If your company needs to solve big problems or meet major goals, it’s likely you create a strategic team — or a set of strategic teams — tasked with moving the needle on those key issues.
Typically speaking, strategic teams are chartered as part of a special program or initiative, such as closing the gap on operating margins or improving market position. Because of their role in addressing high-level problems, strategic teams have become vital to many companies’ operations today. At their best, these teams connect the why, what, and how of a company’s strategic agenda, making it actionable as well as accountable.
Whether they’re improving processes and systems or seeking growth and development solutions, strategic teams are the engines that drive the plan forward. But with this high-level thinking and impact-oriented mindset come all sorts of obstacles that can get in the way of a strategic team’s effectiveness.
In particular, there are four common challenges that many strategic teams are likely to face at some point. By preparing for them today, you can best position your strategic teams to succeed in their efforts, now and in the future.
1. Getting the Right People Together
Simply getting the right people together to form a strategic team can be a challenge in itself. A good way to overcome this challenge is to build your strategic teams in terms of “talent blocks” and “talent beams.”
“Talent blocks” refer to the hard and soft competencies that are important across your organization. Broadly speaking, there are six general categories of competencies a strategic team needs to account for:
• Technical: reflecting an employee’s knowledge base, subject expertise, and operating know-how
• Analytical: reflecting an employee’s sense of data, systems, patterns, signals, and measures
• Creative: reflecting the ability to constructively imagine solutions and manage ideas
• Resource: reflecting the ability to manage critical assets, time, and budgets
• Solution: reflecting the ability to assess, deconstruct, and solve problems
• Relational: reflecting an employee’s ability to bring out the best in their coworkers and their teams
“Talent beams,” on the other hand, map people’s specific areas of professional expertise and training, as well as their personal, social, and behavioral characteristics like self-awareness and social intelligence.
Assembling the right combination of talent blocks and beams within a single strategic team means bringing together the right technical, analytic, creative, resource, solution, and relational competencies in the right roles and with the right maturities, experience, and readiness. Doing so is no easy task, but without the right blocks and beams in place, the team’s foundations and functionality will be shaky.
Once assembled, the team must also be mindful of the work itself. The early struggle for many teams comes down to determining key roles: Who organizes and arranges? Who brings expertise and subject-matter knowledge? Who are the integrators and improvisers? Who are the navigators and pathfinders? Who are the operators, task producers, and work checkers? How role assignments are determined matters, and it can make or break the work of a strategic team.
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2. Group Dynamics
Even if you have assembled the necessary talent blocks and beams for your strategic team, the team members may still struggle to connect, engage with, and commit to one another in the cause of making strategy happen.
According to research from MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, a key marker of overall team performance is the nature and intensity of communication and interaction between team members. What really counts here is the energy level of exchanges, the lines of engagement, the different angles of exploration, the nature of connections and extended contact, and the ways in which conflict and tension are managed. If the team can’t find alignment on the internal matters of its operations, it won’t be able to solve its own problems, let alone the high-level challenges of the organization’s strategic agenda for growth, performance, and change.
3. Communication and Collaboration
Another challenge many strategic teams face is establishing and maintaining effective communication and collaboration. What good is a team if it can’t serve its purpose or can’t communicate its agenda?
All too often, we see a range of passive-aggressive behaviors across the domains of collaboration as team members wrestle to table their perspectives, leverage their knowledge and experience, and tackle challenges as they perceive them. Like a lack of the right talent blocks and beams, communication issues can make or break the intentions and the work of a strategic team.
4. Process Swamps and Control Models
“Process swamps” are, essentially, places in an organization’s operations where multiple process and policy platforms collide. These swamps can and do constrain decisions, often putting teams between two or more immovable pillars that won’t allow them to move forward in the way they need to.
Control models, on the other hand, shape power and influence. Your management systems and governance practices can, unintentionally, pose a threat to the progress of a company’s strategic agenda. Power can work against the effectiveness of your strategic teams — and yet power in the form of practical influence is part of a strategic team’s work.
Begin With the End in Mind
How can strategic teams address these challenges and position themselves to effectively execute the strategic agendas of the organization?
Regardless of the specific nature of the obstacle, the starting point is the same — and it’s pretty simple: begin with the end in mind.
Effective strategic teams are built with a clear view of the organization’s strategic agenda, a practical blend of talent blocks and beams, and a working sense of the organization’s cultural agenda. This framework addresses the range of concerns most organizations have faced at one point or another, and will help create harmony among team members as their interactions are normed to the common goal of solving problems.
Daniel Wolf is president and cofounder of Dewar Sloan and the author of Strategic Teams and Development: The Fieldbook for People Making Strategy Happen.