There is a severe lack of both empirical research and theoretical models relating to the concept of teams of teams. Google Scholar lists just one publication – an autobiographical account of the concept at work in the theatre of war (McChrystal et al, 2015). So, it is hardly surprising that coaches struggle to know where to begin.
As a first step to filling the theoretical void, I offer a model, which can be described as Streams of Connectedness. The origins of this model lie in my own observations and experience of working across interdependent teams. The next phase of development will be adaptation and validation, firstly amongst the team coaching community and subsequently through observation and measurement through applying the concepts.
Streams of connectedness
The thorniest question in terms of building teams and teams is “With what do we replace the obsolete linking pin theory of organizations?” Originally propounded by Rensis Likert (1967), this theory assumes that each team is led by a manager, who takes primary responsibility for communicating upwards and downwards. If it is a management team, each member has the same responsibility, but at one level below. Communication therefore happens mainly vertically, in silos.
Teams of teams can’t wait for this long-winded and easily interrupted chain of events to occur. They require rapid, instinctive reactions akin to those that enable a flock of birds or school of fish to shift radically in unison. For this to happen, there must be multiple connections operating not only vertically, but horizontally and diagonally as well. This is too big an ask for a team leader to undertake on his or her own. It requires the engagement of the team as a whole – a collective responsibility for connection.
From my enquiries so far, it appears there are six streams of connectedness – four categories of activity that contribute to the collective intelligence and agility of the organizational system as a whole. These are:
- Collective vision – the shared purpose that unites all the teams’ efforts in pursuit of a commonly desired outcome
- Information or collective intelligence – what is happening within the internal and external environments of one team that is relevant to the decision-making and functioning of others. Sometimes referred to as collective intelligence
- Resources – how people, technology and other resources can willingly and rapidly be moved between teams to where they will have the greatest positive impact on achieving the team mission. (The opposite to the hoarding of resources that typifies most team structures.)
- Invention – how rapidly new ideas are disseminated
- Voice – how people with dissenting views can come together to express a collective view and exert collective, cross-team influence
- Regrouping – changing structures to create instantaneous new teams to tackle short term crises or opportunities
These streams influence the organisation’s behaviours and activities and hence its performance. They also influence what my Italian colleague Roberto Degli Esposti describes as intangible assets, which include corporate brand and reputation, collective memory and collective identity. The internal aspects of these intangibles are almost impossible to manage in a top-down, hierarchical approach.
Understanding each stream of connectedness
The collective vision stream
When the concept of collective vision was promoted strongly in the 1980s and 1990s, the underlying assumption was that it would be created by the leadership team and “sold” to employees. It gradually became clear that, if people were to take joint ownership of the vision, they had to have some say not just in interpreting it, but in shaping it. In a VUCA world, the context, in which organizational purpose exists, is constantly shifting. The words may stay the same, but the meaning behind them may change. So, for example, an oil company may continue to describe its mission as providing energy but refocus on how it delivers that mission using renewable resources.
The sense of purpose that binds people together and creates the emotional connection between who they are and what they do is therefore not as fixed and stable as people imagine. It is constantly shifting in subtle ways and people at the top may be the last to become aware of changes. The problem may become even worse, if the organisation has an entrenched and reactionary middle management hierarchy, which filters information both upwards and downwards (Oshwry, 2007). Maintaining a constant dialogue – vertical, horizontal and transverse – is the only known antidote (other than being taken over by an organisation with a different vision).
The information stream
This stream is all about the right information to the right people at the right time. Most organisations have no shortage of data, but getting it to the people, who need it most, is a constant challenge. Each team and its members need information about:
- What needs to happen, when?
- What clouds are on the horizon (or just over it) that may interfere with our mission? (Early warning signs are often easier to see by someone outside the team.)
- What’s interesting?
- What’s intuitively significant?
Teams therefore need to include in their regular meetings discussion around these two questions:
- What do we need to know from other teams in order to respond swiftly and effectively to what’s happening around us?
- What do other teams need to know from us to respond swiftly and effectively to their environment?
The resources stream
A systemic perspective on resources provides a visible manifestation of systemic collaboration. Rather than wait for instructions from above to share resources or redistribute tasks, teams recognise when other teams are under pressure and try to help wherever they can. This empathetic approach – close to what we might see between colleagues in a single high-performing team – allows for much faster than normal responses to issues and events. It is a broadly a horizontal rather than vertical phenomenon.
Questions that might be asked at meetings between teams include:
- What are the unique skills each team brings to the process?
- What resources and skills can we make available to other teams to enhance the overall system?
- If teams have peaks and troughs of workflow, how might they collaborate to support each other and smoothen the process?
- Where do things slow down at the interfaces between teams?
