The word “team” is one we frequently and quite off-handedly use. Like coaches, business leaders often call upon their employees to work together, “We need this organization to work as one team.” “We need to get everyone on the same page.” Or simply, “We need more team building.” Or leaders voice complaints about “misalignment” and “lack of engagement.”

Business is often organized around teams – executive, project, functional teams – to name a few, each with the need for people to work together to do great things. We value the work we know teams can produce, but do we really understand what it takes to do great team work?

For a leader to lament a lack of teamwork isn’t unusual. Just because a leader recognizes the power of teams, doesn’t mean the leader understands what it takes to create a work environment where teams thrive or how to change a culture where internal forces and behaviors are strong barriers to teamwork. Let’s begin to better understand teams by exploring what “working as one team” requires.

The LEGO group doesn’t just make snap-together plastic building blocks in varying shapes and sizes, it seeks to “Inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow.” Its vision is “Inventing the future of play – We want to pioneer new ways of playing, play materials and the business models of play – leveraging globalisation and digitalisation… it is not just about products, it is about realising the human possibility.”1 Lego is a great example of a company that knows that a one team culture starts with a shared compelling and meaningful purpose—something all team members want to be a part of.

In an interview with Herb Kelleher, cofounder, Chairman Emeritus and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, when he was granted the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Strategic Management Society (SMS) in 2003, he explained how he and his management team drove the airline’s success:

“We have been successful because we’ve had a simple strategy. Our people have bought into it. Our people fully understand it. We have had to have extreme discipline in not departing from the strategy.

“We basically said to our people, there are three things that we’re interested in. The lowest costs in the industry — that can’t hurt you, having the lowest costs. The best customer service — that’s a very important element of value. We said beyond that we’re interested in intangibles — a spiritual infusion — because they are the hardest things for your competitors to replicate. The tangible things your competitors can go out and buy. But they can’t buy your spirit. So it’s the most powerful thing of all.”

An airline that operates as one team will purposefully think, talk, and act to ensure departmentalized functions work seamlessly to move a customer from check-in, through waiting, to boarding, through the in-flight experience, and finally to baggage claim. Each department knows what the next department needs and wants in order to serve the customer. Southwest’s LUV is not only its ticker symbol, but its approach to its employees and customers.

Individuals and groups who do not share a common and compelling higher-level purpose will naturally choose self-interest rather than subjugate their own goals and priorities to those of the larger organization. An airline that operates in siloes without a clear compelling purpose, and/or lacking practical cross-departmental procedures and training, is easy to spot – ticket counter agents hand off problems to the gate agents, the gate agents don’t help the cabin crew, the cabin crew complains about the gate agents who dump problems into their cabin. This type of un-team environment directly affects level of service for customers and the prevailing attitudes between employees.

Communicating a compelling one team mission will be perceived as hollow if not supported by leaders who insist upon, and constantly strive to improve, cross-departmental collaboration. Consider this well-known quote by John F. Kennedy. “I believe that this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” At its peak, the Apollo program employed 400,000 people and required the support of over 20,000 industrial firms and universities.2 Imagine, almost half-a-million people working as one team to fulfill President Kennedy’s compelling goal. Aside from the point that this is a great example of a compelling purpose by a charismatic leader, the successful Apollo program serves as a strong example of cross-departmental collaboration.

Leaders had to secure sufficient funding and resources. Personnel had to be mobilized and new facilities constructed. NASA had to bring together contrasting institutional cultures and approaches into an inclusive organization, moving along a single unified path. Three critical factors were defined and deemed interrelated—cost, schedule, and reliability. Naturally, groups within NASA competed over the priorities and resources. For example, engineers worked in teams to design and build hardware that would carry out the missions, while scientists engaged in research and designed experiments that would expand scientific knowledge about the Moon. The scientists’ experiments affected payloads which changed the engineers’ original hardware requirements. The differences could have derailed the team, however NASA leadership ensured all sides aired their views and clarified priorities to foster cooperation and achieve the program goals to land a man on the moon and return him safely before the end of the decade.3

A key responsibility of leadership is to establish and communicate the direction and priorities for an organization. Is operating as one team a clearly articulated direction and priority for the leadership your organization? If not, what’s the likelihood that it will become a reality? Simply declaring that an organization should work as one team won’t lead to changing the systems and behaviors that counter teamwork.

A meaningful, compelling purpose and cross-departmental cooperation create the foundation for a one team organization. In the next article, I’ll delve into a leader’s role for building and sustaining a one team environment.

Creating and sustaining a one team environment is complicated whether or not you have the word “leader” in your title. We help companies create environments for great teamwork. Get in touch to see how we can help.

This blog post is the first installment in a series about creating a One-Team organization. 

  1. “One Team” Lays the Foundation for All Teams
  2. “One Team” Starts with Leadership and Thrives on Trust 
  3. One-Team Conversations Connect People
  4. The Four Fundamentals of Successful Teams

1Lego Mission and Vision,
2Allen, Bob (ed.). “NASA Langley Research Center’s Contributions to the Apollo Program“. Langley Research Center. NASA.
3Project Apollo: A Retrospective Analysis