Preventing an island culture – part III: Building ‘bridges’ between teams

Posted on September 23rd, 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 third blogpost is about how organizations can help their employees to build ‘bridges’ between their team and other teams in the organization.

Cooperation-workshops and island hopping

A team that behaves like an island focuses increasingly on its own objectives rather than those of the organization. They no longer see themselves as part of the bigger picture, refuse to help out other teams and tend to shove problems off to another team. The employees in those island-teams often feel very comfortable and safe but with their behavior they hurt cooperation with other teams. An important starting point in improving this cooperation between groups is to help those employees to build cooperative relationships with members of other teams, in order to bridge the boundaries between them. Our research shows that these bridges are essential to create mutually shared strategic understanding. Important instruments to do so are training and development activities. Special cooperation-workshops can help bring the necessary awareness and develop collaborative and communication skills. By regularly holding these workshops cooperation really comes to live. When groups openly discuss their cooperation, they are encouraged to create a common, shared understanding. Moreover, they can formulate how cooperation will help them to achieve concrete plans of action for shared strategic goals. Hoegl, Weinkauf and Gemuenden (2004)1 followed 39 teams in the European automotive industry for 36 months and their research shows that this kind of cooperation-workshops not only enhanced the performance of the teams, but also made these teams more dedicated to their work. In addition, employees not only assessed their cooperation with other teams as positive but increased their commitment to the project because they developed confidence in future cooperation with other teams.

Another way to ensure that different teams have cooperative relationships is by letting a number of team members 'hop islands' through job-rotation programs. Job rotation is often used by companies to give employees a new challenge, to offer new learning opportunities, or offer them a change of scenery. Research shows that an additional benefit is that this type of program significantly improves the exchange of information between teams (Marrone, 2010)2. Because new communication lines develop, it will be easier to transfer knowledge between teams and remove ambiguities earlier. Additionally, by creating a greater understanding of and insight into the overall process of the organization, job-rotation created a better understanding of the interests of other groups. The involvement in multiple teams creates a sense of manageability and provides more confidence in cooperation with other teams.

Involving managers from the start

Involving managers in the formation and formulation of strategy and change planning is a proven effective method to improve cooperation between teams, since managers often act as linking pins (bridges) between the various teams in an organization. By involving managers in the process, the organization shows not only that it has confidence in its leaders, but also increases the shared strategic understanding of those managers. By being involved in the formulation of the plans early in the process, managers understand not only how the different strategic priorities relate to each other but also how the functions of various departments must be integrated in order to achieve these goals. Also, they become more aware of the different interests and viewpoints within the organization and can identify and resolve opposing goals or problems early on. A common reason for not involving managers is that this takes time. However, research by Bear and Eisenstat (2000)3 shows that in two third of the cases conflicts, delays, lower productivity and wasted time and resources are due to managers who were inadequately informed and involved. Thus greater involvement of managers is a long term investment that results in managers that know where the organization is going and will guide their teams in order to get there. By involving managers from the start, the strategy cannot only be found in the formal strategic multi-year plan, but will also be reflected in their actions and results. Involved managers can build bridges between teams that need to cooperate to make the strategy a success.

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. Hoegl, M., Weinkauf, K., & Gemuenden, H. G. (2004). Interteam Coordination, Project Commitment, and Teamwork in Multiteam R&D Projects: A Longitudinal Study. Organization Science, 38-55.
  2. Marrone, J. A. (2010). Team boundary spanning: A multilevel review of past research and proposals for the future. Journal of Management, 36(4): 911-940.
  3. Beer, M., Eisenstat, R. A. (2000). The silent killers of strategy implementation and learning. Sloan Management Review.

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