Beyond team coaching – coaching teams of teams

Just as focusing on individual performance doesn’t necessarily lead to improved collective (team) performance, high performing teams don’t necessarily work together to deliver a high performing organization. In his book Team of Teams, retired US general Stanley McChrystal offers a number of examples of how functional silos within organisations or even within departments can undermine performance overall. Every increase in the efficiency of a narrow slice of the organizational system can reduce the effectiveness of the whole.

These insights are not completely new, of course, but it is only now, as team coaching becomes increasingly entrenched in organizations, that the focus is beginning to shift to the wider system beyond the team. The emerging challenge is: how do we apply what we have learned about coaching teams to coaching multiple, interdependent teams?

The PERILL model was the first significant attempt to apply complex, adaptive thinking to work teams. It identified from extensive literature analysis, six factors that interact to drive or hinder collective performance. At their simplest, these factors interact in three dimensions but there will be times and situations when all six are influencing and being influenced by each other. The six factors are:

  • Purpose and motivation: having a clear reason for being and a clear direction that energise and capture the imagination of team members. When individual and collective identity coincide around a common purpose, great things are possible.
  • Externally-facing systems and processes: how the team interacts with its various stakeholders, how it understands those stakeholders and they understand it, how the team manages conflicting expectations, obtains resources etc
  • Relationships: factors, such as trust, respect and genuine concern for each other’s welfare, which enable close collaboration
  • Internally-facing systems and processes: in particular, work design and interdependencies, communication and decision-making
  • Learning: how the team enhances its performance (how it does today’s tasks), capability (how it enhances its skills and resources to tackle tomorrow’s tasks) and capacity (how it does more with less)
  • Leadership: the moderating factor that influences whether each binary combination of other factors is expressed positively or negatively.

What is a Team of Teams (TOT)?

Traditional organizational structures have a hierarchy of teams, with leaders of individual teams linked within a team of managers, who in turn are linked into more senior manager and leader teams. Communication happens up and down through these managerial “linking pins”. A team of teams may or may not have formal leaders for each team but communicates through about multiple points of connection between teams horizontally, vertically and transversally. While traditional structures aim to produce greater efficiency, TOTs aim to increase effectiveness and agility.

How can teams of teams build shared purpose and motivation?
MIT’s Strategic Agility Project (Sull et al, 2018) provides a disturbing review of strategic awareness amongst leaders and middle managers. It reveals that strategic alignment amongst executives and managers is consistently overestimated, with only slightly more than half of top teams agreed on the highest three strategic priorities and only 22% of their direct reports able to name the top three priorities..

Among practical approaches team coaches can initiate are:

  • Encouraging every team to create and share a narrative about what the organizational purpose looks like from their perspective and what they can best (and or uniquely) contribute to achieving the purpose. Sharing these stories with other teams in the TOT structure allows them better to understand and appreciate each other – but also to develop a clearer consensus about what they need from each other to achieve their part of the purpose and what they can do to support each other.
  • Identify in each team the tasks its members find most and least energising. This gives birth to opportunities for creative swapping – re-design of tasks and roles that make more flexible use of the energy within the whole TOT system.
  • Explore the concept of interconnected responsibility. Just as individually-based reward systems undermine teamwork, so teams can develop an internal focus on their responsibilities. Making at least one third of each team’s key performance indicators (KPIs) reflect contribution to the system changes attitudes and behaviours, so that teams take partial responsibility and ownership for other connected teams’ performance, capability and capacity in respect of achieving the collective purpose.

How can teams of teams enhance how they interface with stakeholders and the external world generally?

The external interfaces of each team will have some similarities with those of other teams in the system and some unique connections. In many cases, this will mean interacting with the same external system of systems, but at different points. So, for example, while the executive team might be connected with its counterpart in a major customer, teams at lower levels might be connected with users of the products or services. In a typical organization, data from these interactions passes up and down functional silos. In a genuine TOT, information is shared equally horizontally, vertical and transversely.

As a team coach, we might facilitate a team in developing better ways of listening to and capturing information from its stakeholders. With a TOT, it’s important to be aware of and capture information relevant to other internal teams as well. Critical questions include:

  • How is this information relevant to achieving our collective purpose as a TOT, as well as for our team on its own?
  • How do we listen to stakeholders with the ears of other TOTs?

Stakeholder mapping is usually carried out at either an organizational or a team level. In a TOT, these two levels of mapping can be integrated in an intermediary level, which shows the overlaps between individual teams and connects directly to both team and organizational purpose.

