Teams are as prevalent today in the workplace as water coolers in the common area. This is rooted in the nature of project work, often requiring knowledge and skill from disparate groups expected to work together. The rollout of a new technology or improved business process often requires coordination among business managers, external consultants, marketing, training or sales groups, each working toward a common objective. Often, the coordination produces more cross-team dysfunction than success.
What's the problem?
The problem starts with our definition of team. Just because different groups are expected to work together does not mean they meet the criteria for a team. A team presumes a common purpose, and regardless of management's expectations for bottom-line, collaborative results, two or more groups working together invariably produce two or more mini projects.
It's reasonable to expect teams to collaborate, but human nature leads people to manage their own slice of the pie. Top management needs to take a hard look at the real message being conveyed to the organization about getting things done. The question can be boiled down to: Is success measured by realized strategic outcomes or is it about not being singled out as the reason for failure? Too often, senior management assumes that groups are working toward a common goal while at the tactical level, sub-groups are playing hot potato with their unique deliverables.
Being accountable is often about not getting caught holding up the larger project versus being accountable to the overall success of the project, whatever it takes.
When was the last time you heard this from another team? "We're not going to make our deadline and we know this will affect your deliverables. Is there anything we can do to help?" You won't hear this because first, it's an admission of failure, second, groups don't understand the direct dependencies of their actions on others, and third, teams interpret success based on meeting their own deadlines, not others'.
Transforming team silos such as this starts with making it explicitly clear that what is expected is a commitment to the overall goal versus sub-team success. No one wins if everyone doesn't win.
No News Is Bad News
There is an unspoken dynamic that plays out in organizations around filtering bad news that is often related to missing deadlines. Patrick Lencioni puts it this way in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: "Politics is when people choose their words and actions based on how they want others to react rather than based on what they really think".
Too much time is spent concocting appropriately worded explanations for why things are not getting done, rather than describing the simple facts. I've listened to many senior managers express frustration about a lack of timely results, while they don't go out of their way to demand people tell the truth about where the breakdowns lie. Management needs to do a better job communicating their expectations, rather than assuming their people know what's expected. When you talk to people in the trenches, a common theme is, "I don't know what's expected of me or management doesn't understand the real issues."
What Comes First? The Chicken or the Egg?
Breaking down those communication barriers is no easy task and it opens the classic question of which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Management is waiting to hear what's really going on while the staff is waiting to hear it's ok to communicate breakdowns or bad news. (This, by the way, is not the same as complaining, which is communicating bad news with no commitment to action.)
Organizations are left with a blame game that is played out over and over again every time a deadline gets missed or a deliverable is rolled out poorly. The message here to management is, your staff will not take the step of communicating bad news unless you explicitly demand it of them. For staff, you may never get explicit permission from management to stop filtering bad news. Regardless of what your role is, the ball is in your court.
So what are some symptoms of poor team performance? Consider these ten possible observations of a group:
- Low output and productivity
- Frequent complaints within the team
- Internal confusion about roles
- Ineffective meetings
- Lack of clear goals or low commitment to goals
- Problems working with the team leader
- People do not speak up and contribute ideas
- Decisions are made that people do not understand or support
- The team does not appear to have good working relationships with other teams
- People feel that good work is not recognized or teamwork is not valued
If half of these behaviors or attitudes are present, you've probably got a team problem that needs to be dealt with. Most importantly, realize that addressing these issues takes time.
As Patrick Lencioni writes:
The reality remains that teamwork ultimately comes down to practicing a small set of principles over a long period of time. Success is not a matter of subtle, sophisticated theory, but rather of embracing common sense with uncommon levels of discipline and persistence.
Improving cross team performance is not just a good idea; it's the difference between an organization succeeding or failing at its goals. A commitment to ending endless games of hot potato, discouraging the politics of choosing words based on how you want others to react, and management articulating expectations over unspoken assumptions, all of these will have a direct impact on the success of your organization's strategic goals.