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The need for organizational teamwork—where multiple teams across the organization work together cohesively—is receiving more and more attention. Deloitte reports that C-Suite executives are being asked to work more collaboratively across functions as their roles and work are becoming more complex and integrated and now that we are experiencing a shift from traditional structures to a collaborative “network of teams” structure. Harvard Business Review reports that while teams are more “diverse, dispersed, digital, and dynamic,” their success depends on group collaboration. General Stanley McChrystal, in his book Team of Teams, preaches the necessity of a “team of teams” approach to organizational success in a now-complex world. Patrick Lencioni has started a movement with his Organizational Health model focused on cohesiveness, clarity, and alignment.

Many executives have expressed what Ralph Perrey, Executive Director of the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, expressed to me: They are launching more and more initiatives that require multiple business units to work together.

We don’t have to look far to see high-profile examples of leaders doing this well.

Alan Mulally, the former CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes and Ford Motor Company, widely credited with turning around the fortunes of Ford, has a very simple model for creating a successful organization. It’s called…Working Together.

How do you follow in the footsteps of a legend and icon like Steve Jobs? Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, took on that difficult task and has made Apple even more successful. Cook is known for… focusing on collaboration.

General Stanley McChrystal credits teamwork—not skills or strategy or military doctrine—with the success of his mission against ISIS. If an Army general whose entire career was steeped in a command-and-control model can embrace the importance of organizational teamwork, we should take notice.

Yet for all of the successes from the likes of leaders such as Alan Mulally, Tim Cook, and General McChrystal, there are many failures—even when we implement a particular practice that made those leaders successful. As innovation expert Stephen Shapiro says, we can learn as much from our failures as from our successes.

Let’s be honest. Organizational teamwork is important but complicated. There is a reason why organizational teamwork is frustratingly rare. We are dealing with all the intricacies and nuances of human nature, departmental priorities, organizational systems, and complex processes.

The natural tendency is for us-versus-them and territorial thinking to emerge—like a hippo marking its territory.

This all reminds me of the challenges of coaching a basketball team—one of my passions. Any good coach will tell you that an unyielding, unrelenting commitment to teamwork is important. Yet, it is very difficult to develop the level of teamwork required to be successful. Once the girls get in an actual game, when the speed picks up, when the pressure increases, when the environment becomes more intense, when there are consequences, the girls naturally narrow their focus to the immediate individual situation on the court. It can be difficult in an intense game environment for the players to even see their other teammates on the court, much less work together with them.

The secret I discovered is that developing teamwork on the basketball court takes a lot of work and emphasis along multiple dimensions. As a coach, you can’t just talk about teamwork, you have to develop each individual girl’s ball handling and passing skills; each girl has to be able to handle the stress and pressure of a game environment. Team members have to understand how to move in the gaps on the court, passing needs to become stellar, the offensive system needs to adapt to support their strengths—everyone needs to be committed to the same team goal.

What I have discovered is that the secret to developing teamwork on the basketball court is also what it takes to develop teamwork on the organizational “court.” It takes a constant emphasis and consistent effort along similar multiple dimensions. A one-dimensional approach doesn’t work. You must have a clear direction, a common language for teamwork, a rhythm to eliminate gaps, and the removal of constraints.

In future posts, I will dig deeper into the five important dimensions – or variables – that determine how well teams collaborate, share information, and work together.


Do you want to build a stronger, strategically aligned leadership team?