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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Why is real teamwork so rare?

“Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare” (Patrick Lencioni).

I believe teamwork is rare because our organizations are built in opposition to working as a team. The key to maximizing community impact is making sure everyone in the organization is pulling in the same direction. This requires clarity, commitment, and focus.

Management philosophy is stuck in the past
Every manager knows the value of teamwork. The problem is the organizational structure in most nonprofits prevents it. Most organizations are hierarchical. This structure is derived from the industrial age when mass production transformed the workplace. It has been the foundation of organizational structure for the last 100 years. Each individual is given a small piece of the work to be completed. The worker only sees his/her part with the emphasis placed on speed of production. Assembly line concepts are so ingrained in our society that they find their way into management theory as well. We assign roles, divide the work and get started. The problem is that with the quickly changing landscape of today’s challenges the assembly line concept is not agile enough to adapt to those changes.

Management philosophy for today
Several decades ago software developers faced this same problem. Work requirements often changed before the team could even complete the work. This is like the architect changing the building blueprints while the contractors are building the house. The result is not satisfactory. I am sure we all can relate to the challenge of ever changing demands on our organizations. New concepts have evolved that can be summed up in the term agile. This is not simply a new technique applied to the old concept of assembly line production. An entirely new management mindset has evolved.


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With Agile, we do not try to factor out all variability. Agile embraces the fact that requirements change while the house is under construction. Work is performed by cross-functional teams. Agile embraces the variability and embraces the idea that the individual closest to the work is most suited to make decisions about how the work should be completed.

 As the COO for Blueprint Education, I lead a team tasked with making sure our principals, teachers, and curriculum staff have the tools they need to create defining moments in the lives our students. Our team specifically handles accounting, human resources, marketing, resource development, facilities, and technology. I have a team of diverse people with a variety of skills and expertise but I keep the team cross functional.

We operate according to three principles:

  1. In an agile environment, power is given to team members. The team determines how best to accomplish the work. This is the opposite of the assembly line philosophy where team members take on tasks delegated from their supervisor. Because the team understands the big picture there is clarity regarding how each individual’s contribution supports the goal. Team members know what work needs to be done, what is in process, and what is completed. 
  2. An agile team is empowered to self-organize. In the sprint planning phase, the team decides how to complete the work. Self-empowered workers have buy-in to the work and naturally are more committed to the project. 
  3. An agile team keeps it focus on results. The team is held accountable for making sure the work they committed to is done in the two week time box. The short time frame brings focus to the group. As a team we move in the same direction towards one goal. 

The new management philosophy transfers decision making to individuals closest to the activities. The result is better decisions through consensus and greater team commitment because the team sets its own goals and plans its own work. For Blueprint, Agile Leadership fits our culture. It embraces our values of Integrity, Accountability, Innovation, and Caring. Teamwork is the most important factor in creating effective organizations. We cannot spend a few days at a retreat participating in trust falls and ropes courses. We need to fundamentally change the way we view work to bring clarity, commitment and focus as we strive to fulfill our mission.

Mark French has had 20+ years of experience managing nonprofit organizations. He has executive accounting management experience, and is a certified Scrum Master. He is currently employed at Blueprint Education as CFO, and is in charge of the Supervision of Departments including Accounting, Marketing, IT, Human Resources, and Facilities for Blueprint Education (a non-profit corporation) and for its subsidiary, Blueprint Charter Schools, Inc.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog