Harvard Business School professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s recent blog post, Cisco and a Cautionary Tale about Teams, deftly correlates several key factors challenging organizational leadership today. Kanter says: “With buzz about self-organizing social networks increasingly dominating the world, and organizations of all sizes in all fields seeking more collaboration, it is worth pausing to revisit exactly what teamwork means.” Exactly. Leadership must consider the kind of “teamwork” that is desired in their organizations and then build the structure and process to foster it.
First though, let’s consider what Kanter means by “teamwork.” She is talking about how groups of people are organized to make decision-making and work efficient and effective. And different organizations desire and require different types of teamwork: some more collaborative, some less, some more integrative, some more specialized. And what kind of teamwork is needed in different organizations, and even in different parts of the same organization, is what is being called into question.
The traditional models of organizational structure (top down, command and control, silos of activity) that operated as the gold standard are being challenged on a variety of fronts, and that means it’s time for innovation. But for this to happen, leadership needs first to increase their capability in discussing organizational structure, and see doing so as answering a set of strategic questions. What decisions are made and where, with what input, in what timeframe, with what impacts on the particular “product” and with what tolerance by the specific organizational culture are all fundamentals of the governance conversation. Indeed, governance lies at the heart of much institutional angst right now.
The types of governance that have worked in the past, in areas well-known and understood (like financial management, HR, etc.), are being called into question in the newer arenas of technology and knowledge management. And this development coincides with the democratization of information (24/7 access to just about anything) that technology is pushing, as well as the demand for greater transparency and involvement in decision-making, that is itself a product of access. Because of these forces, governance in all our institutions is in a state of upheaval, with leadership being pushed to transform it. But if leadership is not fluent in the language of governance and the questions that need to be asked, with a solid understanding of the forces at work that are applying the pressure, leadership will find itself repeatedly designing and redesigning its governance to little effect.
And we see this in the preponderance of reorganizations. But governance redesign is much, much more than a reorg. Governance redesign means asking and answering basic questions about the type of decision-making the organization desires – overall and in specific areas within it. For example, as Kanter points out, a technology company by definition needs to be more agile in its decision-making than, say, an academic institution, in order to remain competitive and relevant in the rapidly evolving marketplace. At the same time, innovation is often the product of collaboration and so both agility and a collaborative environment may be desired. But since agile decision-making is generally at odds with the pace of more collaborative decision-making involving varied groups of people, this inherent tension will need to be reconciled in the governance structure that is created. Finding this balance will require innovative thinking about and design of governance, so leadership needs to get much more agile itself in governance stewardship acumen.
Kanter also brings up the notion of accountability. One of the reasons for command and control is that both authority and accountability are clear - in fact, one client of mine went so far as to say that only an individual can be accountable, never a group. To the contrary, I have worked with highly successful nonprofit boards where both collaboration and shared authority are givens. As Kanter says, leadership still exists in collaborative governance structures, but only if it is well designed and communicated. Where the governance model includes broader input and increased transparency, the charter, in which clear lines of authority and responsibility are described – even if in entirely new ways, gains renewed prominence. Unfortunately, many charters sit on dusty shelves because they are verbose, unclear, and considered just a formality.
And this is perhaps the state of governance overall: dusty, verbose, unclear and considered a formality. When in fact, clear governance, whatever the particular model, is the very fiber of teamwork, the foundation of organizational culture, the catapult to greatness or to a stunning lack thereof.