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Overcoming Barriers That Destroy Teams

Organizations increasingly turn to teams to get work done, but institutional barriers can quickly corral collaboration. Harvard Management Update reports on the merits of presenting your team with an irresistible challenge.

It's not easy, pulling a group of diverse individuals together to work as a team. Barriers abound, in the form of fierce territoriality, incentive systems that reward individual rather than collective achievement, and mistrust spawned by an acquisition, merger, or major internal restructuring. Yet at a time when companies are increasingly relying on cross-functional teams at every level to generate innovative ideas, it's more crucial than ever to tap the fresh thinking that teams can provide.

How to overcome barriers to teamwork and unite an unlikely group of collaborators? Present them with an irresistible challenge, advise management consultants Patrick McKenna and David Maister in First Among Equals: How to Manage a Group of Professionals (Free Press, 2002).

Team challenges can take numerous forms—including a high-profile project, a process-improvement crusade, an enemy to be vanquished, or a chance to become the "winning underdogs." A crisis and pressure to complete a daunting task in a tight time frame (launching a new IT system, initiating a brand campaign) represent additional types of challenges. "A burning platform or aggressive deadline leaves team members no time to stall, hide, or point fingers," says Allan Steinmetz, CEO and founder of Inward Strategic Consulting, an internal branding firm in Newton, Massachusetts.

Regardless of the many forms team challenges can take, they share a purpose: fulfilling the deep need that most people have to be part of something larger than themselves. "People value this feeling more than anything else," maintains Judith Glaser, author of Creating We: Change I-Thinking to We-Thinking and Build a Healthy, Thriving Organization (Platinum Press, 2005).

But defining a challenge, and then inspiring your team to meet it, takes real savvy. "Managers must first be genuinely interested in helping people excel," says Maister. "They also have to understand that shifting from individual work to teamwork isn't an intellectual process, it's an emotional one. You have to seduce people step by step into collaborating as a team."

Effective managers use the following tactics:

1. Share as much information as you can
Share with your team as much information as possible about why their effort is so important to the company. "People want to be in the know," says John Coleman, CEO and founding partner of The VIA Group LLC, a marketing services firm in Portland, Maine. "I make our people feel like insiders by telling them about our company's challenges."

Glaser encourages her clients to "open up your company's closets. Put the brutal facts on the table—whether it's 'We slipped this quarter' or some other difficult news. You'll make people want to protect your company." Sharing information in this manner can spur teams to rally together and establish a shared vision for what they need to accomplish.

Katie Buckley, a senior organizational development consultant at Malvern, Pennsylvania-based Siemens Medical Solutions U.S.A., united business-unit leaders by challenging them to develop a graphic depiction of the company's competitive strategy as part of a nine-month development program in 2004. The team's effort resulted in a diagram that lays out the cause-and-effect links required for the company to leave rivals scrambling.

"We've grown through acquisitions," she says. "The challenge is in the integration—we strive to form complete solutions for customers."

After seeing the company's strategy in graphic form, "business leaders now realize they have to balance allegiance to their units and to the company, balance our future needs with today's needs, and put their 'enterprise' hat on," Buckley says. "They clearly see not only where we want to go as a company but also how we'll get there."

2. Provide the right amount of guidance
Invite team members to share ideas for surmounting challenges. Glaser advises clients to "help people articulate the unique contributions they can offer. Ask them: 'What are your ideas? What innovation can you bring to this effort?'" But balance this participation by providing guidelines for generating ideas and making decisions.

Brian Zanghi, president and CEO of Nashua, New Hampshire-based Pragmatech Software, took this approach with his executive team soon after he joined the company. His goal was to promote more cross-functional collaboration, and it proved a delicate task. Half the members of his executive team were new themselves, and the organization had a hierarchical culture.

"We had few cross-functional initiatives, and decisions escalated to a single point," he says. When Zanghi challenged his team to work across functions, several "old guard" members became uncomfortable. "Some of them wondered what their role was now and didn't know how to collaborate with their peers," he says.

To overcome these barriers, Zanghi asked team members to draw on their own expertise to generate ideas for cross-functional initiatives. "I don't micromanage; that kills creativity and collaboration," he says.

But he did provide some necessary structure to their brainstorming by testing ideas with such questions as "How will this idea get customers to use our products faster than before?"

