The Challenge of Coordination

The hardest problems to solve in a business are usually not the most intrinsically complex; they are the ones that require coordination to solve them.
coordinating action across teams is a key to great execution

Plenty of businesses are built from finding elegant solutions to complex problems. And yet, in bringing these solutions to market, it’s usually not the inherent complexity of the problem that determines success. More often than not, it is the company’s ability to coordinate the actions of the people involved. In this article, we’ll explore the sources of friction and solutions that can lead to success.

Sources of difference

It should be obvious: the extent to which teams collaborate is a key driver for smooth and effective execution. The benefits of getting this right are on display at some of the world’s most successful businesses—from Amazon to Spotify to 3M. Yet, seamless and constructive collaboration between teams is a challenge that plagues businesses large and small. Aligning multiple teams, each with different perspectives and incentives, can be a daunting task. Conflicting goals, diverse backgrounds, and the inherently human aspects of collaboration (including ego!) often stand in the way. Addressing these challenges head-on is essential not just for great execution but for building a non-toxic, non-political culture.

We can boil down the sources of difference between different teams into three categories.

1. Conflicting goals or incentives

Conflicting incentives arise for numerous reasons. In organizations that lack mature goal-setting processes, the sin is normally one of omission, not commission. Goals are underspecified, and it is only when things come to a screeching halt that the lack of alignment dawns on the organization. In larger organizations, size either limits visibility into goals or creates intrinsic complexity that prevents efficient goal setting.

Likewise, differences in incentives will create friction. This is often seen in interactions between sales and operations or product teams. Sales teams are there to close deals and grow revenue, whereas operations and product teams are more concerned with a smooth and efficient user experience.

2. Divergent views

Differences in approach or strategy can also lead to coordination problems. There may be genuine differences on how configurable or customizable a product should be, or how much human interaction there needs to be in a client engagement. Moreover, these divergent views are likely to be correlated with the team’s goals.

3. Human factors

Finally, whether it is personal ego or team parochialism, coordination gives rise to a range of human frailties that can inhibit effective execution. We all know what these look like.

Solutions for effective Coordination

1. Surface and confront the issues

The first step in addressing coordination challenges is to surface and confront the underlying issues. This involves open, objective communication among teams. It means specifically identifying each teams goals, incentives, and views in a given area, discussing the differences constructively and respectfully, and finding alignment that reduces friction.

2. Define and reinforce the "Greater Good"

It is important for each team to have its own goals. It is equally important for there to be a “Greater Good”. Leaders have a duty to define this and explain to people what it looks like, whether that is in terms of the companies objective goals or the coordination across teams to get there. It is important that the “greater good” does not fall prey to appeasement. The right decision for the company should always be the priority.

3. Set better goals, build better plans

Goals should be set both top-down and bottom-up. The top-down view needs to clearly identify where coordination problems are likely to occur, and leaders at all levels should collaborate to figure out how to address them. Better planning and goal alignment can prevent many coordination issues.

4. Establish decision-making parameters

Establishing the rules of the game is critical. This should include a forum for decision-making, a regular cadence for addressing issues, and an escalation process that helps break deadlocks. Teams should strive to find solutions themselves before escalating issues to executives as a last resort.

5. Leverage tools and technology

Sometimes lack of coordination is a sin of omission rather than commission. In a remote or hybrid environment especially, the normal act of operating in one’s own circle will hinder visibility on work being formed. Internal knowledge and communications tools from Slack to Notion to Jira to simple online file sharing can help even casual observers be better connected with other workstreams. The key is not just in choosing these tools but in using them intentionally to enhance transparency and reduce barriers to effective coordination.

6. Promote and recognize good behavior, and squash bad behavior

A company’s internal coordination is reflected in its culture, and as we know, culture starts at the top. Leaders must, in their words and their deeds, reinforce good behavior and eliminate the bad, setting the example that ensures effective coordination across the team. They should be thinking about where coordination problems are likely to occur and promoting the steps outlined above. Leadership teams must themselves be aligned if they are to send a clear and constructive message down to the broader workforce.

Conclusion

In the world of business, the challenges of coordination are often the hardest to conquer, yet they are also among the most vital to address. Conflicting goals, divergent views, and the inherently human aspects of collaboration can create barriers to effective execution. However, by surfacing and confronting these issues, defining the greater good, setting better goals, establishing decision-making parameters, and fostering a culture of collaboration, businesses can overcome these challenges. Leaders play a pivotal role in this process by setting the example and ensuring alignment within their teams. Ultimately, mastering the art of coordination is not just a key to flawless execution, but also to building a culture of collaboration and trust within an organization.

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