Sometimes the simplest insights are the most telling. And the most important.
Some time back, while I was working with an engineering client, our conversation circled back to his firm's past attempts to encourage collaboration and innovation. In one sentence, he crystallized the challenge many of my clients have encountered in their attempts to change their corporate culture: "Just because you put us into a room together doesn't make us a team."
In a previous innovation exercise, his firm had taken steps towards creating its first cross-functional team, a popular tool for accelerated innovation. This "task force" model draws people from different areas of the organization – sales, marketing, HR, admin, research and development, and so on – to generate insights from all points of view, from customer needs to new product ideas, production and distribution. Theoretically, these teams can move forward fast, because they don't have to wait for feedback or permissions from other departments. But this firm's initial results with a cross-functional team were less than stellar.
Why? Because without a leader and a conductor who can provide the big picture and co-ordinate all of the players, you're asking your people to work outside of what they know and do every day. Understanding how everything fits together isn't a part of their job descriptions.
In addition to technical know-how, teams need strong leadership, direction, objectives and accountability (at minimum) if they want to be successful. As my client noted, these skills aren't often taught in schools. His staff needed additional training to ensure that they could translate their business skills or technical brilliance into a team dynamic where the whole could truly be greater than the sum of its parts.
At my firm, we call this process transitioning the cross-functional team into a Dynamic Working Group (DWG). The purpose of the DWG is to create an environment in which high-functioning individuals are taught collaborative skills to help them work together to deliver productive, measurable outcomes.
Based on my facilitation of working groups within client teams, I can share some of the insights I've gleaned about successful collaboration and how to get everyone pulling together.
1. Leadership for performance: People don't respond well to an inflexible "boss." They are more successful when their leader attracts commitment and energizes people by creating meaning in their work. When the leader's focus is truly on partnering with their team members to drive performance, leveraging frequency and quality of conversation, employees are more likely to commit to the goals at hand.
2. Discovering everyone's strengths: There are benefits in building diverse teams of individuals drawn from different backgrounds with a range of skills, experiences and perspectives. Collectively, they represent your company's DNA. The leader's challenge is to take the time to understand and tap into the individual strengths of each team member.
3. Objectives and accountability: Successful businesses set objectives that are company-wide. Without objectives, a company lacks purpose. But simply setting business objectives is not enough. They need to be achievable, inspiring, easy to visualize and people must be held accountable for achieving them. If objectives are not aligned to a common strategic direction, then everyone in the organization will be working at cross purposes – leading to conflict, project slowdowns and reduced commitment to achieving results.
4. Meaningful meetings: In many organizations, meetings are taking up an ever-increasing amount of time. When meetings are held without preparation, agendas and action items, or used as a stalling tactic for decision-making, they diminish productivity and morale. Given the high number of people who normally attend cross-functional team meetings, strong leadership and a sense of purpose are essential.
To drive innovation and meaningful change in your organization, you need confident, vigorous cross-functional teams. Sustained innovation success depends on having team leaders who understand the big picture, relate well to individuals from different backgrounds, and have the communication skills to galvanize and inspire.
First you bring people together in the same room, and then you bring them together on the same page.
Ken Tencer is chief executive officer of branding and innovation company Spyder Works Inc. and the co-author of two books on innovation, including the bestseller Cause a Disturbance. Follow him on Twitter at @90per centrule.