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May 15, 2018

How to Make Sure Agile Teams Can Work Together

Alia Crocker, Rob Cross, Heidi Gardner

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:

Managing the network’s center

When agility is viewed through a network lens, it becomes apparent that collaboration is never equally distributed. We typically see that 20-35% of valuable collaborations come from only 3-5% of employees. Through no fault of their own, these people become overly relied upon and tend to slow group responsiveness, despite working to their wits’ end. They are more likely to burn out and leave the company, creating network gaps, which then become another barrier to agility. Senior leaders need to consider where overload on the network’s center might preclude agile collaboration and:

Engaging the network’s fringe players

Agility requires the integration of different capabilities and perspectives to understand VUCA issues and figure out what kinds of experts are needed to tackle them. But those who see the world differently or who are new to a group often languish at the network edges. Whereas those in the center may be over-relied upon, those on the fringes are often not tapped in a way that allows for agile collaboration. For example, our research shows that it can take three to five years for a newcomer to replicate the connectivity of a high performer. Few organizations provide such luxury of time, however: our research also shows that if an experienced hire doesn’t get integrated into substantive projects within the first year, they are seriously at risk of leaving before they reach the three-year mark.

Getting others to trust fringe employees is essential for drawing them into agile collaboration. Their competence isn’t usually in question, if you have rigorous hiring and merit-based promotion processes; the trick is getting others to trust their motives (“Will he take undue credit?” or “Will she walk away with my clients?”) if few colleagues can vouch for their character. Senior management can help by taking the following actions:

Bridging select silos

Every organization we studied struggled with silos across functions, expertise, geography, level, and cultures — whether occupational or national. The network lens can help uncover specific points that if crossed could yield agility benefits, rather than inefficiently bridging all silos. Often, this means connecting people across units or geographies doing similar work to yield benefits of scale, or identifying points where integrating different perspectives yields agile innovation. This type of multidisciplinary collaboration produces higher revenues and profits because it tackles higher-value problems. Motivating experts to engage in agile collaboration requires them not only to identify and appreciate knowledge from other silos, but also to be willing to give up some control and autonomy over a project’s direction. Senior leaders can help motivate experts with the following actions:

Spanning external boundaries

Agility thrives when employees understand their organization within the broader ecosystem, and continually scan for market developments that pose either threats or opportunities. Doing so requires dynamic knowledge of external bodies such as competitors, customers, regulators, and expertise communities or associations. Those who span the boundary between internal and external actors can solve problems in unique ways, because they can access knowledge from these different worlds. They can also facilitate agile collaboration by efficiently integrating disparate viewpoints and creating multi-stakeholder solutions, but they need to be properly empowered, managed, and resourced in order to do so. Senior managers can facilitate this by doing the following:

Managing these collaborative players as part of a network can help organizations be more agile. Although agile collaboration requires continual re-assessment of complex problems, it is possible for firms to combine and recombine essential expertise from across points in the network to address VUCA issues. By steadily nurturing agile collaboration, senior management can more effectively and more efficiently access the necessary depth of expertise of key collaborators within the organization.

This article was originally published at HBR.

Portrait of Alia Crocker

Alia Crocker

Alia Crocker is an assistant professor of strategy at Babson College. She researches and consults on issues related to strategic human capital.

Portrait of Rob Cross

Rob Cross

Rob Cross is the Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College and a coauthor of The Hidden Power of Social Networks (Harvard Business Review Press, 2004).

Portrait of Heidi Gardner

Heidi Gardner

Heidi K. Gardner is a distinguished fellow at the Center on the Legal Profession and faculty chair of the Accelerated Leadership Program at Harvard Law School. This article draws on research in her book Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017).