Every week, before our Lean Coffee in Seattle, there is an unofficial social gathering called #prelean. I value this gathering tremendously as it is a time to get together with peers to learn and build deeper relationships. A staple at #prelean, Adam Yuret is one of my closest friends as well as an amazing consultant. A couple of weeks ago, Adam brought up a topic that sounded controversial: “Do Teams Matter?” For someone who has always been a vocal advocate for their teams in the past, my gut reaction was “Of course they matter! Don’t be so cynical.” But, as the conversation went on, I found my perspective widening quite a bit.
Let me start by saying that grassroots initiatives can be powerful. They give us quick wins which form the proof that can help us convince others to join a particular cause or way of thinking. Before you know it, you can have a groundswell of advocates to help spread a message. As Lean/Agile consultants, we are often called to work with one or more individual teams so that we can help them visualize, collaborate, and execute on their particular goals. This type of engagement can be very satisfying because we often see some tangible benefits rather quickly. If we’re lucky, we are also there to see the groundswell of other teams jumping onto the bandwagon… not because its the new shiny thing, but because they saw value in what happened with the original team. Then, we are excited to see the new team achieve initial wins and the cycle continues. Before we know it, we have engaged in the creation of lots of team success! The problem is that they often turn out to be pockets of disconnected, local optimization. The teams feel great (for now), but how much value are we providing to the organization as a whole? And, if we’re not helping the organization as a whole, how much help are we really providing to those teams in the long term?
An organization is a system
If you are a student of systems thinking, or “how things work together to form a well-working whole,” you know that local optima can actually hurt the whole. Theory of Constraints shows us that the organization can’t move faster than its slowest part. (Read “The Goal” by Eli Goldratt for more information) When we come down off the high of helping someone, we might begin to see the sense of the question “Do Teams Matter?” It starts to make a bit more sense. Personally, I think the answer is always “Yes, but…” Yes, teams are important, but they might not be the best starting place to dive in and help an organization.
The biggest bang for the organization’s buck is usually garnered by ensuring that the executive leadership understands how to build and deploy comprehensive strategy. Next, once the leadership has demonstrated the ability to clearly articulate a strategic position, consultants may then be best utilized by helping department leaders
- understand the communicated strategy
- translate what that means to their department
- embrace the art of distributed decision making (including the key component of back briefing)
Consultants can be extremely helpful in teaching and facilitation on systems thinking at the department level because, so often, this is where we experience the pain of silos that are trying to meet THEIR goals at the expense of the larger organization. Optimizing how departments work together will have a tremendous impact on the organization’s bottom line. It will also have positive, trickle down effects on team cultures.
Everything in the right order
It is at, or by, this point that we want to start focusing on teams. I don’t want to say that you can’t execute on multiple levels simultaneously. But, if I was a person standing in the middle of some toxic sludge, I would probably prioritize cleaning up the toxic sludge before i focused on improving my eating habits. If i focus on the wrong priority then I’m still fighting a losing battle. I may improve certain aspects of my health, but it won’t matter if I die from the toxic sludge.
When the organization environment is healthier, the teams are in a much better position to improve and thrive sustainably. This is when that focus on the team will have the most impact for the organization. So, now when I’m asked “Do Teams Matter?” My answer is “yes, but less than the organization as a whole.”
Please share your thoughts in the comments below. Also, if you need help at any level of your organization, reach out. I might be able to help you find the right consultant(s) for your particular needs.