Multi-Stakeholder Teams – Dysfunctional by Design?

Posted on 29th March, 2016 in Delivery

I saw an interesting presentation recently from a senior oil industry executive.  He described how before a major operational programme, he got the key players together for 2 days rebuilding a children’s playground.  Nice bit of teambuilding?  Good bit of CSR activity (and PR!)?  Well, it was all of those things, however the CSR activity and resulting good PR were actually just spin-offs; his motivation was much more operationally-focused.

The executive recognised that he required a number of ‘silo’d’ functions to operate cohesively as a team and so worked out exactly what processes and routines he needed to exercise and stress test and designed a simulation to achieve exactly that.  The important point here was that the design was top down and the activity driven by the desired outcome.  It specifically wasn’t a case of doing some community work as a generic teambuild activity.

In practice the commitment of time and effort was considerable.  However the executive told me that when one looked at the potential costs of any overrun, it was a remarkably easy sell.  The activity paid its way many times over.

The core problem he faced was one of alignment.  There is an interesting discussion of this subject in Stanley McChystal’s Team of Teams.  McChrystal describes his 7000 special operations personnel as probably the most efficient fighting machine in history.  But unit and agency silos, security rules, local ‘empires’ and lack of effective sharing of information meant that despite its efficiency it was extremely ineffective against an enemy in the opposite situation  – highly inefficient and highly effective.

McChrystal had to build alignment in real time during operations, a rather more expensive option (in every sense) than a couple of days building a children’s playground.  Now I don’t want to stretch the analogy between the 2 scenarios too far here, but by investing in addressing the alignment issue in the calm before the storm, the executive got a significant return, as measured in effectiveness.

More generally, it is all too common to simply ignore the ‘gorilla in the corner’ in multi-stakeholder teams which can sometimes be almost dysfunctional by design.  Clarity in commonpurposes, effective communication, and alignment of effort and process and essential pre-cursors to success.  Ignore then at your peril.

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