“Teamwork-between-teams is an unnatural human tendency

Where team building efforts fall short

Some time ago, a group of consultants got together for a bus-man’s holiday.  The intended purpose was agreed as “… let’s just kick back and relax, share a few jokes, have a few drinks, and not worry about business…”

Yeah, right. Before the first drink was delivered by the waitress, the conversation was already on favorite clients, tricky issues, and creative solutions. In this particular instance, I was very glad we overcame our feigned interest in avoiding business chat and wasted no time on our favorite topic – our clients.

On this particular day, the question that seemed to evolve out of typical banter, “What is the most common problem in any large organization, that is also the most ignored problem?”

Once we got rolling on the discussion, it did not take long to reach resounding agreement. The clear winner… “teamwork-between-teams”. It very often sucks.  In fact, a very common experience for consultants… the higher the stakes for two or more teams working cross-functionally, the inter-team working dysfunction seems to increase proportionately. The higher the stakes, the bigger the problem.

This situation occurs when cross-functional teams must work together at some point in a work flow, supply chain or similar organizational tasking.

And the issue is often under the radar. It may be that…

(a) this is not recognized as a problem to begin with, it is merely an accepted fact that cross functional teams are going to have their differences, or

(b) the organization recognizes the under-performing between the cross-functional teams, but simply does not feel there is a reasonable solution to the problem. This has always been a problem and it may always be a problem.

So what is the deal here? Why is this such a common problem?

It is Genetic

Teamwork is a natural tendency within any human organization.  When a group of people are pulled together to fulfill an organizational purpose, it is a natural condition. Each person within the group sees himself as a part of “team” and in fact, the people enjoy the spirit of belonging to a team… working together for the good of the cause.

However, when two teams are pulled into a common work situation, the affiliations and belongings of the separate, individual teams tend to dominate. Two teams are naturally competitive with, and sometimes even inherently distrustful of each other.  At times, when an individual perceives the needs of the other team [not his own] as conflicting with his own team’s needs… the overwhelming tendency is to protect his own team, even at the expense of the other.

So when asked to work together toward a common purpose… the individual members of different teams,  tend to look out for their own team first, and  more so under the daily pressures business.

Is this a problem?

Returning to the conversing consultants mentioned above, cross-functional teams working together at significantly underperforming levels, is a problem in almost every organization we have ever worked for.

To be fair, it is not always a problem that is creating a show-stopping, profit draining barrier to corporate success. But teamwork-between-teams — where cross-functional groups are trying to fulfill a significant business purpose — is almost always an underachieving activity.

For example when sales teams must work with their counterpart sales support teams, sometimes called solution teams or sales engineering teams, our consulting org has a  history of case after case of cross-team conflict, misperceptions, poor communication, one-sided decision making, and more… leading to loss of time, waste of money and diminishing good will within the org.

These underperforming cross-functional teams may come from each of two (or more) of the following areas of the organization:

  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Operations
  • R&D
  • Manufacturing
  • Maintenance
  • Engineering
  • Management
  • Business Partners
  • Unions
  • Executive Leadership
  • Board of Directors
  • Customers
  • … and more

What problems are caused by dysfunctional teamwork-between-teams?

  • Task performance performed by one team, may be done in isolation, without the benefit of ideas or valued input from the other team
  • Task work involving joint effort from members of both teams, tends to be executed for expediency, rather than for quality or value of output.
  • Internal collaboration is poor, with minimal accountability and inaccurate reporting.
  • Joint problem solving between the two teams often fails to account for significant risk.
  • The two teams fail to present a common, well-organized output to the rest of the organization, and often an inconsistent message to the Customer.
  • The two teams tend to bend organizational Governance guidelines, due to lack of cohesive cross-team effort.
  • Best practices and lessons learned tend to be lost in the shuffle of business, and the rest of the organization fails to gain from the two teams’ experience.

These are all real situations documented in case studies from our consultant networks. They are remarkably common, and there are many, many more examples of this kind of underperforming activity.

Coming soon…

“Super Teams – An unnatural human tendency, turned into common sense business success”


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