How can teams of teams build more effective, collaborative relationships?
Psychological safety and the trust that it builds are fundamental to the performance of individual teams. Achieving similar levels of trust between teams is challenging. Our tribal instincts kick in very easily, leading us to view “outsiders”, who we should be collaborating with, as rivals for, for example, resources, attention, or reputation. Building inter-team trust is not greatly different from building trust within teams. Practical approaches include:

  • Sharing personal histories and team histories. In a merger situation, rapid integration can often be achieved when tow teams share with each other “How we became the team we are now”.
  • Sharing each team’s values. There is usually a great deal of commonality, which may have been downplayed in an atmosphere of rivalry. Rediscovering the connectedness between them promotes understanding. Where there are differences of values, rather than engage in “right and wrong” mindsets, the two teams can explore how the diversity of values can enhance how they work together to support the shared purpose. (One outcome can be redefining work roles, so that aspects of the task that don’t energise people in team A, are seized with enthusiasm by people in team B.)
  • Having swift and respectful processes for resolving inter-team conflict. Existing conflict / predicting future conflict. Clarity about behaviours that build and undermine trust and reviewing what happens in reality.
  • Physical location – having a desk in the other team’s work area, to encourage regular human interaction
  • Having an agreed trust recovery process. This recognises that trust does get broken from time to time and that, rather than let to fester, both teams have a responsibility to repair the damage as quickly as possible. Two key principles underlie an effective trust recovery process. One is that this is a learning opportunity. The other is that with humility and a continued focus on collective purpose, trust may be strengthened by the experience.

How can teams of teams develop better shared systems?

Team coaching can help with two key systems:

  • How do we communicate and coordinate across TOTs?
  • How do we make fast and accurate decisions that involve several TOTs?

A knee-jerk response is to make everyone aware of everything, which is likely to result in vital data being buried in an overwhelming mass of trivia and irrelevant data from every other TOT.  McCrystal recommends pushing decision-making to the lowest practical level. For this to be effective, however, teams need shared communication and decision-making protocols and – over and above this – an instinctive understanding of what other teams need to know.

Artificial intelligence has much to offer in terms of learning when and where to route information of this kind, but a great deal can be achieved by old-fashioned conversation. Regular and ad hoc inter-team reviews of cases – both ones that went well and one’s that didn’t – can build collective instinctive understanding of what needs to be transmitted along with the level of urgency. They also reinforce shared accountability. The systems that genuinely enhance collaboration between TOTs are rarely imposed top-down – they are a continuous, emergent learning process that constitutes collective, adaptive intelligence.

A pragmatic set of coaching questions to explore communication between teams is:

  • What information that we could provide would be most helpful to you in making good decisions?
  • When will it be most helpful?
  • How can we provide it in the most helpful way?

To facilitate these conversations, team coaches can work at the interface between teams, supporting them when they come together to determine what decisions require or will benefit from input from more than one team. Among questions that are helpful here are:

  • Who is best positioned to make this decision (e.g. from a position of timeliness, and having sufficient information to assess the situation)?
  • Who should input into the decision, how and when?

Although there may be some argument and give and take, recasting decision-making as a collaborative activity between teams helps to break down the “them and us” boundaries even further.

How can teams of teams better learn together?

Much of what has been described above is in essence about co-learning across team boundaries. When coaching individual teams, a team development plan, which links personal development with team development and the business plan is an increasingly common and practical approach, now standard for all coaches, who have trained through Coaching and Mentoring International.

It is much more difficult to identify and manage learning that is needed across and by the system, but the same principles apply. Team development plans can be amalgamated into TOT development plans that link directly to the organizational purpose.  An outcome of doing so may be the identification of hidden centres of excellence – small but valuable caches of experience and skill that can be enhanced and made more widely accessible, if other teams know about and value them.

The TOT development plan plays a vital role in regular (at least annual) reviews of learning by the system. Team coaching focuses on helping teams improve performance (what they do), capability (what it will be able to do in the future, if it acquires the knowledge, processes and resources) and capacity (how it will do more with less, as Peter Hawkins expresses it). TOT development plans address the same issues and help teams think beyond their own horizons, expanding the collective consciousness and reinforcing responsibilities to the system rather than just to a team or an individual job description.

How can teams of teams use leadership to greatest effect?
Leadership is not the same as being a leader. Traditional hierarchies focus on the role of the leader, who is expected to be in control of everything, but increasingly can’t. The linking pin model of organizations assumes that leaders at one level will become a team under a leader at the next higher level. It breaks down, of course, because it requires only one weak link for the chain to break. Effective team coaching clarifies the functions of leadership and enables the team to explore together how these might best be delivered. A typical outcome is that the appointed leader knows how best to add value and that they are valued by the team. It also frees them up to focus on tasks that are more important to building future capability and capacity. 

Within a TOT, leadership may need to be expressed differently within teams that have different roles in relation to the organization purpose. As in an individual team, this diversity within a TOT has potential to be both a strength and a weakness. Looking through the lens of leadership functions helps us to understand the leadership system in a much more perceptive way. It requires a mental shift in managers at all levels from seeking to control the TOT to facilitating it.

Collective coaching conversations enable the formal and informal leadership structures to listening to what the system needs. For example, where is it oscillating in ways that will interfere with performance and where are patterns emerging that should be encouraged and reinforced? Functions of leadership.

Where do we go from here?

A literature search on TOTs reveals very little and nothing at all on team coaching in this context. Clearly, we have much to learn! Equally, this provides an immense opportunity for experienced team coaches to expand their portfolio.


McCrystal, Gen Stanley (2015) Team of Teams, Penguin Random House, London

Sull D, Sull, S and Yoder J (2018) No One Knows Your Strategy — Not Even Your Top Leaders, Sloan Management Review, (Research Highlight online February 12)

© David Clutterbuck 2023




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