- What would enable each team to spend more of its time and effort on tasks directly related to the organisational purpose?
The invention stream
“Not invented here” is a killer attitude for systemic collaboration. One of the simple ways to overcome it is to hold an ideas fair. This is an opportunity for every team to present innovations it has created and to seek collaborations on emerging ideas, bringing together the inventiveness of more than one team.
The voice stream
This is about enabling the collective courage to speak up and dissent. When people, who share similar perspectives and concerns link with others elsewhere in the organisation, there occurs an emergent clarity about these concerns. Iterative conversations enable them to challenge assumptions and confront taboo topics with a collective voice. A key factor in a powerful stream of voice is that conversations are not just between members of teams at the same hierarchical level, but also take place across levels. The result is that the voice stream surfaces issues that prevent individuals and teams performing at their full potential and creates an opportunity and responsibility for the system as a whole to address them.
The restructuring stream
This stream is the organisational organism’s way of filling the gaps between team responsibilities and fields of action. Key questions here include:
- What issues are not being addressed by any team?
- What issues are distributed (in terms of task and / or responsibility) amongst several teams, but are not dealt with as well as they should be?
- What issues interest people spread across the organisation, but have no formal assignment of responsibility?
The benefit of regular review of these questions is that informal groups can cohere from members of multiple teams, often addressing issues without the need for formal authority from above. Only when they need the formal assignment of resources do these teams become part of the recognised structure. The function of these groups can be likened to the lymphatic fluid that circulates between cells in a human body – constantly moving and responding in its make up to changes in both the internal and external environment.
Making the six streams flow
In a traditional organisation, all these six streams are managed from above. For example, the targets for innovation are set at the top and budgets assigned according to the leaders’ perspective of the urgency and difficulty of achieving them. One of the disadvantages of this approach is that innovations have to be of a significant size and impact to attract the attention of the leaders. Yet, as Amy Edmondson (Edmondson, 2012) explores in her book Teaming, it is the constant flow of small innovations, achieved through learning from small failures, which underpin organisational innovation in a modern corporate environment.
When the flow of all six streams is multi-directional, the leaders become just one of many influences. Rather than focus on being leaders they must focus on promotion of leadership, wherever and however it is needed. This is a central message of McChrystal’s book. Within each team, the same principle applies – leadership must be distributed, if only because it is impossible for a team leader to maintain all the strings if connectedness within and outside the team single-handed.
Hence, contrary to the normal leadership treatise, this discussion starts anywhere but from the top. We can select any point in the complex system and examine it from there. So, let’s start with an individual team, of, say eight people. When the team has its regular weekly or monthly meeting, it discusses each of the six streams in relation to its internal functioning. This can only happen in an environment that combines high psychological safety with future orientation and a coaching style of co-working. The team also explores, to the extent that it can, the implications for other teams, to which it is connected, either horizontally, vertically or further away in the formal structure. (The traditional hierarchy chart is an impediment here – a much more accurate model might be a container of coloured balls, constantly shifting in relation to each other, as in a children’s play area.)
If the team knows in advance that a topic on the agenda has implications for other teams in one of the six streams, it can invite representatives of those teams to attend its meeting. Conversely, it can send a representative to the next meeting of a team it identifies a need to liaise with. A crucial aspect of the team meetings is that, while everyone takes responsibility for discussing all of the streams, individuals and pairs are accountable for linking with other teams.
The role of the team coach
The challenge for the team is to move from its normal internally focused ways of working to more flexible, multi-perspective routines and behaviours. The team coach assists each team in achieving the clarity to understand how it works now, compared with how it wants to work, and how it will bring about the changes it and the system as a whole need (Clutterbuck, 2007). A core element here is overcoming the learned behaviour of putting one’s own tasks and priorities first, ahead of those of the team and of the wider team of teams.
The role of the team coach is, however, much wider than that. It is also to assist at any point within the larger system of teams, where there is potential for improved connectedness. This can be, for example, where two or more teams need to build more effective task collaboration. It is not necessary in all cases for everyone in these teams to be present for these coaching sessions – if representatives are genuinely representative of the collective perspective of their team (rather than their own perspective or that of a sub-group within it), the smaller numbers can be much more efficient and effective.
Clutterbuck, David Coaching the Team at Work, Nicholas Brealey International, London
Edmnondson, Amy C (2012) Teaming, Harvard Business School, pp149-184
Likert, Rensis (1967). The Human Organization: Its Management and Value. New York: McGraw-Hill
McChrystal, Gen Stanley, Collins, Tatum, Silverman, David and Fussell, Chris (2015) Team of Teams, Penguin
Oshwry, Barry (2007) Seeing Systems, Berrett-Koehler, SF
© David Clutterbuck 2023