.Com, the e-commerce initiative of an established company with a dominant market position in a fragmented industry, was seen as a pivotal opportunity to consolidate the market. Sales were increasing and the growth possibilities were enormous. As the president of .Com said, “We have this strategic choice in front of us as a company. Our group has to make its voice known. This could become the center of the company.”
Along with rapid growth came a critical challenge. Before it could make its voice known, the e-commerce group had to find, among conflicting voices, its collective voice. As one senior manager stated, “If you are not clear on goals, boundaries, overlaps, and how to resolve those issues, the speed with which you are trying to achieve things can lead the group to spin apart.” While the organization had not yet reached this point, it was experiencing errors, delays and stress.
Interviews with the senior management group and the product development teams indicated that while the organization was aligned at a high level around its strategic focus, goals, and key initiatives, the senior management group was having difficulty prioritizing its initiatives, which in turn put stress on the development teams. The organization did not have a shared understanding of the values they wanted to guide individual and collective action, particularly regarding teamwork and empowerment. Too often, at the senior level, the team experienced “silo management,” individuals making decisions in isolation that needed to be made as a group. While the groups had made strides in their ability to work together, key dynamics were preventing them from raising and resolving conflicts more productively. The development teams, in particular were experiencing unproductive conflict between Marketing and Systems, each group feeling misunderstood and mistreated by the other. Members of both functions, unaware of the irony, complained in the interviews that “There is too much finger-pointing going on. Those people in (the other group) are terrible at communicating.”
In our work with the senior management group we facilitated a two-day retreat that achieved several goals. The members developed a shared understanding of their priorities. They reflected on the assumptions and behaviors that had impeded both their work as a team and their relationships with key stakeholders in the parent company. They learned new skills for learning from their different perspectives and making conflict work for them rather than against them.
Building on the work with senior management, we facilitated a two-day session with members of the development teams. The group of marketing and systems specialists collectively diagnosed how each group contributed to difficulties in their working relationship. The teams were helped to see how each functional group's way of thinking, feeling and acting had a logic that made sense from its perspective but contributed to consequences that no one desired. This helped reduce the finger pointing and feeling of being victimized that each group had experienced. The team members identified the issues around which conflict was most likely to occur, and they designed and practiced strategies for handling these difficult conversations in ways that enabled them to improve their relationships and meet their business goals.
Consequently, progress was made on several fronts. The organization as a whole committed to improving teamwork and communication. Fewer decisions were elevated to superiors. Effective systems and processes were created to get the work done. Quality improved, deadlines were met and new products were introduced more rapidly.