3. "Stretch" your people beyond their current skills
Draw people into a challenge by offering them the chance to use skills they don't normally exercise in their day-to-day work. By "stretching" beyond their skill set, people gain experience thinking in fresh ways—a key ingredient in effective team collaboration. They can also become a great source of innovative ideas.

Stacy DeWalt, vice president of marketing for management services and enterprise accounts at Stamford, Connecticut-based Pitney Bowes, recently used this approach with her team. She brought twenty-five people together who had deep expertise in different areas—advertising, public relations, and the Web—to brainstorm ideas for how to change the perceptions of the firm's target audience and to elevate the importance of its products and services to the "C" level audience.

DeWalt then assigned people with different expertise to subgroups and challenged them to generate ideas outside their normal sphere of responsibility. Mass communication specialists, for instance, were charged with developing suggestions for direct-response marketing programs.

4. Make it fun, actionable, and visible
To put team collaboration into overdrive, inject fun into your team's challenge. DeWalt, for instance, designed her team's brainstorming session to mimic the TV series The Apprentice, in which Donald Trump presents aspiring businesspeople with a challenge and then "fires" mediocre performers.

"Our CMO played Trump," DeWalt says. "He told the group we were out to 'fire' our competitors."

But DeWalt made it clear that there was more to the exercise than just fun. "We told the team that the company would fund their best ideas, so people knew their brainstorming was actionable." Participants also discovered their work would be visible. After the session, the groups gathered the easels on which they'd recorded their ideas and carried them to the boardroom on the sixth floor. "All the VPs and the CMO were there," says DeWalt. "People realized they had the executive team's endorsement."

DeWalt's reward? Four of the team's best ideas have found their way into corporate or business-unit marketing plans. Moreover, participants have begun collaborating more to seize advantage of one another's perspectives.

One young woman enamored by "makeover" series on TV suggested a "mailroom makeover." Intrigued by her pop-culture perspective, some of her brainstorming partners have invited her into other programs to get more of her ideas.

A postsession survey revealed additional important results: "People said they felt empowered," DeWalt says. "They responded, 'You're investing in us and giving us visibility. We want to step up and help. You're challenging us but making it feel safe to be creative.'"

5. Help people "feel" the challenge
Design exercises that let your team experience their challenge viscerally. Consider the tactics used by executives in General Motors' Saturn division when they recently challenged retailer teams to generate new ideas for fulfilling Saturn's purpose: to "surprise and delight" customers.

"We wanted them to experience surprising and delighting at a gut level," says Chris Bower, manager of Saturn's retail strategy and customer experience. So the company designed a core-values training course in which each retail team built a bicycle to learn how best to work together. Next the teams had to design a "delivery experience" meant to surprise and delight a new owner of their bike.

After the teams developed their strategies, facilitators brought children from the local community into the room and presented them as the new bike owners. Neither the youngsters nor the Saturn teams knew of the plan ahead of time. "The teams not only surprised and delighted the kids," says Bower, but they experienced those feelings themselves.

Team members thus gained a visceral understanding of what they were trying to achieve. The "surprise and delight" they themselves experienced during the exercise proved a powerful motivator to solving the challenge they had been presented by Saturn's leaders.

Reprinted with permission from "Give Them a Challenge They Can't Resist," Harvard Management Update, Vol. 10, No. 9, September 2005.

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Lauren Keller Johnson is a Massachusetts-based writer. She can be reached at MUOpinion@hbsp.harvard.edu.

Hip-Pocket Tips for Building Team Effectiveness

by Lauren Keller Johnson

  1. Share information. When people really understand the challenges the company faces, they are more likely to rally to help solve them.
  2. Balance freedom and guidance. Effective leaders give their teams the freedom to solve problems while providing just enough guidance to keep them on track.
  3. Give people room to stretch. When smart people are freed from the confines of their everyday responsibilities, some very creative ideas will surface.
  4. Have some fun. This doesn't come naturally to some executives, but it can be well worth the effort. Teams require a sense of camaraderie to function at their best. A few laughs can go a long way toward building it.
  5. Make the challenge visceral. When you and your team can see or feel an issue from outside the normal scope, it takes on a whole new meaning.

Reprinted with permission from "Give Them a Challenge They Can't Resist," Harvard Management Update, Vol. 10, No. 9, September 2005.