Amnesty: A Vital Leadership Tool

Jan 16, 2012

Last weekend my 4-year-old Mac desktop fried.

The screen had been freezing off and on for weeks, strange shapes and patterns were appearing in weird places, and typing had become an exercise in patience as letters transposed themselves willy-nilly. By Saturday morning the computer had more or less given up the ghost.

Just as I was about to head off to the AppleStore, credit card in hand, to purchase a replacement, a dim memory filtered through of something I’d tried long ago on a previous machine – a process called zapping the PRAM.

Essentially, PRAM stores a bunch of system and device settings in a location that the Mac OS X can access quickly. Over time, the data stored in PRAM can become corrupted, irrelevant or plain wrong, often resulting in the sort of buggy behavior I’d been experiencing.

Anyhoo – the point is, after a quick Google search and few keystrokes on reboot, my beloved Mac was back, performing just as it should. Simple, highly effective – and saved me a couple of grand to boot (bad pun).

The exercise reminded me of a vital process needed to build and maintain highly effective teams – one which is rarely used, but which is an integral part of the Predictable Success process: Amnesty.

Every team or group has its own equivalent of PRAM. Just like an operating system (which, in a way, is exactly what a team or group is – an operating system for processing data and outputting a result – usually a decision), the group has a bunch of default settings that regulate their interaction every time they get together.

These ‘settings’ are composed of the attitudes, beliefs, presumptions, presuppositions and stances that the individual members of the group each bring with them. The sum total of everyone’s personal ‘PRAM’ dictates how effective (and efficient) the group will be in working together.

The problem is, the group’s PRAM gets corrupted over time by slights, annoyance, anger, frustration, unresolved tension, outright disagreement and fear – which in turn causes the team to exhibit the equivalent of frozen screens and jerky apps: poor decision-making, dysfunction, ineffective compromise and occasionally outright gridlock.

The only way to effectively ‘zap the PRAM’ for a team or group is to declare amnesty. It’s a painful exercise, and one which requires a high degree of emotional intelligence to pull off, but it’s vitally important if you are to remain a high performance team over the long term.

If you have the intestinal fortitude for it, here’s how to declare group amnesty:

1. Get everyone in a room together with a whiteboard or flip chart and a bunch of post-its.
2. Have everyone in the group take 5 minutes or so to write on a post-it the source of any major frustration they have with either the team as a whole, or with individual members, using one post-it for each topic, if they have more than one (most will).
3. After the time is up (or everyone has stopped writing) up, have the team members stick their post-its on the whiteboard or flip chart, and send them off for a 15-minute break.
4. During the break, ‘clump’ the post-its (put together all the post-its that cover the same topic) and from them produce a master list of every event, decision, statement, attitude or act that the team members have indicated is cluttering their personal PRAM.
5. Here’s the tricky bit: When the group returns, go through the list, not inviting any further debate, but asking the group if they are prepared to declare a team ‘amnesty’ on those items – to draw a line under them, to let their annoyance, resentment or frustration go, and to agree not to let those issues cloud their interactions in the future.
6. Have everyone sign the master list indicating their agreement to amnesty.

This is team effectiveness 505 – it’s not exactly beginner’s stuff, and it’s not for the faint-hearted. You need a strong facilitator and a mature team to pull it off. But if you can make it work, you’ll see a turbo-boost in the team’s effectiveness immediately.

(Of course, you’ll need to repeat the exercise 6 months later – but you’ll also find the group will become increasingly self-policing about the process, slowly replacing ‘autopsy’ with ‘amnesty’.)