Do You Need Interaction Planning?

November 21, 2014 Max Isaac

Using a structured approach to getting better results from individuals, teams, and organizations

Whenever we meet with executives or managers, we ask, “Do you have a strategic plan?” The answer is always “yes.” We ask if they have an operational plan to execute the strategy. They answer “yes.” Then we ask “do you have an interaction plan to harness the resources to execute the plan?” That’s when we often get blank stares.

Interaction — how people and groups work together (or don’t) — is just as important to organizational effectiveness as is having the right strategy or being efficient at execution. Yet unlike those other two dimensions, interaction is often handled in a very eclectic fashion. To turn interaction into an engine for producing better results, we suggest you incorporate interaction planning into your management approach.

This planning needs to happen at three levels: for you as an individual, for your team(s), and for your organization. This article provides an overview of what’s involved at each level.

Improving Your Individual Skills

One of the core tenets of our methodology is that each of us has an impact on the people around us by virtue of our strengths, weaknesses, and interaction style. That’s why we encourage people to ask themselves whether their current way of interacting is fully utilizing their strengths or those of their teams and coworkers. On closer examination we often find that for most of us, the answer is “No”: we often find that there are strengths we are not bringing to the teams in which we work.

An individual plan for interaction improvement should include the following components:

  • Education about interaction:
    Do you understand the connection between interaction, strategy, and execution? Do you know the ways in which group norms can facilitate or impede progress? Do you know how to recognize good vs. poor interaction? How can you learn more about these topics?
  • Self-knowledge:
    What do you know about your current interaction style? What could you do to learn more? Are people willing to give you feedback? If no, why not? Does defensiveness stand in the way? How would you know if it did?
  • Playing to Team Role strengths and managing your weaknesses:
    If you haven’t gone through the Belbin Team Role analysis, you should! If you already have, what information in the details can you use to get even better at your strengths? Equally important, what are your weaknesses? What steps can you take to make sure they don’t stand in the way of your personal effectiveness?
  • How to become more versatile:
    If you are in a leadership position, the burden falls on you to adapt to the people in your sphere of influence, not vice versa. Examine the full range of your preferred and manageable Team Roles. What can you do to be more adept at switching roles as needed? (You can also read our article on How to Become a More Effective Team Leader.)

A Team Interaction Plan

To help teams think through the issues they need to address, my colleagues and I have studied the characteristics and behaviors of high-performing teams. These teams have many elements in place that keep them moving forward, prevent them from wasting time and talent, and help them quickly overcome barriers. Making sure those elements are in place not only creates a high degree of alignment but also helps the team build trust because they know that everyone will be operating from the same foundation.

A plan for improving interaction for a team should address the following issues:

1) Team Purpose.
You’d be surprised how common it is for team members to think they have a shared understanding of their team’s purpose only to discover that everyone has a different interpretation. So, as obvious as it may sound, a team should always start out by discussing fundamental questions such as, “Why do we exist?” and “What does success look like for us as a team?” The goal is to identify a purpose that is directly relevant to the people on the team (not just an abstraction) and that everyone agrees on.

2) Guiding Principles.
Guiding principles help keep the team on track throughout their time together. These principles link the team’s purpose to its tactics. Guiding principles often describe the team’s aspirations and values and/or clearly define what the team will or won’t do in the way they operate together.

3) Collaboration and Meetings.
Often, teams take how they work together for granted, an attitude that can contribute to big interaction gaps. We advise teams to talk about collaboration and make sure what they are doing is helping them achieve the team purpose and goals. They should, for example, talk about the frequency, length, and content of their meetings, and decide if there are changes in any of those factors that could make the team operate more effectively.

4) Team Alignment on Roles and Responsibilities.
In order to galvanize a team and ensure that it capitalizes on individual strengths, there needs to be a discussion about the contribution that each person brings to the team. Part of that discussion should be based on the Team Role framework. Another part of the discussion should be centered on who will be responsible for what tasks at the core of the team’s purpose—whether that is running a process, creating plans, designing a product or service, or solving problems.

5) Ground Rules.
Every group takes on a unique character and pattern of interaction based on the norms it adopts (consciously or unconsciously). Developing explicit ground rules increases the likelihood of the team operating as intended because it provides a frame of reference to evaluate how meetings and interactions are going. Any problems are quickly can be recognized and resolved.

6) Implementation & Learning Practices.
The decisions made around the first five topics won’t do much good if the team doesn’t also discuss how it will implement these decisions and continue learning and improving in each area. So the team also needs to answer the following questions:

  • How can we make sure we act in ways consistent with our principles?
  • What can we do with the Team Map to make sure we continue to emphasize strengths and manage weaknesses?
  • How will we reinforce our norms?

Organizational Interaction Plan

One of the clearest lessons from our past decades in this field is that interaction is an area that doesn’t easily lend itself to raise-the-roof rallying cries. For that reason, the best way to make progress on interaction at an organizational level is to not treat it as a big change initiative unto itself.
Effective interaction is like the oil that makes it easier for gears to do their work; in this case, those gears are strategy and execution. So look for gears in your organization that are clogged or sticky, and use a focus on interaction to help them mesh more easily. When you think about interaction improvement this way, you generally end following one of the following approaches:

1) Using interaction practices to conquer cross-functional barriers (silo busting)

2) Adding an interaction component to another existing initiative or major project (a booster shot for enabling greater success of that initiative)

3) Using an evolutionary model, allowing interaction growth to occur organically by either cascading it down (start at the top and have the leaders take it to their teams, who then take it down to the next level, etc.) or letting it go viral at its own pace (building off the success of any individual team by allowing their success to create interest in other groups).

In all of these cases, the plans for implementation should incorporate the kinds of tactics you would use for any other major initiative, such as:

  • How to engage those involved
  • How to educate anyone who will need to support or implement the plan
  • Conduct a current state analysis (SWOT) of the interaction dimension (e.g. through a Team Discovery workshop)
    • Determine the few critical issues that need to be addressed
    • Formulate action plans to address the issues
  • Review mechanisms to build a culture of continuous learning

Plans AND Action

As the saying goes, a plan without any action is just a dream. The reverse situation is perhaps even worse: action without a plan is just chaos. Taking steps to improve interaction will go more smoothly and be more effective if you have a plan.

Since few people have any experience with interaction planning, our advice is to follow the sequence discussed in this article. Start working on your individual development to help you understand what it means to focus on interaction improvement. Once you are comfortable with that level of effort, expand your focus to your immediate surroundings—the team you work with or that supports you. That will give you experience with how to align people around interaction and what it takes to reshape group norms. After that, you’ll be in a better position to understand how to approach this goal at an organizational level.

A leader we worked with recently said to us, “As we started to close our interaction gaps, we realized that we had shortened the distance from frustration to success—and that became quite a motivator for the team.” That kind of motivation is critical because while it may be possible to force some kinds of change on an organization, different ways of interacting is not one of them.

Having plans that build off of improvement at an individual, team, and organization level can provide powerful incentives for people, groups, and organizations to put in the time and devote their energies to making better interaction a deliberate part of their lives.

Learn how to build your own interaction plan: Contact Us.

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About the Author

Max Isaac

Max is the CEO of 3Circle Partners. He brings a depth of knowledge and experience from his career in general management and consulting in North America, England, Europe and Asia. Max has assisted CEOs and senior leaders within client organizations with the design and implementation of Interaction Planning processes, team based organizational development programs and Lean Six Sigma initiatives.

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