By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners
Most managers understand the value of creating happy employees or managing them better. Helping them work successfully across teams, on the other hand, is one issue that too often gets short shrift. Many managers seem to believe that as long as individual employees feel supported and inspired, collaborations among teams will naturally work themselves out.
Unfortunately, that’s not how things usually work out. Like any other complex organism, groups have their own needs and motivations. Left to their own devices, even teams made up of enthusiastic, productive employees may become territorial, with little concern for putting the company’s best interests ahead of their team’s. Neglect cross-team dynamics at your peril.
In an effort to dive more deeply into this topic, I recently caught up with my colleague Ron Carucci, Managing Partner at Navalent and author of the book To Be Honest: Lead with the Power of Truth, Justice and Purpose, published last month. During our discussion, Ron repeatedly emphasized the importance of managing your “seams”— the organization’s internal borders where different departments ultimately meet (and often clash). “What most of us don’t understand is that the seams of an organization, that’s the place where the greatest value gets created,” he says. Here are four strategies he offered for successfully working across teams.
As in so many other aspects of work (and life), successful collaboration begins with trust. “Trust is a currency,” says Ron, “and we all trade it differently.” Teams that don’t trust each other don’t give each other the benefit of the doubt. They don’t share information freely. And they definitely don’t interact productively at the seams. If teams rarely overlap, they may be able to ride out a distant relationship. But the more they’re in touch, and the more complex their tasks are, the more trust is required, says Ron. If members of different teams don’t believe that their counterparts will be operating honestly, they will have no interest in helping. In a worst-case scenario, they may even try to sabotage a team that they view as a rival.
It’s not exactly news to point out that businesses are more likely to thrive when all their teams work in sync, and one of the best ways to ensure this happens is to connect their seams. Begin this process by asking each group in your organization to decide on the value the organization offers to consumers, Ron advises. They may not be able to agree on much, at least early on, but they should be able to agree on this. After that, ask them to determine what each group has to excel at for the value to be achieved. Asking big-picture questions like these are more than an exercise—they’re an opportunity to get everyone on the same page. “So now I’ve forced peripheral vision. I’m forced to constantly consider, when I’m doing this piece of work, that there are implications for you. When you’re doing that piece of work, you understand there are implications for me,” says Ron.
Optimal synchronization doesn’t always equal eye-popping performance statistics across all groups. This being the case, it doesn’t make sense to segment KPIs and other measurements of “accountability” so rigidly. Establishing organization-wide metrics of success as opposed to departmental ones is more likely to foster partnerships across different teams. All too often, the tyranny of metrics demands that teams devote their efforts to meeting narrow goals at all costs. This may motivate high individual performances, but it can also easily breed resentment. “Metrics should incentivize people to align with each other, not compete,” says Ron.
For leaders concerned about helping their teams play together better, it’s tempting to try to fix things quickly with gimmicks and retreats. Ultimately, though, these are all superficial efforts; if you really want to improve cooperation among teams and individuals, you need to take a hard, potentially painful look at your company culture and values. “If you haven’t addressed the systemic things that pull you apart in the first place,” says Ron, “all the team-building, trust falls, and kumbaya in the world aren’t going help you.” Even if you have limited time to devote to team building, it’d be much better spent establishing policies that promote inclusion, fairness, and good faith risk-taking than one-off events. An organization where people feel valued is an organization where people will want to work together.
Follow these four tips, and you’ll be well on your way to more fruitful collaborations and more engaged employees.