Getting teams moving in the same direction

by Scott Austin September 07, 2012

Getting teams moving in the same direction

We've all heard the expression 1 + 1 = 3.  What it means to me is that a group of people can accomplish more together than if they were working separately.  An example, the Apollo program.   I don't know how many people were involved in the Apollo program, let's say 10,000.  10,000 individuals could not have put a man on the moon.  But those 10,000 people working as a team can accomplish the impossible.

But we've all seen teams where 1 + 1 = 1.5.  At big companies, we call it red tape or bureaucracy.  It is common to see an 'overhead' applied when working with a team.  Things can move slowly due to the natural habits of working in groups.  But it doesn't have to be that way.  Here's a way to accelerate the efficiency of working in groups.

Let me use an analogy. Imagine a team of four people riding in a car.

These four people have different roles and different goals:

  • Jill from sales wants to visit potential clients
  • Jack from ops wants to visit a vendor
  • Bill from marketing wants to attend a trade show
  • Betty from development wants to do usability with real customers

As the group is driving, they get to an intersection. 

At the intersection, each person wants to go in a different direction based on what their goal from the trip is.  So deciding on which way to turn becomes a very difficult process.  There is a lot of arguing and tension.  And there's a number of different ways that the decision can be made.  The team could vote.  They could look at the most urgent need and address it first.  And any number of other decision making tools that groups use.  In the end, a decision is made.  Some people feel like 'winners' in the decision and others feel like 'losers'.  And everybody feels farther apart and less of a team. 

At the next intersection, the same thing happens all over again.  The 'losers' from the last intersection are fighting even harder to become 'winners.'  At the end, a decision is made.  And again, tensions build in the team.  Let's continue this trip through a number of intersections.  With battles happening at ever decision point (intersection), it is very possible to travel for many miles yet end up going nowhere.

So everyone is working hard.  But the overall team isn't moving forward.  Too much time and energy is spent on internal dynamics/politics.  Everyone is tired and frustrated.

Now, let's take this same group and give them a common goal.  Let's give them a common destination, say Chicago.

Now by giving the team a common goal, they have a way to structure the decision making process to align their individual goals with the shared goal.  I live in San Diego.  To get to Chicago from San Diego, you can head north on the 15 and go through Vegas and then Denver.  Or you can head east on the 8 through Phoenix and then Fort Worth.  From San Diego, the 15 and the 8 seem like they are taking you in opposite directions.  But both take you to Chicago in almost the same amount of effort.  The Vegas route is 2,080 miles and the Phoenix route is 2,105 miles.

Chicago via Vegas

Chicago via Phoenix

So, let's get back to our team in the car and see how setting the shared goal of Chicago can help.  Jill may want visit a potential client in Vegas.  If landed, the client would be biggest in the company's history.  Jack may want to visit a vendor in Phoenix.  The vendor has been working with the company for five years and things are going well.  Jack likes to keep the relationship smooth by visiting the vendor once in while.

But everyone knows that the ultimate goal is Chicago.  So Jack can agree to going through Vegas so Jill can land the biggest client.  A couple of key points here.  The decision on which route to take is not as heated and tense as the discussions (fights) were at the intersections above when there was no common goal.  Either route gets to the ultimate goal of Chicago.  Also, Jack doesn't feel like he is losing in this situation.  He's still part of the team and will be winning by getting to Chicago.

Here's my summary:

Giving a team a common goal:
  • Makes decision making easier
  • Allows people to prioritize the goals of the group over individual goals
  • Gets the team performing
  • Enables the team to deliver and achieve
Without a common goal, a team will:
  • Experience internal conflict when decisions need to be made
  • Each person will prioritize their needs over those of the group
  • Spend more time on internal debates than moving forward
  • Make little progress, go in circles and re-open discussions (arguments)
Scott Austin
Scott Austin