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Why you need to know if your teams are in a supporting or supported relationship

Michael Gillespie, Chief Digital and Technology Officer of Domino’s Pizza Enterprises, quashed any strategy ambiguity as to whether Domino’s is a technology company or a food company. In his article he clearly states that Domino’s is “in the pizza business... our purpose is to bring people closer and sell the joy of connection with the world’s best sharing food – pizza!”

This reminded me that even though teams may know what their organisation’s strategy is, it’s important for them to know what their part in the plan is, and how what they do achieves the overall strategy. It’s also important that teams know what they don’t and shouldn’t do, to avoid unnecessary internal conflict and confusion.


An HBR study revealed that 95% of employees don't know what the organisation's strategy is. If they don't know what the collective aim is, how can they know who they are?


Why do teams need to know who they are?

If teams don’t know what their relationship is with other teams, they might not act in accordance with the overarching strategy or aim of the organisation they serve. A common example is that (bad) IT departments do not fulfil or understand what the business wants and needs in accordance with the business strategy. We can all relate to the IT team that imposed a solution for the business because it suited them the most. This misunderstanding of the relationship is likely to lead to failure. But it’s not just IT departments, any supporting department can mistake itself for having the casting vote in a decision. I'll give technology a reprieve in the future with an article on business-led IT.

Why does it happen?

In large organisations, teams often mistake or don’t understand how they contribute to the organisation’s strategy. Not with malicious intent, but due to scale, working in silos, lack of clarity of strategy, or unclear relationships with other teams. Organisations need all teams to provide mutual support to each other, but one function or team can be at the spearhead of fulfilling the business’s strategic mission.

Who does it well?

Military organisations are some of the best organisations for setting strategy and ensuring that teams are aligned to it and understanding team relationships. They understand strategy so that if the team with responsibility for the objective doesn’t exist anymore or cannot fulfil the mission, then another team can be quickly tasked with that responsibility. They are clear on explaining relationships between teams so that everyone in the team knows how their contribution to the overall strategy is either in supporting another team, or having the direct support of other teams. This understanding helps to rapidly resolve any questions that teams might have about access to critical or scarce resources. Additionally, it can rapidly resolve the matter of who has the casting vote if there is an impasse in a decision.

It’s not just the military that does this well. Sports teams, pilots, surgeons and orchestras spring to mind as teams who have a very good understanding of what individuals, single teams and collective teams do and how they interact together in order to succeed. They also have very good standard operating procedures (SOPs), have a leader and they practice together in order to understand each other.

Helping teams to understand their relationships and links is dependant on you understanding them.


How can we help teams understand who and what they are?

It sounds a lot simpler than it is, but helping teams and organisations to understand who and what they are will save time and money. Many organisations pay good money for external teams to perform ‘strategic alignment.’ By no means a complete list, but a start can be made with three steps:

1. Decision-making guidelines. There are many approaches to this such as Intel’s and Cisco’s adoption of Kathleen Eisenhardt’s Simple Rules. Or if you need a more structured approach, the RACI. I am an advocate for Simple Rules as it builds psychological safety – you can read more about the benefits of that in an article I wrote.


2. Transparent goals. Knowing how different teams are incentivised does two things. Firstly, it helps teams understand other teams’ perspectives. Mika Heinonen wrote a fantastic article explaining perspective and empathy here. Perspective and empathy by extension are game-changers if you can foster it. Secondly, transparent goals surface any gaps or contention where teams may be working against each other.

3. Communicate.  The message must be consistent from the top to the bottom and from side to side. Many leaders have an all-hands or weekly round-up, but the best ones centre their message on the organisation’s mission or strategy and celebrate how their teams align to fulfil it. General Stanley McCrystal famously did this every day for a year. You can hear about the impact at Simon Sinek’s interview with Gen Stanley’s executive officer Chris Fussell.

I’d be interested to hear your experiences of awareness of your teams’ relationships. Please do comment, like and share the article on Linkedin. If you would like to see more articles about business leadership, have a look at my website and subscribe for the latest content.

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