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A Team . . . of Teams: How's that work?

Who, in most organizations, is the one person who really understands what it means to operate as a "team of teams?"  Who is responsible for the health of the teams and the organization?  I know who I expect it to be . . . the senior leader of the organization.  The Executive Director, President CEO, Owner . . . they are the visionaries that we often expect to have the magic touch to make an organization function dynamically and smoothly.

If you are fortunate enough to have someone who really excels at this, having a vision of how the organization can operate, the next challenge is how well are they able to communicate that vision to others.  Often I have worked with leaders who, I think, have a clear vision. But often, as I interview their staff, I find problems that interfere with the communication and operations of carrying out that vision.

Understood or not, the "team of teams' construct is one of the new fashions in leadership and organizational design circles. (In fact, this has been identified as a trend for 2016. Here's a good and recent article on this trend from Deloitte University Press

When a team of teams, or one might call it a human system of subsystems, works . . . it is a thing of beauty--like an professional orchestra--the violin section and percussion-- playing with effortless harmony and beauty. Employees are engaged (see our infographic on engagementi), they give of their discretionary time and effort to help the organization succeed, everyone pulls together and conflict is minimal. But when it doesn't work, the resulting discordant din of struggle rises and falls, filling the air with a tension that leaves it's audience, those working in the organization, contemplating the closest and most acceptable escape route.

Notice the "Skull and Crossbones" flag? First time I've seen that one!

Notice the "Skull and Crossbones" flag? First time I've seen that one!


Maybe I'm in the minority when I think that most organizations have only a superficial understanding of their human systems.  I know that most are aware of the impact of their human "element."  I hear senior manager's concerns about the impact of the business on their employees. But most see these elements in a simple "cause and effect" lens that leads, often, to assessing blame and limiting the options to address the problem.

Trained at the height of the systemic age of human sciences (I even had a course on cybernetics of cybernetics or the science of systems of systems!) theorists and researchers found that the "easiest way out leads back in" when you are talking about a system (mechanical or human). In other words, a simple approach to a systemic problem invariably does not change the system itself and thus the problem will persist. (When I was young people talked about putting saw dust in a transmission to "fix" a problem. It did not stop the transmission from failing!)

I often wonder, when I am beginning work with a new organization,  just how well prepared are the managers to understand the systemic dynamics of the people they are responsible for overseeing?  Often senior managers are tasked with casting a vision and creating policies and procedures (or culture) to avoid (or if necessary to "fix") any problems.  

But where do leaders develop their vision for leading a team of teams? My experience tells me their training will not have addressed it in depth and most of their practical models come from the success stories and personal contacts the leader or manager is exposed to in their professional contacts--or from the latest article or book on leadership.  Others recognize a need for a support system to guide them and adopt the trend of hiring an organizational behavioral consultant or executive coach.

Thus leaders chase the elusive "right mix" that will unleash the potential of their human systems and drive the success they envision. Yet, often it is largely the context itself--the industry, economy, or point-in-time--external factors, of those organizations, that determines if the team approach is working well or not. (Can you create another Pixar when one already exists?

Others may founder, not because of a lack of understanding their own organizational system, but because of the context in which their organization exists.  Leaders and organizations who enjoy a rich medium of growing markets, fat profit margins, and new research and development opportunities often have teams and a team of teams that are robust and "healthy" in their functions. Many of those same organizations however "get exposed" when adversity hits--with leaders "bailing," employee morale sinking, and public opinion declining. A system in a growth mode needs different things than one in a maintenance or declining industry.

Leaders need to understand the external context and then focus on the needs of their unique system; maximizing the contribution of the system through removing barriers, providing support, or challenging them to live up to the best vision of themselves and the organization. This often yields better results.

So, who is tasked with creating a "team of teams" in your organization?  Do you have a clear vision?  Is the communication of that vision being adopted by others?  Do you constantly have to encourage others to act inline with the organizations values?  Are teams really focused on what is best for the whole organization? If this is the model you are interested in trying to create or if it is one you have adopted but with limited success, then ask yourself, "Within our context, who has the experience, knowledge, vision and time to help us focus on operating as a true "team . . . of teams?" 

Available eBooks:

Private Practice through Contracting: Decreasing dependence on insurance.

Engaging Your Team: A framework for managing difficult people.

Family Legacy: Protecting family in family business.