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How to Make Sure Agile Teams Can Work Together

i4cp senior research advisor Rob Cross co-authored a new article in Harvard Business Review that addresses i4cp's ongoing research into workforce collaboration and agility and related work in the Connected Commons, a new membership offering by i4cp.

Increasing volatility, uncertainty, growing complexity, and ambiguous information (VUCA) has created a business environment in which agile collaboration is more critical than ever. Organizations need to be continually on the lookout for new market developments and competitive threats, identifying essential experts and nimbly forming and disbanding teams to help tackle those issues quickly. However, these cross-functional groups often bump up against misaligned incentives, hierarchical decision-making, and cultural rigidities, causing progress to stall or action to not be taken at all.

Consider the case of an organization in our consortium, the Connected Commons , that uncovered a ground-breaking audio/visual technology which would differentiate the organization in existing channels but also had the potential to open up entirely new markets. The CEO heralded it as a pivot point in growth and formed a cross-functional initiative of 100+ top employees to bring it to new commercial channels. Yet, unfortunately progress did not match expectations. Employees assigned to the effort struggled to make time for the work. They often did not understand the expertise or values of different functions, and advocated too aggressively for their own solutions. The group was surprised several times by the demands of external stakeholders. Despite this project’s visibility, critical mandate, and groundbreaking technology, the organization was ultimately hindered when it came to agile collaboration. This story is not unique.

A significant part of the problem is that work occurs through collaboration in networks of relationships that often do not mirror formal reporting structures or standard work processes.  Intuitively, we know that the collaborative intensity of work has skyrocketed, and that collaborations are central to agility. Yet most organizations don’t manage internal collaboration productively, and assume that technology or formal org charts can yield agility. These efforts often fail because they lack informal networks—for example, employees who share an interest in a technological innovation like artificial intelligence or a passion for environmental sustainability, who can bridge the organization’s entrepreneurial and operational systems by bringing cutting-edge ideas to people who have the resources to begin experimenting and implementing them.

Our research focuses on agility not as a broad ideal, but rather on where it matters most — at the point of execution, where teams are working on new products, strategic initiatives, or with top clients. All of these points of execution are essential for organizations, yet all encounter inefficiencies unless they’re managed as a network. We assessed these strategically important groups in a wide range of global organizations via network surveys, which were completed by more than 30,000 employees. We also conducted hundreds of interviews with both workers and leaders in these companies. We found that agility at the point of execution is typically created through group-level networks such as account or new product development teams formed from employees drawn throughout the organization, lateral networks across core work processes, temporary teams and task forces formed to drive a critical organizational change or respond to a strategic threat, and communities of practice that enable organizations to enjoy true benefits of scale. These and other lateral networks provide agility when they are nurtured along four dimensions — 1) managing the center of the network, 2) engaging the fringe, 3) bridging select silos, and 4) leveraging boundary spanners. Leaders who nurture their internal networks in this way produce better outcomes—financial, strategic, and talent-related. Here’s how:

A visual representation of an organizational network analysis ONA at a petroleum organization

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