Have you ever spent hours creating a plan, presented it to your team, and then never used it again? Or have you encouraged your team to adopt an agile “test and learn” approach to an upcoming effort, only for them to then create a detailed plan for implementation? Guess what: Your ideas were great — but the audience was all wrong.
Just as teams form norms around how they communicate, process information, and make decisions, they also establish patterns for how they work towards their objectives. On the one hand are Deliberate teams: plans are thoroughly created, closely followed, and referenced and updated frequently. And on the other side of the spectrum are Spontaneous teams: preferring to be responsive to new information and circumstances, these teams thrive with lightweight plans and frequent changes in direction.
Succeeding requires recognizing, and knowing how to work with, both. Here’s how.
Deliberate teams anticipate, plan, and prepare
A Deliberate team is like a well-rehearsed orchestra. Every note is planned and prepared in advance. Picture a team at NASA working on an upcoming rocket launch. They have detailed timelines, specific tasks, and concrete goals set for months to come. These plans are tightly linked to the mission’s broader objectives, and have been synchronized with other team’s development roadmaps. Every team member knows their part and the bigger picture.
This style minimizes surprises, keeps everyone on the same page, and provides a clear roadmap towards the goals. Plus, it allows for thoughtful resource management and risk mitigation.
👉 Thriving on a Deliberate team: Make sure you have a way to measure progress (and if you have metrics, make sure they’re measuring what really matters). Learn to anticipate potential obstacles and plan accordingly. Even with detailed plans, unexpected things happen; make sure your team has a process to deal with things going off-track. And remember, it’s critical that you actually maintain and revise the plan as your project unfolds.
Spontaneous teams act, learn, and adjust
Spontaneous teams approach a project like an improv show: They adapt quickly, reacting to changes and making on-the-spot decisions. Consider a public relations team managing a company's image during a crisis. They don't have a script, and they can’t anticipate tomorrow’s headline. But they act quickly, adjusting their strategy based on the latest developments.
This style is highly adaptable and responsive. It thrives in dynamic, fast-paced environments where conditions can change overnight.
👉 Succeeding on a Spontaneous team: Without detailed plans, it’s critical that you have clear goals — and a shared understanding of what they are across the team. Spontaneous teams also need to communicate quickly and effectively, typically more often than Deliberate teams. When you’re designing the plane as you’re flying it, there’s a lot more to discuss!
Apply the right approach for the right problem
Teams have natural preferences for either Spontaneous or Deliberate working styles, but that doesn’t mean their default approach is the right one for every situation. A big part of being a high-performing team is knowing when it’s time to get outside your comfort zone and try a different way of executing towards your goals.
If you’re a Deliberate team faced with a fast-moving set of underlying facts or circumstances, limit the amount of time you’re investing in planning and “what-if” scenarios. Try building a ‘plan’ that consists of high-level outcomes, as opposed to specific actions or tasks, to give team members clarity without having to anticipate every detail. And celebrate the contributions of the teammates who are taking action.
If you’re on a Spontaneous team assigned with a large project with complicated external dependencies, you’re going to need to slow down, think ahead, and commit your plans to paper so that you can stay coordinated with your counterparts outside the team. And if the risks of a misstep or change in directions are high — costly investments, for example — the phrase “Measure twice, cut once” comes to mind. When things inevitably change, resist the urge to ‘wing it,’ and do the work to revise the plan so everyone can stay in sync
👉 Great execution requires a flexible approach: Ultimately, the most successful teams don’t apply just one way of working. They feel most comfortable in either a Spontaneous or Deliberate mode, but they also know when it’s time to try a different tact — and they have the tools to do so.