Is communication the problem, or teamwork?

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2017

I’ve recently been working with a client to establish a Strategic Planning Program. During the process, I heard recurring complaints from management and staff alike about a lack of communication within the organization. In fact, the issue was raised in virtually every interview and workshop that I ran at the place. I didn’t think much of it to begin with: after all, a lack of communication is a common issue for many businesses and it was likely an issue with this client, too.

But when I began to explore the communications mechanisms in place in this organization, I found that they were many and varied. Not only that, and here’s the kicker, they were also being used! So, if communications was the issue, it wasn’t for a lack of means or effort.

This finding was puzzling and begged an obvious question: if a lack of communication wasn’t the problem, then what was the perception of a lack of communication a symptom of?

As it turned out, my hunch was right. It wasn’t a communications issue that was affecting their business performance. Rather, the problem was a lack of teamwork - and it was this that was mistaken for a communications problem. More surprisingly, teamwork wasn’t an issue that came up in any of my interviews or workshops. Indeed, many participants actually pointed to teamwork as a perceived strength.

So what was going on? Upon further analysis, it became clear that departmental teamwork and cooperation was exceptional. However, cross-department teaming was often strained and the results from it were mixed. This explained quite a lot about the organization and how it was organized. In an enterprise that operates in silos, it is easy to see how poor teamwork can be perceived as poor communication.

This client had a very strong departmental bias in its organizational design - layers of managers managing layers of managers. And in a typical fashion, this command-and-control structure creates a silo effect that undermines cross-departmental co-operation.

Much of the effort that I am now driving with the client involves breaking down these silos and using many of the communication devices already in place, including daily stand-up meetings, monthly project reviews and executive blogging to encourage teamwork.

As a result, we have also begun to institute a new, flatter reporting structure - one that, both, squeezes the middle management layer down deeper into the organization (closer to where the work is performed) and co-mingles what were once functionally divided specialties into cross-functional teams. We are still overcoming the natural resistances to change that come with organizational redesign, but, early signs indicate that when fully instituted the changes will position the organization for long-term success.

I share this experience with you because I think that there is a lesson in it for all of us in the coaching and consulting profession. Indeed, we need to guard against being fooled into thinking communication is the problem when it is actually a symptom of something much more profound: the inability for people within an enterprise to work as a team.

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About The Author

James M. Kerr
James M. Kerr

James M. Kerr is the Global Chair of the Culture Transformation Practice at N2Growth and the author of The Executive Checklist. A specialist in organizational design and cultural transformation, he has been helping clients re-imagine the way work is organized and performed for more than 25 years. Kerr’s next book is due out later in 2016 and focuses on leadership and strategy-setting.