Herding the cats: How to lead a cross-organizational team

Steve Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

“There is nothing so practical as a good theory,” famed social psychologist Kurt Lewin wrote many years ago. As an academic who cares about improving government management, I have always embraced Lewin’s aphorism as a guiding star for aspirations for my own research and for what I look for in the research of others.

The Academy of Management Review (AMR) is the quarterly theory journal of the leading professional association for scholars (mostly at business schools) who study organizations. Its counterpart publication, the Academy of Management Journal, presents empirical papers — i.e., those with evidence. AMR doesn’t always live up to Lewin’s admonition. Frankly, I find many of the papers to be academic in the pejorative sense of the word and not particularly useful or even insightful.

However, the April issue of AMR has a fascinating paper that is both novel and useful. It has the slightly daunting title “Intergroup Leadership in Organizations: Leading Across Group and Organizational Boundaries” and was written by Michael Hogg and David Rast of Claremont Graduate University and Daan Van Knippenberg of Erasmus University in the Netherlands. The basic question the authors ask is: What should leaders of cross-organizational collaborations or cross-functional teams do to increase the identification of group members with the work of the collaboration or the team? With the spread of both formal collaborations and cross-functional teams in government, the question is clearly a practical one. It is also vexing because it is frequently hard to get cross-functional groups to play well together.

The authors say collaboration leaders typically try to create an overarching, collective identity for members of the collaboration, a sense of commitment to it that transcends commitments to their functional homes. The message leaders give is that the various groups that compose the collaboration or team are more similar to one another than those in the individual functions would have believed. Often, leaders attempt to encourage such understanding by using rotational assignments, as is done with temporary assignments of military officers to joint activities or among people from different parts of the intelligence community to understand the other organizations better.

The authors argue, however, that this approach is unlikely to work. A sense of commitment to their home organizations and/or functions is a strong part of many people’s identities.

Instead, the authors recommend a different leadership approach, one that builds what they call intergroup relational identity. The idea is that leaders should encourage group members to understand that “the intergroup collaboration is essential to achieving outcomes that are deeply valued by the group” rather than pushing the notion that the different groups making up the collaboration are similar to one another. A homey example of an interpersonal relational identity is a parent/child relationship: There is no suggestion that parent and child are the same, only that the relationship creates value.

That means, for example, that leaders of cross-agency intelligence efforts shouldn’t promote the idea that the FBI and the CIA are the same, only that their joint activities can produce better results than either could do alone. The authors argue that collaboration leaders can do this by engaging in their own boundary-spanning behavior and demonstrating that they can’t do their jobs properly without working with members from other organizations or functions.

Is this approach useful? I think it is, but I would like to hear what collaboration and cross-functional team managers think.

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve


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