Preventing an island culture – Part II: How you can get your organization aligned

Posted on July 12th, 2015

Everyone would agree that cooperation between teams is crucial for effective organizations. However, many organizations are faced with an island culture: teams and departments working in separation rather than integrating and aligning their strategic efforts. This significantly reduces team and organizational effectiveness. In fact, joint research by Harvard Business School and McKinsey shows that of all strategic projects that fail, 75% fails due to poor cooperation between teams.

So, what can an organization do to increase and improve cooperation and alignment between teams? And what role do managers play in this process? In a series of 4 blogposts, Dr. Jeanine Porck shares some important insights of four years of PhD research, which she conducted in collaboration with S-ray Diagnostics. This second blogpost is about what organizations can do to increase cooperation between their teams. To ensure that cooperation is not only a statement on paper but actually works, an organization must clearly articulate to all employees that cooperation within and between teams is appreciated. Below are two examples of how organizations can effectively signal this.

Increase cooperationThe importance of cooperative goals

If teams do not have cooperative goals it will be difficult for them to –independently– recognize that it is important for them to cooperate with other teams. Your organization should therefore purposefully formulate strategic objectives that emphasize cooperation within and between teams. This way your organization clearly signals that such alignment and coordination is important. If you formulate cooperative goals, these emphasize the need for coordination and harmonization between groups. Moreover, when employees are aware of how to connect their goals with those of other teams as well as with the strategic goals of the organization, they are able to accommodate each other’s needs much more effectively. Research published in the Academy of Management Review1 among two groups of cleaners in hospitals shows how much impact this awareness can have. One group of cleaners was only communicated the goal to clean up. This group took little satisfaction from their work and was not willing to go beyond the limits of their formal job in order to help others. The other group of cleaners, doing the exact same work, was communicated the same goal but this time it was placed in relation to the strategic goals of the hospital: to provide healthcare to all patients. This group not only took greater satisfaction from their work, they were also very much prepared to assist in other tasks. Moreover, this group of cleaners did not only help out their own colleagues better, but also colleagues from other teams and departments, such as nurses and doctors. They also took greater care of patients and visitors to the hospital. In short, do not forget to explicitly formulate goals that include a number of common challenges that go beyond cooperation within the team. This not only encourages cooperation between teams, but can also ensure that your employees are proud of what they contribute to the organization.

Why cooperation should be rewarded

When teams are not rewarded for cooperation, they lack an important incentive to actually join forces. Thus, performance management and rewards should signal that cooperation within and between groups is important. BP, for example, introduced a performance management process in which members of different groups would reflect together on how they cooperated2. This way of learning from its own "best practices" is not only implemented at the level of the managers at the top, but is used by the entire organization. Supporting each other and working together has become part of the culture in BP and both managers and employees devote time and energy to help colleagues inside and outside their own team. Also, rewarding at the project level, rather than at the level of the group, facilitates co-operation between groups. If multiple groups are involved in a particular project, production or service, they should all be rewarded for this project. Many organizations evaluate integrated projects at the level of the group, thereby signaling that these teams are separate entities, rather than parts of a larger collective.

To assess how well the performance management process (evaluation and reward) of your company encourages cooperation, you can ask a number of questions2. What proportion of recognition and reward is dedicated to an individual’s accomplishments and what proportion is dedicated to recognizing and rewarding team cooperation and cooperation between teams? Does your performance management process allow teams to discuss their cooperation and learn from one another, or is it a hierarchical process, in which a manager or executive assesses the performance of his/her subordinates and team(s)? What follow-up is built into your performance management process and is this follow-up cooperative in nature? None of these practices in itself offer a direct solution, but if you use them together, they can increase productive cooperation between teams and help prevent your teams from operating as separate islands.

This post is written by Dr. Jeanine Porck based on her PhD dissertation ( Currently she is a visiting fellow at the National University of Singapore.

  1. Wrzesniewski, A., & Dutton, J. E. (2001). Crafting a job: Revisioning employees as active crafters of their work. Academy of Management Review, 26(2), 179-201.
  2. Gratton, L. (2009). How to Foster a Cooperative Culture.

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