Too Many Teams? Know The Why And What To Avoid Burnout

I was working on a large-scale org design project at Mars, Inc.  a few years ago. The change management leader for this massive initiative asked me to develop an approach to help teams to navigate the changes they would be experiencing as part of the reorg. I had some good ideas (I’ll share those in an upcoming post) that I quickly committed to paper.

To test and sharpen my thinking I shared my thoughts with a few team leaders I knew the change would affect. One of them responded, “This is good stuff. Can I this use with all the teams I’m a part of?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well,” she explained,” I’m on my boss’s team, and I lead a team. Plus, I am on a global project team, a regional project team, and I sit on a steering team for another project. Oh, I’m also on our functional Talent Advisory Group.”

It was a fair but unexpected question. It shouldn’t have surprised me, though. A few years earlier I’d done an informal study that suggested that the typical manager at Mars was on 6+ different teams. These included the team they led, the one led by their boss, plus special project teams, steering teams, advisory councils, planning committees and the like. You can debate whether all these are technically teams. In practice they considered them teams and acted accordingly.

Mars isn’t alone in this. Since leaving Mars I’ve spoken with leaders and managers across a range of industries who experience the same thing. Being on multiple teams is an organization reality, one we may have to accept. But it comes at cost: confusion, disengagement, burnout and turnover.

The ideal solution would be to declare that all employees will be on fewer teams. That would work great if organizations had the resources to hire more people so they could thin out workloads. That’s not the reality I experience with my clients. What is needed is an approach for the real world.  

Thinking about that Mars manager I’d spoken with, I asked myself if there was a tool or technique to help people serving on multiple teams. One big challenge facing these individuals was figuring out how to allocate themselves across all of their teams and negotiate this apportionment with the various teams they were part of.  The solution I landed on was rooted in the same thinking that was at the heart of all my work with teams: clarifying the compelling “Why” and the “What” of team collaboration.  [HBR Article - Stop Wasting Money on Team Building]

Multi-team members trying to address the tensions they face are trading in two precious commodities: their time and their energy. To support negotiations with their various stakeholder groups, multi-team members must understand and be able to explain the relative value of each team they are on. They need clarity about the role each team plays, why it is more (or less) important and how much of their time they are prepared to devote to it. This information allows them to make relatively rational judgements about which groups deserve more (or less) of their time.

Each of the teams they are on, therefore, must clarify their “Why” and “What.” There are two basic questions to answer:

·         Why is this team a team?

·         What tasks require the team’s collaboration?

Here’s more on what these team-level conversations entail:

·         The Why: A team that can’t state why it exists, what value it’s meant to create for the organization, shouldn’t be a team. From their Why conversation the teams fashion a statement, sometimes called a team purpose, that makes their value clear and enables team members to explain and justify the level of effort that this team demands. This is critical in discussions with other teams that also have a claim on their time.

o   Need to understand the value and importance of their collaboration to the organization.

The What: Teams also need to clarify the What of their collaboration, the specific tasks and initiatives requiring team member collaboration. This allows team members to filter out the work that requires them, or not, and how much of their time is needed. If a person’s presence on a team isn’t vital, if someone else could be doing the work, they shouldn’t be on the team. If, on the other hand, they play an essential role knowing the What helps them allocate their time and explain the importance of their role to others who also want the member’s time and energy.

Team members use the outputs of these conversations in two ways. First, they develop a point of view on how optimally to allocate the time and energy. Then, they have conversations with each of their multiple team leaders to explain the perspective and discuss how they’ll be contributing their time and energy to each team.

Step One, formulating a point of view, requires a least two inputs:

·         Your various team Why and What statements

·         Other expectations of you, particularly by your line manager

The intent is to form a fact-based, business-relevant position for how you will spend your time. Create a table that shows the Why and What of each team placing demands on you. Include a column with other relevant information, e.g., “I lead this team,” or “This team only meets once a quarter.” Then, rank the teams from top to bottom based on how much time you believe you can devote to each.

Again, be sure boss has a say in this ranking; the odds are, he or she will have strong views about how much of your time you spend where.

Step two is the negotiations you’ll have with your teams.  You will want to help them understand why you are making the choices you are. These negotiations won’t be easy and rarely please everyone. One team or another will be disappointed feeling short-changed. That’s just how negotiations work. But it’s far better to negotiate these uncomfortable trade-offs with clarity about how your time will serve which causes and outcomes, and why these matter to you, your boss and the business.

Regardless of how your team is structured, your organization culture or what business you are in, the complexity of life on multiple teams is a bottom-line issue. Our best people, those we invest in and who we come to rely on, are the same ones who end up on the multiple teams with conflicting schedules and demands. Before long, these good employees reach a breaking point and walk out the door. Anything we can do to empower them, to give them resources to navigate the complexity inherent in their jobs will be worth it. The Why & What approach is a simple, low-tech way to have high impact with good people who we most value for the results they create through collaboration.


Carlos Valdes-Dapena is the Managing Principal of Corporate Collaboration Resources and the author of Lessons from Mars: How One Global Company Cracked the Code on High Performance Collaboration and Teamwork

Carlos Valdes-Dapena