Building Common Knowledge to Get Results

When leaders take their eyes off the prize to expand their teams' perspectives, they get the outcomes they're looking for
Jun 01, 2005



Pharmaceutical teams bring together people from different organizations, cultures, and disciplines. They view their common project from different perspectives, yet they're expected to collaborate under pressure to achieve ambitious goals. Team leaders often take a results-oriented approach—usually one that targets only the goals of their own projects. But this single-minded focus can make teamwork difficult. Instead of defusing conflicts, it reinforces the disciplinary loyalties and silo-thinking that spawn discord between team members.

By reframing their role, from leading the team's work to building the team's knowledge, team leaders can achieve better overall results. In order to generate learning among one's team, leaders must learn how to identify the early-warning signs for unproductive interactions, and understand how to steer team conversations in more productive directions. By increasing a team's capacity to share perspectives and points of view, leaders increase everyone's likelihood of producing desirable results.

A Typical Challenge A manager from a multi-national pharmaceutical company brought this case to a leadership course that I teach at the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development (CSDD). On a team teleconference, Pat, the program leader, wants to discuss a protocol amendment with Mike, who works in a different location and reports to a different functional organization. Pat and Mike exhibit a dynamic called the "cross-functional reaction." It turns out to be a black hole.

Pat: We've discussed this protocol amendment and think we absolutely need it.

Mike: No, I don't think so. We have enough, and if the medical director wants more, he'll ask us.

Pat: But this may delay the review process.

Mike: We have so many higher priority things to do.

Pat: How much time would it take?

Mike: I couldn't say—our group has to look at all the details.

Pat: It isn't that complicated. With help from our end, you should be able to do it by the end of the week.

Mike: No, it'll take much longer.

Notice that Mike does not accept Pat's goal. He is defending his own. Pat reacts automatically, thinking, "Mike's got it wrong," and tries to fix the problem. Mike sticks to his guns and makes it clear that nothing needs fixing.

The Pitfall As team leader, Pat is playing by the classic management rules, focusing on the results for which she is accountable. This point of view blinds her to Mike's goals, and to the team's conflicts. So Pat and Mike do not realize that they see different aspects of the project, and therefore, focus on different results. Because they don't know where they differ, they're vulnerable to being surprised—as Pat is when Mike dismisses the amendment. They underestimate the impact they have on each other, so they're vulnerable to perceiving a differing viewpoint as interference—as Mike does when he argues that he has bigger priorities.