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© 2024 N. Dean Meyer and Associates Inc.
Excerpt from www.NDMA.COM, © 2024 N. Dean Meyer and Associates Inc.

Executive Summary: How to Induce High-performance Cross-boundary Teamwork

You can't specialize if you can't team! Here's how to build highly effective, dynamic processes of cross-boundary teamwork (workflows).

by N. Dean Meyer

One common approach to improving teamwork is "teambuilding." It assumes that teamwork fails for lack of interpersonal relationships or trust.

  • While teambuilding retreats may be fun, the results are rarely satisfying.

    That's because the root cause of poor teamwork generally isn't how people feel about one another or any lack of personal trust.

Another common approach to cross-boundary teamwork is "process engineering," where a sequence of tasks is mapped and assigned to groups. This has numerous problems:

  • It focuses people on tasks, not on running empowered, entrepreneurial "lines of business."

  • It doesn't define individual accountabilities for results within teams.

  • It's rigid. It assumes that every project works the same way. But outside of assembly-lines, projects vary in the types of skills needed and what's needed from each. Pre-defined processes can't accommodate that need for flexibility.

  • Since it takes so much time, process engineering is applied to only a few major processes -- usually the high-volume routine processes, not the more strategic endeavors of the organization. This neglects less visible, but potentially more important, processes.

Another approach is metrics of the team's performance (rather than individual performance). But shared accountabilities are no accountabilities. This just leads to finger-pointing, without clarity about who is in control of (and hence accountable) for what.

A closely related approach is metrics of people's ability to team. This is an ineffective patch for a deeper problem. Something is misaligned. Consider: Why is it that serving teams isn't in the best interests of individuals? (If it were, you wouldn't have to incentivize teamwork; individual performance metrics would drive people to team well.) Installing one incentive to overcome another opposing incentive doesn't lead to optimal or predictable outcomes. And at best, it masks the more fundamental root causes of poor teamwork.

A more powerful approach is based on the business-within-a-business paradigm.

"This powerful, yet pragmatic, approach consistently leads to improved role clarity; better teamwork; customer focus; entrepreneurship; improved performance; and commitment."
Preston T. Simons
CIO, Aurora Health Care
and former CIO, Abbott Laboratories

Think of each group as an independent business within a business, selling products and services to peers within the organization as well as to clients.

Each project is assigned to the group that "sells" that product (whether or not money changes hands).

That group is considered the "prime contractor," akin to a general contract who builds houses.

Like in the real world, the first job of a prime contractor is to line up any needed "subcontractors," that is, to arrange for help from peers.

Subcontractors may, in turn, "buy" results from other groups in the organization.

In this way, teams form spontaneously across boundaries. Teams include just the right people at just the right time. And individual accountabilities for results are clear, as is the chain of command within each team.

"[This] tells me how to build really effective enterprise teamwork."
Karan Powell
President, American Public University

This is a "meta-process" -- a process for determining processes in the context of specific projects or services. That means that teamwork processes are adapted to fit the needs of each unique project, without any loss of clarity.

This approach builds great cross-boundary teamwork without depending on individual's personal relationships (fragile, since people change jobs), and without making an organization a slave to rigid pre-defined processes.

What can you do to implement this dynamic approach to teamwork? Consider a brief series of leadership-team workshops to define your organization's operating model (who sells what to whom).


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