Some people build on experience, others are only focused on the future, while others have interest just in the here and now.

All of us are born with our natural way of doing things—and in 97 percent of all people, this won’t change in their lifetime. The problem is that neither schools nor most workplaces account for that, but we believe that this is normal, and we often tell ourselves a story that we are not good enough—self-confidence fades, or we just burn out. Understanding the conative part of the mind helps us to find out who we truly are and to create a new normal for us.

SA: How do we determine our true normal?

AL: The surefire way of determining your natural strengths is to take a Kolbe A™ Index test. Designed by Kathy Kolbe, this instrument quantifies your natural talents and gives you the best possible understanding of your own instinctive strengths.

The report gives you detailed insight into your conative profile: How you gather and share information, arrange and design work and life, deal with risk and uncertainty, and handle space and tangibles.

SA: What can we learn about ourselves from our own Kolbe scores?

AL: The conative part of your mind sits in an area of the brain where there is no capacity for language. That’s why it takes so long to figure out who you are and how you “tick.” In the absence of words, we rely a lot on artists to provide additional meaning. We need musicians to put it in sounds, painters in pictures, sculptures in stone, actors in play, and so on.

Kathy Kolbe reduced a lifelong discovery process to a 15-minute questionnaire that produces amazingly accurate results and gives a framework and terminology for the conative part of our mind. Dan Sullivan of Strategic Coach claims that the day he got his Kolbe result was one of the most liberating days of his life. Most people feel that way.

Kolbe Wisdom gives you the power to be yourself at work and in life. It helps that its terminology and wording are judgment-free. For example, I no longer think that I am not good at developing complex workflows. I now know that I am just excellent at finding shortcuts and efficiencies. Instead of learning how to organize my time, I now focus on reducing efforts and getting more done with less. Likewise, my clients find themselves only managing projects for which they are the best qualified and not wasting time on commitments for which there provide little value.

SA: How might a technical documentation team (undergoing a transformational shift in the way they work) use Kolbe to become a lean, mean, content-producing team?

AL: Kolbe Wisdom teaches how to use everybody’s strengths rather than zeroing in on their weaknesses. The writer who makes an argument for what should stay the same in the authoring process probably just wants to stabilize operations. Find a way for them to use that strength during transformation. They will save the innovators from themselves.

The person who does not follow rigid authoring processes is the person who most thrives on finding efficiencies in workflows. The two should never try to agree on a process. One should create the plans, the other should look for ways to streamline it. Innovators often give impractical options; stabilizers are great at weeding them out. One sells ideas to budget holders; another is good at modifying them for general acceptance in the team.

Some writers are great at researching and reviewing massive amounts of information and then developing a document map and authoring strategy. Others are easily overwhelmed by too much detail, but these are the writers that create the best headlines, summaries, or Quick Installation Guides.

Once you have a Kolbe Index, you can create a comparison report that will give each team member detailed advice on how to best work together and the biggest mistakes that they can make as a team.

SA: At The Content Wrangler, we use the Kolbe score to help us understand the inherent strengths and weaknesses of our team members. We try not to assign tasks to people who aren’t wired for the work in need of completion. If you could only give one piece of advice to a technical documentation team lead or manager on a quest to create a high-performing team of collaborating technical content creators, what would that be?

AL: See your team members’ world through their eyes, and give them information in a way that they can act. In my workshops, I often hear from managers that they wish their teams would work the exact way they want them to. That is ill-advised, because you are likely asking them to work against their grain. Instead, give your team members the freedom to be themselves. Focus on their strengths.

SA: What types of tools are available to help technical communication managers leverage Kolbe wisdom to create high performing documentation teams?

AL: On the high end, they get a full 80-page team analytics report that tells them which team members are at risk of burning out, because they cannot apply their strengths at work. It also gives a reality check on how productively and efficiently a current team is functioning. A team alignment guide provides in-depth advice on how to manage and coach the team through success.

At the very minimum, they get coaching reports for each team member.

Some of my clients use Kolbe Wisdom to hire the right talent for their teams. Research has shown that the actual on-the-job success of new hires is about 83 percent when using Kolbe’s talent solutions. That contrasts with an average hiring success of about 20 percent. Think about it, 50 percent of new hires leave within 18 months. Of the remaining 50 percent, less than half produce at the level a team lead needs. What if you knew the probability of success for a new hire in advance? Kolbe RightFit gives you that amount of certainty.

SA: For those who haven’t yet discovered your company, Team Lawless, where are the best places for our readers to find you?

AL: You can visit my website (www.teamlawless.com) and schedule a Perform-at-Peak-Strategy Session. Most people get absolute clarity within just 55 minutes and leave with a concrete action plan.

You can also connect with me on LinkedIn, https://www.linkedin.com/in/lawlessandrew/.

SA: Andrew, thanks for making time to share what you’ve learned with our readers. The guidance you provide here should be both interesting and useful to those seeking to create and manage high performing technical communication teams.

AL: Thank you, Scott. You have made such a significant impact on technical communicators for so long. I am honored by your terrific questions and the time you gave me. Work hard, be nice, and stay amazing.

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