Annual research on trends in human capital management from Bersin by Deloitte listed “the rise of teams” as the top trend for 2016. Teams continue to be at the forefront of how work gets done in 2017. Bersin predicts: “To thrive in the digital age organizations should focus on breaking functional groups into smaller teams, customer-centric learning, experimentation and time-to-market. Organizations should examine the way work gets done and then provide support mechanisms to facilitate cross-functional success”.
According to Fast Company’s top five trends for 2017 the teams are becoming more complex, blending employee and contingent workers, on-site and virtual team members. “One trend we’re already seeing is the spread of cross-functional, ad hoc, and steering teams—which in many cases replace or supplement the work of a traditional, full-time team of people all working onsite together in the same department”.
More and more, work gets done by cross-functional teams that come together on specific projects. Advances in technology has facilitated working in this way. However, only 21% of the companies polled by Deloitte believe they know how to build cross-functional teams and only 12% understand how people work together in networks.
Teams are not defined on an organization chart. Rather, they consist of members of different organizational units, and increasingly, include members from outside the organization. Reporting lines on an organization chart are clear, as are the organizational boundaries between units. Roles, responsibilities, priorities, processes for working together in a unit are well-defined. However, cross-functional teams operate in what is referred to as “the white space” – the areas between organizational units. The roles, responsibilities, boundaries, and processes for working together are often not clearly understood in the way they are within the formal organization.
Rather than setting teams up for success, most companies only address breakdowns across cross-functional teams when the dysfunction generates negative outcomes – when important deadlines are not met, when quality suffers, when sales don’t get made.
Teams are often brought together and expected to “just get on with it”. But, as Bersin’s research shows, organizations do not pay sufficient attention to setting up teams for success. When forming teams, ideally, leaders should include individuals known for “spanning boundaries”. These are people who have relationships that cross organizational units and can bring a broader perspective to cross-functional efforts and build trust. However, while putting boundary spanners (if you know who they are) on teams can help, it’s not sufficient.
In all cases where teams go awry, there is generally a lack of a full, shared picture of how they are operating. Team members work within their own silos without an appreciation for how their work and their partners’ work interface and are in service to collective goals. There is often a lack of recognition of other priorities team members must address (in other aspects of their jobs) and how that impacts their participation in the team. Assumptions are made about each other and experienced as “truth” by those making the inferences. Working under time pressures, with a great deal of ambiguity and complexity in the environment, team members don’t take the time to talk and understand the other’s perspective. Rather, problems devolve into a blame game.
There is little wonder, then, that companies try to address these issues by training their employees to be accountable and to own the collective work. Changing employees’ mindsets about accountability won’t solve the problem, however. The work of the team is, first and foremost, to establish a foundation for working together effectively. Sure, the team needs to understand the goal of the team’s work – what it must produce. But teams often focus on the “what” of their work and not on the “how” of their work together.
There are several instances where I’ve observed cross-functional teams that have come undone. Sometimes the teams are temporary, project teams – working to build a new product or service. Other times the teams are cross-functional partners who regularly work together to deliver services to customers and manage risks for the business.
Turning a Team Around
One example was within the US commercial bank of a global financial services firm. There was a significant breakdown in coordination between loan officers and risk managers. While there is a natural check and balance that needs to be in place between these groups so that sales are generated without taking on too much risk of loss, those checks and balances can become a source of great conflict.
In this case, there was considerable back-and-forth between the loan officers and the risk managers such that the loan originators were unable to meet client needs and sales goals. The loan officers and the risk managers thought that their goals were in conflict. Rather than work together to write loans that met both interests – and, therefore the overall interests of the bank — (i.e., the sale of the loan at an acceptable level of risk), an adversarial relationship developed.
The senior leadership could not afford to allow such a dysfunctional situation to persist. An organizational assessment was conducted to uncover the unique perspectives of each unit. That assessment revealed that the heads of each group had worked together to come up with shared goals but, on the ground, their people experienced these as separate and conflicting goals. In addition, there were other variables getting in the way of effective teamwork. To address these issues, key people from each function came together for a facilitated discussion to review findings from the assessment, develop a shared view of how they were operating and what was getting in the way, and then to devise simple solutions that they could put in place to function effectively. As a result, team members had their false assumptions debunked and, instead, they removed the bottle necks that were threatening the profitability of the business. They developed mutual respect and shared accountability which was instrumental in sustaining effective teamwork as new business challenges arose.
About the Author
Deb Seidman is the Founder and President of Green Silk Associates, LLC, a consulting firm specializing in organization effectiveness. Deb is also a member of the Board of NYHRPS and passionate about enabling effective teamwork.
 The Top Five Trends for 2017, Fastcompany.com