The secret of high performing coalitions

Team collaboration - sIf you want to move fast, put your trust in a team

“There’s probably an article in this if you wanted to write about it,” said one of the CEOs on the call. And I rarely look a gift horse in the mouth.

The call was to check on the progress of a loose coalition of charities that had formed back when the UK was at peak pandemic, when everywhere was in lockdown, and charities were being overwhelmed by a twin surge, both in unmet need, and in willing community volunteers.

What the sector needed at the time was collective action, to help channel, sustain and nurture this huge public response. But what it got was government agencies and sector bodies either arguing with each other about funding or having their own internal meltdowns.

It was this leadership vacuum that provoked the CEOs of just over a dozen major charities to form a group, and to take the lead themselves rather than waiting for it to come from elsewhere.

What they created, looking back now, wasn’t a stop-gap replacement of an umbrella organisation or a quango, but something very different. They created a team.

That “team” now comprises CEOs from about 25 organisations, and it recently decided to adopt a single, consistent method of research and data collection. Considering the scale of their combined reach, the results could well be as insightful as the agreement is unprecedented.

Those I spoke with freely admitted that had an umbrella body or government agency suggested they do this, most would have listed all the reasons not to, mindful of the months of haggling and conflict it would create and the compromises to their own research they’d inevitably have to make.

But not this group. They simply got their people together to work through the problems, resolve the conflicts, and bingo.

Why the difference? How did this disparate group of CEOs become what is, in essence, a high-functioning leadership team?

Partly it’s because they already had a solid foundation of openness and trust. Many of the initial members already knew each other, and most had previously spent time together in sessions and learning groups with me, collectively sharing their challenges and concerns.

It’s that trust which allows them to be open about conflicts and compromises and work through them. Which means, when they agree, it’s not because the majority swung the vote, it’s because their issues have been listened to and dealt with, so they’re far more committed to follow through and to be held accountable by their peers.

But their commitment also springs from their composition: an opted-in coalition of the willing, empirically a collaboration of the most collaborative. As a collective, everyone has committed their time and energy for no other reason than they believe in the value and shared vision of the group.

As Patrick Lencioni described in his best-selling book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, it requires a solid foundation of trust to enable a group to work through conflict, which itself is prerequisite for commitment, without which there is no accountability, and ultimately, no meaningful results.

There are always trade-offs. This group isn’t representative of the wider sector, it has no mandate, no authority, no umbrella of governance or oversight. But neither does it seek, claim, or need any of those to make a profound difference.

Many of the coalitions, committees, and institutions we work within day-to-day have all those things, yet rarely tick many of Lencioni’s boxes. Yes, they perform important functions, but if we’re expecting any of them to lead change, to set a vision and drive us towards it with energy and pace, it’s no wonder we are so frequently disappointed.

Their dysfunctions are built in. The baggage that weighs them down is a part of their structural design.

There’s a reason for the persistence of that quote attributed to Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

In a race between a team and a committee, the team will always be able to travel lighter, move faster, and go much further in actually shaping the future.

So, which of your collaborations have the potential to become high performing teams? And how can you harness the power of a thoughtful, committed group of peers, to help realise your shared vision?

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