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And now there are vaccines

| December 8, 2020

by Jim Bruce

[Author of today’s Tuesday Reading is Jim Bruce, Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously served as Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. Jim may be reached at [email protected].]
A few weeks ago, in the Tuesday Reading What’s Next, I speculated about when a vaccine for the Covid-19 coronavirus would become available and vaccinations begin in the United States. News reports at that time suggested that a significant fraction of the population might be vaccinated and gain immunity to Covid-19 by the end of 2021 or early 2022. It was thought that these vaccinated individuals plus those who gained immunity by having the disease would enable the United States to reach a state of “herd” or “community” immunity, stopping the transmission of the disease.
However, things changed. The first two vaccines are currently under review by the CDC and are likely to be approved and vaccinations begin before Christmas, even possibly by the end of the week. Additional companies are also developing and testing vaccines which may be reviewed and released later this year or early in 2021.
Simultaneous with the vaccine development and approval work, activity in each of the states is rapidly ramping up to vaccinate everyone age 16 and older. This requires acquiring the necessary supplies, arranging for sites where vaccination clinics can be held, and identifying staff to administer each site and give the vaccinations. And, all this needs to be done without interfering with the treatment of current and future coronavirus patients which have consumed the staff and facilities of all of this nation’s hospitals and clinics.
It is now estimated that about 60-75% of the country’s population 16 and older could be vaccinated – two vaccinations each – as early as end-of-spring or the beginning of fall 2021. We don’t know if there will be a vaccine for those younger than 16 (perhaps for ages 12 to 16) or how many people will have contracted the virus (now estimated at 13 million as of early December 2020) and have immunity from being ill. So, given the Mayo Clinic’s estimate that 94% of the population needs immunity (either through antibodies from having had the virus or by being vaccinated) in order to stop the chain of transmission of the virus, we are left not knowing whether transmission of the virus will have been actually stopped by 2021 year’s end or not.
And, this discussion brings us to the key question: Just when can the country, and in particular each of us, get back to “normal.”  Five big issues I see are: (1) how fast can the process to vaccinate everyone be put into place, (2) what fraction of adults will refuse to be vaccinated, (3) what will be done regarding vaccinations for those under 16, (4) how long is a vaccinated person protected from re-infection, and (5) is 60-75% of the community being vaccinated plus those who receive immunity by having had Covid-19, sufficient to provide “herd” or “community” immunity. Oh, and another big issue is whether the vaccination program will be able to reach the isolated, rural, hard to reach, etc. people who live at some distance from even small towns. Each of these is a big question and the answers will really guide policy makers in determining when some semblance of normal returns. It all depends. (See, for example, the December 4, 2020 New York Times article Find Your Place in the Vaccine Line.)
And, another big issue is what is the “normal” to which we expect or wish to return. I’ve noted, as have others, that our work world has departed significantly from the “normal” of 9-months ago, that is early 2020. And, we have, in the process of living and working in the time of Covid-19, developed at a minimum the beginnings of a new “normal” way of working, both individually and as teams. We don’t really know what that new normal will be, but we are collectively developing it now. Some of this development process will look like going back to the pre-Covid-19 era, some will look like an evolution from this earlier time, some will likely be entirely new.
In What’s Next, I also suggested that there were three things that each of us needed to do — 1. Take care of ourselves; 2. Take care of your team; and 3. Begin to develop your new normal – to guide each of us through these difficult and trying times. I hope that each of you have been working on these tasks.
In today’s essay, I want to turn our attention to the next stage of our journey by exploring how we do our work after sufficient people have either had the virus or been immunized to it. In doing this, I will introduce five new practices that can be helpful in providing new skills, practices, or key dynamics, that you and your team will need for your work in the coming environment: psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact. (These skills are actually helpful in any work environment.) These “key dynamics” are not original to me. They were identified through an extensive study focusing on the question “What makes a (Google) team effective?” The practices (or dynamics) that were identified are:


  1. Psychological safety – Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.
  2. Dependability – Team members get things done on time and meet a high bar for excellence.
  3. Structure and Clarity – Team members have clear roles, plans and goals.
  4. Meaning – Work is personally important to each team member.
  5. Impact – Team members think their work matters and creates change.

When Google began this work about five years ago to discover what made for a highly successful team, they expected to identify the perfect mix of individual skills and characteristics for each team member. What they found, instead, was that “Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.” Their work spanned all sorts of work group arrangements, most having interdependent working relationships.
Once this study team had developed an understanding of what constituted a team, they turned their focus on how to determine whether a team was, or was not, effective. To measure team effectiveness the study group relied on several evaluations of each team: An “executive’s” evaluation, the team leader’s evaluation, team members’ evaluations, and evaluations by “customer’s” based on work delivered. Analysis of this data led to the conclusion that what really mattered was how the team worked together as evidenced by the “dynamics” noted earlier – psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact:

  • “Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk.” Team members “feel safe to take risks around their team members,” “confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.” The Google research indicated that this “dynamic” was the most important characteristic of a successful team.
  • Dependability refers to the characteristic that team members will reliably complete quality work on time, never avoiding what they have committed to do.
  • Structure and clarity refer to an individual’s understanding of her or his job expectations and how her or his performance supports the team’s effectiveness. Goals should be specific, challenging, and achievable.
  • Meaning. Finding meaning in either the work itself or its output is important to the team’s effectiveness.
  • Impact. What one does needs to be seen as making a difference, contributing to the goals of the organization, the team, or others.

My goal in this Tuesday Reading is to encourage you to begin the hard work (with your team) to strengthen the team and to prepare you and it for the next transition in the way you and the team do work. Rather than spread this material over many Tuesday Readings, I want to point you to Google’s work in this area and urge you to use it for as a base in your team development work in the coming weeks and months. It is truly the best material I have seen on developing teams. It’s readable, contains many links to supporting materials, and comprehensible.
Here are the Google web pages that focus on this this material.  The first pages talk about effectiveness and what makes a team effective. From there, they go to psychological safety. As they note, without psychological safety within a team, it simply cannot be as effective as it might otherwise be.
What I’ve tried to do in this Tuesday Reading is to start you and your team off on a journey to make all of you more effective. Why not consider getting started by working with your team on psychological safety.
I know that the times are difficult now for everyone. Be safe, and urge those around you to be safe, and to not take any unnecessary risks.
.  .  .  .  jim