The secret to getting work teams pulling in the same direction

A lack of alignment and clarity leaves many employees cynical and disengaged

Micromanaging and interpersonal conflict get in the way of efficient teamwork. Photograph: iStock

Micromanaging and interpersonal conflict get in the way of efficient teamwork. Photograph: iStock

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Teams fall short for many reasons, but top of the list is lack of clarity of purpose closely followed by mismatched priorities, micromanaging, getting stuck in a particular mindset – and of course interpersonal conflict. But whatever the cause, the outcome is the same: failure to deliver.

It’s a problem for teams everywhere, regardless of their size or sector, and it’s one that Tom O’Brien set out to solve when he set up Sprintmodo two years ago to focus on turning teams into high-functioning units that get things done.

O’Brien’s background is in the pharma industry, and he spent a large chunk of his career working in and leading teams, including those with dispersed structures and international responsibilities. Having watched teams succeed and fail, O’Brien came to the conclusion that the single biggest cause of suboptimal performance is a lack of alignment.

“If you ask team members what their priorities are, you will rarely get the same answer,” he says. “This can be due to poor communication of objectives at the outset or because individuals have different opinions about what is most important.

“But whatever the reason, it invariably ends up with people pulling in different directions and teams ending up having little pieces of lots of things done, but lots of other things in queues waiting to be done.”

O’Brien uses a combination of techniques to drive momentum and turn it into tangible actions that deliver on business goals. These techniques include running workshops to address specific needs and putting participating teams through a six-week, three-phase process designed to identify the main challenges, prioritise them by value and initiate action.

Shareholder value

Sprintmodo clients include Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, and the company’s sweet spot is medium-sized to large companies with teams of 10-14 people.

“The aim is to move teams from talking about business challenges to acting on them,” O’Brien says. “Team members need to feel they are adding value and getting the right things done rather than having a constant sense of unfinished things hanging over them. Momentum-powered firms have been shown to deliver 80 per cent more shareholder value than their slower rivals.

“Once a team is aligned, it gets easier to see the challenges and the priorities and easier to take action,” adds O’Brien. “Prioritising and breaking up the top priorities into smaller pieces also allows a team to take the first steps faster, and suddenly they are looking back at what has been accomplished rather than looking forward and only seeing big daunting challenges ahead.”

O’Brien is not alone in believing that clear thinking is germane to successful team performance, and while it might sound like a prerequisite for good management, it’s in surprisingly short supply at the top, according to management consultant Ann Latham, an expert in strategic clarity and the author of the recently published The Power of Clarity: Unleash the True Potential of Workplace Productivity, Confidence and Empowerment.

Latham says that while we all think we know what clarity is, we don’t. And while most leaders can’t afford to be blind to clarity, most are.

“We don’t know how to assess levels of clarity, how to recognise the extent to which it is missing, or how to create greater clarity,” she says. “At the same time, this inability to understand clarity affects everything we do. Our most familiar and frequent tasks – tasks such as decision making and problem solving – suffer from a lack of clarity. But we don’t see that. This inability is what I call clarity blindness.”

Latham is a former software engineer and senior manager within the high tech sector who set up the management practice, Uncommon Clarity, in 2004. Since then she has worked with numerous blue-chip clients across 40 industries, including Boeing, Medtronic and Hitachi.

She believes organisations, already under pressure to do more with less and to succeed in an increasingly competitive environment, are wasting valuable time and resources on counterproductive activity and circular decision-making that’s born of confused thinking.

Morale boost

Latham says solving this clarity blindness could improve all aspects of organisational activity from productivity and efficiency to morale. However, because organisations can’t “see” it and don’t know how to talk about it, they have never tried to eliminate it.

Companies won’t tolerate dips in production, says Latham, but they’re perfectly willing to accept dips in what she calls “cognitive uptime”, where the human part of the business equation is dysfunctional because employees are trying to operate without “clear objectives, well-defined processes, shared vocabulary, mapping techniques, few priorities, and visible evidence of tangible progress”.

“Ask any employee,” she adds. “In their gut, they know the problem is there – the waste, the confusion, the constant juggling, the wishful thinking, the circular decisions. It’s the reason they sit in meetings for so much of each day and accomplish too little, the reason email chains grow and copy in too many people while consuming another big chunk of each day, the reason big initiatives fizzle without results, the reason they and their co-workers are cynical, frustrated, disengaged and looking for another job.”

Getting to grips with the ad hoc processes and lack of joined-up thinking that characterises how many organisations work might sound like a tall order. However, in Latham’s view it is also the single biggest untapped opportunity companies have at their fingertips to address profitability, productivity and employee engagement in one fell swoop.

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