What Containers Are You Up Against?

January 27, 2014

Have you ever experienced working in- or with “teams” that never seem to get to a state of working together as a team? I put the word teams within quotation marks since these aren’t really teams, they’re just administrative units. This has happened to me a couple of times and no matter how much we struggled with trying to get everyone on the same page through working with visualization, teambuilding, meeting formats, goal setting, work spaces etc, everyone would go back to their desks and continue to work as fractions. I’ve gone through several phases of explanations and rationalizations in my attempts to explain to myself why we had these problems. A while back Esther Derby introduced me to Glenda Eoyang’s work describing the effects of containers on systems and that really put the spotlight on some of the driving forces behind our problems.

containers

Basically a container is something that bounds one part of the system from another and constitutes a difference. Containers can be:

  • something physical such as walls, desks or cubicles that separate people or unite people.
  • of organizational nature; people reporting to different managers, belonging to different departments or being hired consultants as opposed to employees.
  • something conceptual such as purpose or rules.
  • behavioural, e.g culture or family situation.

The effects of these containers will greatly affect how people are going to work together. Some of them will work in favour of collaboration while others will drive a wedge between people. When I began to model the containers that I could identify within the troubled teams it was really easy to see how many things were pulling people apart instead of holding them together.

People may have been assigned to the “team” and in best case even be co-located. We might have a unifying goal of delivering a product or service but that’s where the positive forces ended. Then people would be experts belonging to different organizational units. They would be reporting to different managers. They could get input to their work from different sources. They would be seated together with a few people with the same kind of expertise. They belonged to different budgets. Their personal goals were set with different managers and not aligned. They belonged to different subteams. They would have to work on other projects outside of the dedicated “team”. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Seeing all these forces working against us made it clear that we had a snowball’s chance in hell of building teams that would actually work as teams. For every action we took to align the team members there would be ten other actions around us that pulled us apart. My guess is that if we would have come much further if we would have focused more of our energy on identifying and redesigning the root causes of the forces pulling people away from each other instead of performing a tug of war with these forces.

Tug-o-war

Some time ago I was asked to work with a “team” that “had problems delivering” and “the few things that did come out of the team was of poor quality” and as if that wasn’t enough, “people were generally not happy about working in the team”.

The “team” – it turned out, consisted of a handful of developers. They got their work from a couple of different business analysts in different parts of the organization and when they were done coding, assigned the work to some testers in another part of the organization. Before taking on the assignment I made one request and that was to get to work with all three disciplines as one team; requirements, development and test. We did a lot of different things together in order to overcome the challenges but the one thing that made it at all possible for us to create a high performing team was the tearing down of old containers and building a new one around the team.

I’m sad to say that the reason I’m so certain about the power of the containers in this case was that as it turned out, the company structure wouldn’t allow for this organization in the long run. Soon after I left the team, group managers once again split the team into three parts; requirements, development and test, each group with their own team lead. None of the other practices we had put in place were strong enough to withstand this break-up and pretty soon everything was back to square one again.

My lesson from working with this team was that it’s not enough to learn to see these invisible structures, we also need to see the incentive systems that put them in place. But I’ll save that for a later post.

Scaffold

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