Strategic Teams Can Be Effective When They Overcome Their Challenges

Strategic teams are important elements of organization structure. They provide the capacity to integrate and execute strategy. They also provide for the development of people at every level of the organization.

There are many kinds of strategic teams. Some are designed to improve processes and systems. Others are designed to provide better methods for compliance and administrative work. Many are focused on options for growth and development. And others are built to support change at one level or another, from simple policy revisions to business model evolution.

Strategic teams may be chartered as part of the organization’s approach to a special program or initiative. For example, the executive group seeks to close the gap on operating margins, service performance or market position. They appoint a strategic team to tackle the issues, address what matters and bring home the options. This kind of ad hoc team assignment is common. It reflects a specific need or concern. It deploys a specific group of people to get something done. It expects the benefits of getting results, with a level of urgency not otherwise available.

These ad hoc team assignments are often very helpful in bringing the required focus and power to issues that drives some kind of needle-moving progress, better margins, better offerings, and better growth tracks.

Because strategic teams play key roles in the organization’s strategic agenda, they are becoming crucial to operations. In essence, they serve to connect the “why/what/how” of the company’s strategic agenda. They translate the directional aspects of the strategic agenda, with the connective elements of strategy integration and the basic action map for strategy execution.

Companies that are more seasoned, more mature in their discipline and practice, and more experienced in blending strategy, talent and culture, structure have built their strategic team arsenals in ways that drive results and forge talent. They have built a specific competitive advantage with people who serve as the agents of making strategy happen. And, they have built a standard practice of developing people within the key disciplines of strategic teams. These help to accelerate decision making, and they foster a mindset for growth, performance and change that moves the value needles.

Barriers to effectiveness

While strategic teams provide a lot of promise, they are not without a host of everyday challenges and barriers to effectiveness. These struggles have different causes, and they reflect the conditions and realities of organizations large and small. These struggles are for the most part, predictable, subject to definition, and perhaps inevitable.

One important challenge is strategic team design. Teams need to be put together not by convenience or availability, but based on their collective ability to make specific contributions and yield specific results. From the start, designated teams must know what their purpose is, what their core objective is and what work they must do collectively to achieve it. This purpose is the driver of team design and engagement. It cannot be vague.

Another key challenge is getting the right “talent blocks and beams” assigned to the strategic team. Individuals bring their own Talent Beams to bear, their awareness and maturity, along with a set of Talent Blocks, their technical, analytic, creative, resource, solution and relational sense. Getting the right Talent Blocks and Beams assigned means bringing together the right technical, analytic, creative, resource, solution and relational talent, in the right roles, with the right maturities, experience and readiness.

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The early struggle for many teams comes down to key roles: Who organizes and arranges? Who brings expertise and subject matter knowledge? Who are the integrators and improvisers, who are the navigators and pathfinders, and who are the operators, task producers and work checkers? How role assignments are determined matters.

Collaboration can be a struggle

Collaboration within a strategic team, and collaboration beyond the lines of the strategic team’s charter is often a struggle. The more common barriers to collaboration lie in different interpretations of goals and objectives, clashing approaches to communications, different methods of coordination and diverse patterns of contribution and accountability. We often see a range of passive-aggressive behaviors across the domains of collaboration as team members wrestle to table their perspectives, to leverage their knowledge and experience and to tackle challenges as they perceive them. Communications issues are a huge source of struggles, and can make or break teams in general. Either teams will communicate effectively or they will bumble and stumble along the way toward whatever outcome they happen to arrive at.

Many strategic teams struggle with a combination of process swamps and control models. Process swamps are essentially the place where multiple process and policy platforms collide. These swamps can and do constrain decisions, and they pose common and uncommon barriers to progress. Control models shape power and influence, and they inject what many people view as constraints to making progress on the company’s strategic agenda. They may be reflected in management systems and/or governance practices.

People problems

Perhaps this sounds like restating the obvious, but strategic teams often struggle with difficult people, weak leadership, problems with trust, individual accountability and confused purpose or direction. In a perfect world, strategic teams would be equipped and blessed with effective leadership, clear objectives, and positive character all around. But these struggles, challenging as they may be, are a natural part of the cultural experience and journey of companies. They are enabled with experience. Team members learn from positive and negative experiences alike. Strategic teams are cultivated and curated and dispersed across the organization as forces of culture, whether strong or weak.

Finally, strategic teams may struggle with basic interaction, between and among members, and with others who influence their work. Research [MIT Human Dynamics Lab and others] points to the nature and intensity of communication and interaction as key markers of performance. What really counts here is the energy level of exchanges, the lines of engagement, different angles of exploration, the nature of connections and extended contact, and the ways in which conflict and tension are managed. This speaks to the way strategic team members connect, discover and commit with each other in the cause of making strategy happen. It also speaks to the challenges of both external and organizational stress, of resilience and endurance.

With eyes wide open, strategic team advocates and influencers can help address each of these six areas of struggle and challenge. The starting point is pretty simple: begin with the end in mind. Get to the understanding that effective strategic teams are built with a clear view of the organization’s strategic agenda, a practical blend of Talent Blocks and Beams, and a working sense of the organization’s cultural agenda. This framework serves to address the range of struggles most organizations have faced at one point or another.

Daniel Wolf is president and co-founder of Dewar Sloan, a consulting group focused on strategy direction, integration and execution. For more than 25 years Dewar Sloan has served hundreds of corporate, healthcare, technology and nonprofit organizations. Author of Strategic Teams and Development: The Field Book for People Making Strategy Happen and Prepared and Resolved: The Strategic Agenda for Growth, Performance and Change, Dan has held management and governance roles at Fortune 500 companies, SME ventures and in private equity ventures. He lives in Traverse City, Michigan.

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