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Overcoming Silent Barriers to Team Performance 

by Stephany Schings Below, Communications Manager

LEC Keynote Discusses Organizational Context That Inhibits Effectiveness 

Some causes of poor team performance, according to SIOP Fellow Mike Beer, are those things organizations see but don't always talk about.
 
Beer, chairman and founder of TruePoint, a research-based management consultancy, and Cahners-Rabb Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus, at the Harvard Business School, says many teams fail because of common barriers within organizations that are often neglected or not discussed.

“These are barriers that everyone sees,” he said. “Because we have gone into dozens of organizations and our research shows that these are the most common barriers people see. The problem with these barriers is not that people don’t see them, it’s that they are not discussable.”

Through 20 years of action research, Beer and his colleagues have determined six "silent barriers" causal to poor senior- and lower level team performance and commitment:
 

Six Silent Barriers

1. Unclear strategy and values and conflicting priorities
2. Ineffective senior team
3. Leadership style that is too top down or too laissez faire
4. Poor horizontal coordination and communications
5. Inadequate leadership, management skills and development in the organization to develop leaders to lead various teams
6. Poor or closed vertical communication

 

During his keynote presentation at this year's Leading Edge Consortium, Beer will present a structure and process that will enable organizations to have honest, collective, and public conversations that make these silent barriers discussible and develop and enhance team performance.
 
“These are barriers that prevent teams from working effectively,” Beer explained.
“In organizations that exhibit these barriers, you see that the leadership team members are coming with their own agenda, and there is no effective senior team in place that is committed to the same strategy, priorities and values. The lower levels don’t know what the top is trying to do and upper levels don’t know what they want done. And there is silence; the lower level teams can’t speak honestly with the top about what the problems are that block their efficacy—clear and common priorities and strategy or their pattern of management.”
 
Beer's presentation is based on the work he and his colleagues have completed with several organizations is based on a method called the Strategic Fitness Process (SFP)  that uses organizations' employees as "researchers." In their work, Beer and his colleagues ask senior management teams to define their strategic direction in a two or three-page statement and to appoint task force of eight to ten high potential and performance people who will go out and interview 100 employees across all parts of  the organization.
 
“These people were just asking those 100 or so employees a few simple questions: ‘does this direction make sense? What are the strengths of the organization and what are the barriers in the organization to achieving that direction?’ It is an unstructured interview and people are free to discuss what their experience tells them. ,” Beer explained. “Then the interviewers come back with the top three positive and negatives in each interview and we help do a rigorous analysis across interviews that ends with themes to be fed back to the senior team. So now the senior management is learning about all the problems that were previously not discussible. Then we work with the senior team to perform a root cause diagnosis and develop a change plan, to essentially change their own role and approach to management as well as the context for effective team performance at lower levels."
 
Beer and his colleagues have analyzed what two sets of a dozen task forces reported—one dozen in one company and another dozen in several other companies—and continue their work with other organizations. This led to the identification of the six silent barriers.
 
 
According to Beer, a lot is at stake for organizations that may be experiencing any or all of these barriers.

“What’s at stake is the performance of the organization,” he explained. “If an organization is experiencing these barriers, it would be ineffective and wouldn’t be performing well. If you have designed the organization with cross-functional product development teams or they are  ineffective, you can’t develop new products. If you want a worldwide organization, and you have teams all over the world who are not working effectively together, and you don’t have leadership at the top that is setting the priorities, staffing these teams properly or setting appropriate expectations for the teams, you are not going to accomplish what you want.”

“What it looks like form the inside is frustration,” he added. “Teams promise things but don’t deliver them If the organization is not effectively coordinating across functions, businesses and/or geographic regions through teams the business will underperform.”
 

Though some leaders in organizations might know what the barriers are, it's the fact that they do not create an environment that allows discussion of the barriers that really hurts performance, Beer added.

“The pervasive characteristic of most organizations is silence,” he said. “It’s the inability to talk about difficult issues. If I am on a team that is not working well, I can’t speak about it publically to the senior management. I can’t talk about that. But when I show those barriers to people, they all know they exist in their organizations. The problem is not that they exist, it’s how to solve them, and that’s what I am going to talk about in my presentation.”

Beer said he will describe to LEC attendees the Strategic Fitness Process – the method leaders he and his colleagues have advised have adopted for learn about barriers to effectiveness and performance and make changes. This process has also been researched and Beer will discuss how the process has improved top team and lower team performance..
 
During his keynote, Beer will present case examples and evidence that will aid attendees in understanding the silent barriers and how to overcome them. One example is an organization charged with entering a new business but was “woefully underperforming” from a growth and profitably point of view.
 
“The senior team decided to implement SFP and it revealed all these silent barriers,” he said. “You had a senior team that did not meet regularly. The general manager dealt with each member of the team one-on-one because he feared conflict, so as a result the senior team was unable to adapt its strategy and priorities to changing circumstances or discuss openly why they and lower level teams were underperforming.  The general manager was laissez-faire and was not pulling the team together to talk about their priorities. Teams down below were not effective and not making needed decisions. The team priorities and structures were poorly defined. There was no common strategy. As a result, these teams were not delivering on what they were supposed to deliver. They each had their own agenda. None of these things were out in the open to discuss and be dealt with. So everyone knew what was going on, but they weren’t doing anything to fix it.”
 
When the senior team learned from the task force that everyone in the organization knew about the silent barriers they individually knew existed they took action, Beer said.
 
“The leadership team started meeting regularly and began to see their role in setting priorities, meeting regularly to review the progress of cross-functional business teams and then resetting priorities and re-allocating resources accordingly," he explained. "They also changed who was leading the business teams. Instead of having engineers lead the team, each one of the members of the leadership team took a leadership role in one business team, having recognized that these teams needed a 'heavyweight' with a general management perspective to lead them. They basically redesigned the way the 'matrix' system was going to operate. Then every year they went through this process to see if there were further barriers and changes needed. And of course there were. The development of senior and lower teams and the strategic management context in which they operate is a process of successive approximation and learning. All of these things then improved the performance of the teams, and the business.”
 
 
Beer said he hopes LEC attendees will take away useful knowledge that will inform the leadership of their own organizations.

“People want to work together better, but the forces in the organization that I’ve described work against it,” Beer explained. “I don’t think people want not to work together, but they can’t work together well if the senior management hasn’t defined a direction, if they can’t work together on their strategy,  differences at the top create tensions in lower level teams and an effective structure and process for leading, organizing and managing lower level teams has not been developed .”
 

 
Session Learning Objectives:
 
1. Identify six silent barriers and summarize how they minimize team and organizational effectiveness.

2. Describe how specific organizational learning strategies reduce the impact of silent barriers and enhance team and organizational effectiveness.

3. Develop a review process to enable teams across levels of an organization to identify the presence of silent barriers and create plans to change.

To learn more about Mike Beer, read his complete bio here. You can also get a complete agenda, speaker list, abstracts, and hotel information on the SIOP LEC page.