“Dear Joan: My company has recently begun the ‘team approach.’ Basically, what this means is people from several areas of the company are being asked to work together on a variety of projects. This is great in theory, but the practical matter is that these teams are losing steam.
“There is fighting between members, some people just stop showing up, and some supervisors don’t seem to be very supportive. They don’t adjust these employees’ schedules so they can attend meetings or do the work that is necessary between meetings. People are getting discouraged and fed up. What do you think is the problem?”
The theory sounds so simple: take people from different areas of the company, give them a problem to work on and empower them to solve it. The “T” word is shouted from the tops of most corporate pyramids these days but few understand the special dynamics required to create teams that work. Like individual ingredients in a recipe, they don’t make a cake unless you put them together right.
There are three basic ingredients needed to make teams work – a common goal, permission and information.
Common goal: Most individuals have been programmed to go after their departments’ goals. Turf is built up over many years and it doesn’t go away because an executive says, “work together.” Rivalries flare unless the group spends time defining and agreeing to a common goal. Top management needs to help shape the goal and agree to give it the priority it deserves.
Permission: The notion of cross-functional teams is outside of the traditional, hierarchical mold. It’s naive to presume that the old structure won’t get in the way. Many supervisors have come up through the ranks and are good soldiers. They know how to give orders and delegate duties. Some of them can learn new behaviors – listening, facilitating and giving the team more control. Some can’t. Their old role was to gather information to make decisions. Now their role must shift to helping the team gather information to make its own decisions. This new role is just as important and even more complex.
So who coordinates a cross-functional team? If a multi-department team is formed to work on a task, have an advisor: someone at a higher level who will resolve political turf issues and who can act as a sponsor for its work. If a team is formed to work together on a more regular basis, it may make sense for them to report to the same person. Dotted line reporting relationships can also be used when a department (functional) person is on a cross- functional team. For example, the person reports (solid line) to her department head and “dotted” to the project leader. This dual accountability is designed to create the right alignment.
The top managers grant the most important permission. If resources aren’t provided, if the project isn’t a priority, if they give no clear charter, it will stall.
Information: In the past, information was the privilege of rank. Information was power. The top held all the cards and only showed one when they needed something done. Now, employees are asking them to show their whole hand so they can understand the big picture. Employees want to know what management knows so they can make smart decisions. Often, employees don’t know what they don’t know. It’s management’s job to tell them, educate them and help them. Management also needs to outline boundaries and taboos so the team will have a clear idea of what is expected and what is off-limits.
Most people have spent their entire professional careers learning a technical specialty. Then, they are thrown into a team environment and expected to understand group dynamics, shared accountability and organizational politics. Most can’t run a meeting, they don’t know how to deal with peers who don’t cooperate and they don’t know how to manage the process of a shared project. Training is part of the answer. Some comes from guidance provided by managers or outside help. And the rest comes from a shift in culture that creates the right environment for learning to occur. n