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Friday, May 3, 2013

Cisco and a Cautionary Tale about Teams 05-03

Cisco and a Cautionary Tale about Teams

The news that Cisco is dismantling its unique structure of councils and boards to reduce bureaucracy presents a cautionary tale and an insight into the true meaning of teamwork and collaboration in organizations.
Cisco's councils and boards — a language that already suggests committees rather than goal-oriented projects — were supposed to speed things up and stimulate more innovation by creating cross-functional groups that could generate ideas about market-facing, solutions-oriented projects and organize across the organization to get them done. An early win came from a sports and entertainment council that drove the contract to wire the new Yankees stadium in New York and seeded a promising new way for Cisco to integrate its offerings to create holistic solutions.
But rather than reorganize to move from a functional structure to solutions groups, or implement a matrix organization, Cisco created overlays on top of the same organization structure. Councils and boards had their own hierarchy — boards reported to councils, projects emanated from boards, and they all drew resources from the functional groups. Until a charter was created with guidelines about participation, some managers sat on as many as 14 boards and councils. For organizations that think in centuries (like, say, a well-known American university), this kind of overlay might work, but for a technology company that must be nimble and responsive, this became a drag not an accelerator.
With buzz about self-organizing social networks increasingly dominating the world, and organizations of all sizes in all fields seeking more collaboration, it is worth pausing to revisit exactly what teamwork means. Yes, command-and-control structures are being shaken up in favor of more empowered people who are treated as part of the team and included in communication and decisions. Yes, hierarchies are being flattened and the vertical dimension of organizations de-emphasized in favor of the horizontal. Yes, crowds can possess wisdom above and beyond the intelligence or perspective of individuals. But no, that does not mean the end of a division of labor, identification of decision-making authority, and individual accountability.
A small work group I observed recently heard the word teamwork and thought it meant that everyone should be in on everything, and everyone should discuss everything before anyone did anything. This produced wasted time, lack of clear accountability, and balls dropped all over the place, as some people shifted work to others because "it's a team effort" or simply assumed someone else was doing something. The group got back on track when the division of labor was clearly established — who performed what role and why; there was a mechanism for dealing with the overlaps; and the number of meetings was reduced. As each successive project was undertaken, differentiated roles and responsibilities were elaborated again.
"Leaderless groups," a phrase I heard stated with pride at Cisco in the early days of councils and boards, are a myth if taken literally. No group is actually leaderless, although it might be highly collaborative. The group might distribute and rotate leadership roles and responsibilities. There might be open discussion of decisions, even if there is a person who declares when it's time to decided and breaks ties — in short, has the authority. But when everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.
I love sports and have studied and written about actual sports teams, not just used sports analogies. The best teams are not a monolith in which everyone does a bit of everything, and they are not organized into dozens of entities reflecting every possible combination of plays. Winning teams combine specialized roles, in which players have deep expertise that they continue to refine through practice, with knowledge of others' roles and how to support them. They have the flexibility to mobilize fast for particular plays, guided by a common strategy, but each person has clear accountability for his or her performance in the service of the team.

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