Has your team’s performance fallen off lately? Was it once exciting to be part of the team, and lately you find you’re not having fun?
Perhaps your team has succumbed to team drift. In my Harvard Business Review article, “Diagnose and Cure Team Drift,” I explain how to revitalize a formerly high-performing team that has lost its focus and capabilities.
But, before you decide to revitalize your team, there is an important question to consider.
Is it time for honorable closure?
Cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien used the term honorable closure to describe the practice of acknowledging transitions. According to Arrien, all societies have rituals that acknowledge major life transitions such as birth, marriage, and death. These rituals are important as they provide a conscious recognition of change and support the transition.
However, there are many transitions that we fail to acknowledge and, therefore, lose the opportunity for clarity and support. This is especially true in work-related settings, with teams, projects, committees, and other work groups.
Endings are often messy. Things end abruptly, leaving people unclear about what happens next. Or the ending gets strung out over time, dying a slow, boring death. When there is no formal ending, team members begin to lose interest and interpersonal conflict breaks out.
4 questions to help know when it is time for honorable closure.
Is the meeting over?
Although the team itself is not ending, the end of each team meeting is an important moment. What will happen after the meeting? Are people ready to follow through on commitments?
Honorable closure creates focus and clarity. It can be as simple as taking a few minutes to recap decisions, next steps, appreciate what was accomplished and to thank team members.
Has the original goal been met by the team?
When you don’t put formal closure on a project that has been completed, often team members will continue to meet without a clear sense of what they are doing or why.
Hold a special meeting to acknowledge and celebrate what was accomplished. If there is more work to do, identify it as a new project. Perhaps the same people will continue, but don’t assume it. Look at the project goals, the skills required, the interest of current members, and whether additional members are needed.
Is the purpose still relevant?
Times change, and what was once a significant issue may no longer be necessary. In that case, it’s time to either refocus your purpose or use honorable closure to call it an end.
The National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ) was founded in 1927 in response to anti-Catholic sentiment being expressed during Al Smith’s run for the Democratic nomination. Over the years NCCJ, realizing their original purpose was too limited, expanded their work to include more issues of diversity in social justice. In the 1990’s they changed the name to reflect their expanded purpose to the National Conference for Community and Justice.
Have the members outgrown the group?
This is a common story. The support group had been meeting for years. During that time, many of the members had matured and no longer need the kind of support originally provided by the group. However they kept meeting because they felt that quitting would be disloyal to the other members, and they liked each other. No one questioned whether it made sense to continue the group.
Eventually the group turned into more of a social group. Because the shift was never acknowledged, the members who still wanted support were disappointed, and the members who didn’t have a desire to socialize were disgruntled. Members became annoyed with each other without realizing it was a group issue, not an interpersonal issue.
Lots to think about here, Jesse. I look forward to talking with you in person later this month.
When a team (or organization) decides that ending is really an option, they are able to look more objectively at their purpose, their reason for existence. I have observed that often they confirm they are on target, sometimes they discover a deeper, more significant purpose that necessitates change (like NCCJ), and occasionally they do end. Looking forward to discussing this with you more.
What a wonderful term. I loved the graph – the purpose of this organization is to perpetuate itself. Unfortunately all too many organizations – microfinance institutions, for example, are focusing on their survival and profitability not the needs of those they are supposedly helping. Too many non-profits see the same clients year after year at enormous cost and questionable outcomes but have long lost their creative drive for what their founders had in mind in the first place. From my experience there should be a serious rethink or a complete restart after about 7 years.
Well said, Jeff! I really like your suggestion of taking stock every 7 years. That’s traditionally the sabbatical year, a time to stop and reflect. It’s important to take a look at the big picture, asking questions like: what need is being served, has the need changed, how are we and others attempting to serve that need and what is the best way. Nonprofits are especially in danger of assuming they have a noble mission and losing their focus.
As the old song says, ” You gotta know when to hold’em. Know when to fold’em”. I believe that honorable closure is the celebration of what happened, perhaps the passing or the torch to another group, and a time for also saying good-bye. This is true not only in project teams but also in acquisition and mergers. One has to let go of the trapeze to swing to the next one. Without closure, one could be left hanging between two worlds.
An excellent description of the value and applications of honorable closure. Thank you for adding to the conversation, Eileen.
Jesse, I like the term ‘honorable closure’. I think many may see closure as an ending when really it is the next beginning. We step through the door, and respectfully close it behind us.
Thank you for sharing-
Great point, Carl. It’s like putting in a punctuation mark so you don’t get a run-on sentence.
You position this article in terms of leadership and teams, yet I can easily see the benefits of “honorable closure” in any aspect of one’s life. An excellent article, thanks!
I’m always struck by how the principles of great leadership apply to all aspects of our lives. Thanks for pointing that out, Jennifer.
Wow, that’s impactful Jesse. We need to be constantly evaluating what we’re doing and whether or not it’s still pertinent.
Teams (and organizations) seem to take on a life of their own. And there’s often resistance to ending them when the work is done, especially if they’ve accomplished great work. As you point out, we need to be intentional about “constantly evaluating what we’re doing and whether or not it’s still pertinent.” Much thanks for deepening the conversation, Joseph.
In the over 70 work groups I have helped analyze over the last 25 years, the two stages that have been the most overlooked have been Forming – with the ‘let’s just get started’ mentality – and Closing – with the “let’s just get out of here!” mentality. Even when groups end purposely, it rarely happens thoughtfully – members report a surprised ‘now you see us, now you don’t’ experience. I think your idea, Jesse, that in addition, we need to pay attention to Team Drift is an innovative one, and will expand thinking on the challenges to an effective closing.
In addition to what you pointed out in your blog, not closing is a missed opportunity to identify what we learned. Richard Hackman identified a crucial aspect of a group’s success as members (coming) away from the group experience wiser and more skilled than they were before. An effective Closing gives all of us the ability to become a more effective future member.
Many great points. I especially appreciate your pointing out that an intentional closing is a vehicle for enhancing learning, both organizational learning and individual learning. Thanks so much for adding your wisdom to the conversation, Sharon!