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Teams Within Teams Within Teams

I’ve spent half a lifetime working with teams. I’ve helped them clarify their purpose, agree their goals, resolve damaging conflicts and build strong connections between team members. I’ve helped them to develop ways of working that drive collaboration, operational effectiveness and full inclusion. I’m proud of my work. But there’s a ‘but’.

Working with teams, one at a time, is unquestionably beneficial for those teams. But the ability of these teams to realise their full potential and contribute to the full enterprise lies in how successfully they interact with other teams throughout their business. The trouble I see is that instead of teams within teams within teams, too many organisations have silos within silos within silos.

The challenge as we move forward is to find ways for teams to connect meaningfully with other teams. To ensure that teams are deeply integrated with the teams inside their organisation. And to ensure that all teams, inside and out, that contribute something to the whole, are fully aligned.

David Clutterbuck, Peter Hawkins and Ruth Wageman among others through their organisation WBECs, are seeking to address this challenge, but it is one that needs collective effort from leaders, coaches, facilitators, strategists, and people developers across the globe.

Teams can only be effective up to a point when they go it alone. The idea that they can ever become a High Performing or Highly Effective Team without successfully navigating their place within the wider construct is a fallacy. Team members might be happy; they may work well together; the team may deliver its objectives; and everyone in the team may be well-aligned. But that’s’ only half of the story.

Richard Hackman alludes to this in his model of Team Effectiveness. He isolates a critical condition that without which, teams cannot thrive. He calls it a Supportive Organisational Context. Drill down a bit and what this actually means is that teams MUST develop great working relationships with their stakeholders outside the team. They need to understand their stakeholders and the points at which their work intersects. They need to gain the support and cooperation of other teams in the organisation and beyond. They need to invest in those relationships and work closely together to build cohesion, influence and shared accountability.

Some years ago, I was working with a factory operations team who had been prescribed some pretty challenging targets for throughput on their production lines. Through their dedicated efforts they had been showing real progress. Sadly, the Procurement team, sitting in another part of the business, had been set a different target, which was to reduce the amount of spend on packaging. The result was that the company shifted to a new packaging supplier who was cheaper. The problems this created soon came to light. The thickness and moisture content of the board was different. Also, the way it was delivered meant that the board was bowed. The impact on the plant was horrendous. Throughput fell, waste levels went up, and machinery faults increased. This is an example of what happens when teams work in isolation.

What this means for leaders of teams is that greater effort should be made to bring teams together. The opportunity needs to be created for groups of teams to meet and plan together; to build strong allegiances and alliances; and to remind themselves of the context within which they are all operating.

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