Image your company as a sports franchise. Your managers have recruited the best athletes from around the world, the best coaches and you’ve provided them with the best equipment. The owners and board of directors are up in the skybox looking down on the field and anxiously anticipating a winning season.

Now for the complications:

Nobody actually sat down with the hiring managers and told them what game was going to be played. So the athletes and coaches are from a dozen different sports and disciplines. Additionally, they’re all equipped with their own specific equipment, balls, pucks, rackets, etc.
The playing field is completely shrouded in fog and your players can only see what’s happening within a few yards of where they’re standing. They only interact with other players that happen to enter within that circle of vision and they have no idea where they are relative to the goals, the competition or the rest of their team.

The coaches get feedback from the players that they can’t find the goals or even the ball. At the same time, the coaches are getting feedback from the skybox that the team is losing the game. To try to make sense of the game,  the coaches decide to mark up the field with some guidance. Each coach makes assumptions about the game being played and what the goals are. Unfortunately, each coach draws different plays and strategies directly onto the field and the team can’t tell which is which.

The Owners sees that their team isn’t winning. They can only see the people that come out of the fog right in front of them looking lost and confused. The owners have  the goals to directly under the skybox in the hope that the realignment will result in some of those wanderers scoring points.

The team gets frustrated with the inability to score and they try to figure out the problem on their own. They decide that the coaches and owners must be stupid or crazy. Small groups of players independently decide on strategies to fix the problem. Since the game has never been defined and they can’t directly see the goals, the players are forced to make assumptions.  Between them they decide to bring extra balls, a hockey stick, two tennis rackets and a team of seeing-eye dogs onto the field.

The coaches see the changes and begin to question their own assumptions about the game. They re-align around whatever small successes they perceive. They  try to keep the  game going by hiring pro hockey players, a pair of tennis stars and a dog trainer. The Board tells the coaches that they’re over budget, so the coaches fire the most highly paid of the original players to try to reduce expenses.
The fans (the users) become confused and disgruntled and start looking towards other teams and players to follow. Some of the fans get ambitious, form their own teams and enter the field in the assumption that they could play better.
The Board sees the money drying up and the lack any apparent scored goals. They fire the coaches and the rest of the original players. They look at the organization and determine where the team seems to be struggling. They hire 3 more animal trainers, a consulting tennis coach and they buy a zamboni to ice the field to make better use of the hockey players.

The dogs get run over by the zamboni. The animal trainers all defect to Las Vegas to train tigers. The hockey players join an off-broadway ice show. The tennis coaches try to recruit tennis players, but the board decides to hire professional cricket players for half the price.

The situation fails to improve.

Hoping to turn it around, management equips everyone with headsets so that they can communicate. New scoreboards are installed to better report the scores to management. Everyone is sent on motivational training and the markings on the ice are all repainted in neon green.

So, you now have a bunch of cricket players being coached by tennis coaches, sliding on the ice in dense fog trying to make sense of what the actual game is and where the goals are. However, you truly do have a group of talented individuals. Each individual is performing to the best of their abilities. Occasionally goals are scored through acts of personal heroics. But the overall efficiency, control and alignment of the organization is shot and you’re left wondering how you got here.

This scenario may seem extreme. But, surprisingly, it’s not that far off what’s happening in organizations on a daily basis. The larger the organization becomes, the more difficult it is to keep the pieces aligned and focused on common goals. The lack of a shared context leads to a lot of ambiguity, conflicting goals and strategies, a perception of others in the organization as “stupid” or “incompetent” and a considerable amount of misdirected and wasted effort. Groups adhere to their own agendas, often with no regard or awareness for corporate strategy. Impacts to other teams are only considered when something “breaks” and often, the organization continues to function by brute force and individual efforts rather than through good planning or alignment.

This goes beyond a simple communication problem. As an organization grows, alignment drifts, personal political agendas begin to overshadow the “good of the company” and the idea of “team” becomes a localized concept. We forget that the “team” is really the entire company and not just our little corner of the corporate world.
The larger the organization, the stronger the leadership needs to be. That doesn’t mean that the leaders need to micromanage. Instead, they need to provide clear direction and expectations (what game are we playing and what are the rules?) ensure that every level of the organization has the authority to make their own decisions within the rules (fans stay off the field. Coaches set the strategy. Stadium staff maintain the stadium, goals and markings. Equipment managers control the equipment selection, etc.) and provide feedback on what’s successful and what isn’t. Trust is a big part of successful leadership. It leads to empowerment, better decision making on the floor and a more responsive and agile organization. But direction is needed if you want to keep those trusted individuals aligned to common goals. You can’t just assume that everyone is playing the same game.

By recognizing what’s going on, opening up a continuous dialogue and providing your staff with the tools and information to make the right decisions, you can recapture that small-company alignment, passion and team dynamic. Couple that with the resources and talent pool of a large corporation and you have a potential championship team.