Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Removing impediments to better teamwork.

In many organizations, processes are handed from one department to another across the company like a relay race. R&D starts and passes the baton on to Manufacturing, who in turn pass it on Marketing and so on. This baton passing is seen as an efficient way to move a process forward across a siloed organization. However, linear processes that are designed this way act to foster separateness and competition and cut off opportunities for employee cooperation and collaboration, which is key for high performance and innovation.

Tivo, which is known for its innovative products, brings product managers, marketers, designers, engineers and user advocates together to work closely on projects. It finds ways to bring teams together to collaborate on specific projects rather than simply checking and reviewing each other's work. Coordinated processes are more efficient — collaborative processes are more innovative.

I see two different kinds of team development initiatives. One tries to improve teamwork between employees within existing organizational boundaries. These kind of initiatives emphasize training to improve interpersonal interactions, such as listening, open communication, positive feedback, conflict resolution and good meeting skills. It's assumed that the firm's current structures and policies are OK as is. You'll certainly get some bang for the buck by teaching people to interact more effectively together. However, many of the barriers to true cooperation come from how work is currently set up and rewarded in the first place.

For example, employee evaluation systems that focus only on individual performance and tie pay and rewards to this foster competition rather than collaboration. Why should I take the time to work with you if in the process I lessen my own "star" status? Sales people are often rewarded this way - the person with the most sales gets a vacation in some lovely place they wouldn't normally go to. As a result, they're unwilling to share what they know about customers and sales processes with their colleagues in case one of them might win the prize instead. This continues even though research has convincingly shown that overall sales would increase significantly if everyone shared what they know rather than keeping it to themselves.

Similarly, physical boundaries, time boundaries and task boundaries interrupt work process so people end up with tasks that have no clearly measurable output. As a result, they can't be held accountable or receive meaningful feedback about how well they're doing. And this encourages people to spend their energy in finger-pointing and pass-the-blame tactics instead of trying to improve how they work together.

When I write about building high-performing teams, I mean team building initiatives that change structural processes and impediments as well as teaching people to interact together more effectively. This is where significant performance improvement of 5X to 10X or more can be achieved.

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