The Specialist Problem – one of the biggest causes of cross-functional pain

Prefer to watch this on video than read?  Just click here…5 mins with captions.

The Specialist Problem.  You might not call it that…but you know about it.  Let’s go through it.

The first mention of this problem I came across was in a book from 50 years ago by Wilfred Brown with the wonderful title of ‘Organization’.  I love it because it couldn’t be less fashionable…check out the cover…

Don’t be fooled into thinking something from this era isn’t relevant – the genius of the Beatles finished in 1970, Led Zeppelin was getting going, and besides, Newtown copped the apple way back in the 1680s and his gravity idea still seems useful… so old does not mean irrelevant.

Read more…

Business Partnering – It’s So Hot Right Now!

Click here to watch this in a 5-minute video!

On the agenda of every corporate services area, be it IT, HR, Finance or the more modern incarnations of business improvement and innovation….is business partnering.

But there’s a lot more to this than good intentions and writing it down in a plan.  Here’s what’s required to get to this to work.

‘Business Partnering’

First – what are we on about?  I like to use the ideas we can find in Patrick Hoverstadt and Lucy Loh’s book Patterns of Strategy, where they describe in detail the strategy of ‘Strategic Partner’.  One of the supplier family of strategies, this is where we look to cause change in the other partner for the benefit of both of us.

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The Middle System – Why Cross-Functional Collaboration Doesn’t Happen And What To Do

This article also exists as a 5-minute videoClick here to watch if you’d prefer that to reading.

We all want more cross-functional collaboration, whether you’re an executive wanting the areas to sort it amongst themselves, in the middle yourself trying to get work done with other areas, or on the frontline just wanting some consistent messages.

There’s a reason this is often so hard, and one I can give you right upfront – it’s because we can’t see it!  Let me explain….

The social system relationships in most workplaces

As I did in my article and video on the Disgruntled Masses, this piece relies on the Organic Systems Framework of Barry Oshry.  It’s simply great stuff…look into it.  You can watch him talk on YouTube too.

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Circle Work: achieving cross-functional customer focus


Ask any group of people to draw their ‘org chart’, and they’re going to draw something like this:

Org chart traditional

There is nothing wrong with this – it’s a useful diagram that shows managerial relationships – who is accountable for which teams.  This has value simply because if a given team is doing great, or not so great, it’s convenient to know who to talk to.  And we can have meetings of five teams by coordinating five calendars instead of forty.

Here’s the thing though – this visual representation becomes the dominant mental model for how we think about work.  Notice how it implies four separate people, only connected through one other who sits ‘over’ them.  It’s not a big leap from here to see how relationships of dominance and dependence can emerge, with the friendly version being the ‘caretaking’ manager, the not-so-nice version being the autocratic manager.  Either way felt ownership of the work is gathered in just the one person.  Not nice if you’re that person.

(Click here  for a pdf version of this post)

So here’s a change.  Draw your team like this….

Org chart circle

…as a Circle, that gathers around the work of the team – it’s mission.  But notice a key feature – we still have a managerial leadership  role.  And we define that role very deliberately – as the role that takes accountability for the team delivering it’s mission.  So it has the authority to convene meetings, to name the conversation that needs to be had, and, when required, to make decisions if the team can’t naturally find a consensus that makes sense.  Read more…

“You can’t talk to my people” is NOT Requisite!!!

Exit Sign


I’ve heard that principles of Requisite Organisation mean that people can’t talk to people in other teams without checking with the manager first.  This seems to be against all modern ways of working together as an organisation, so just wanted to check in with you as I know you are an expert in this model.


I’m very glad you checked.  First principles, ‘Requisite’ means ‘what is required’ and in our model, which we call Requisite Enterprise as it uses these principles among others, it’s about designing and leading work so it’s fulfilling for customers, employees, beneficiaries and the planet.

This means that a way of working that causes frustration and disintegration of relationships is never going to be requisite in our model.  Saying ‘you can’t talk to them without checking with me first‘ is therefore obviously not part of what we teach in our workshops and online.

The Managerial Relationship

But…we can acknowledge where this comes from.  We use the Elliott Jaques idea of making managers accountable for their teams serving their customers (internal or external), and so give managers the authority to ultimately decide the way ‘work works’ and who does what in their area if that’s required.  This is called authority to ‘assign’ work.  And we describe the relationship between Managers and the team members using the Jaques term ‘Task Assigning Role Relationships’ or ‘TARRs’.  (BTW…we insist that before decisions managers also get the input of all those effected as an absolute minimum)

It is, however, a mistake to therefore think that this authority to ‘assign work’ means ‘a person may only do work directly assigned by their manager’, or even further ‘only the manager may talk to this person about work’. Read more…

Cross-functional work – a method for getting it sorted


I was wondering if I might be able to seek your guidance on sorting out cross-functional relationships.  Is there a process you suggest we follow so we can really sort ourselves out so we can be a better organisation for both customers and employees?


Very glad you asked – getting clear in this area is about not forcing people to rely on favours and politics to get their basic work done.  It’s a service to our fellow humans!

Cross-functional roles, or ‘Task-Initiating Role Relationships’ (TIRRs) as Elliott Jaques referred to them are how work gets done.  We tend to to see the org chart as reality, when it’s actually just a visual representation of who reports to who, and what each person is there to deliver.  In reality all work is passed on to someone, either internal or external – so all work is some sort of flow, which means…it mostly goes across.

This means that it’s one of the fundamental accountabilities of every manager to set up how work ‘works’ in their area.  And a crucial part of this is the TIRRs.

So how do we do this?  First we start with WHO.

We teach in our workshops and our online learning that Read more…

Getting Real About Freedom

Bag of time (2)

There’s a huge confusion that’s causing a lot of pain in organisations.  It’s the idea that ‘freedom‘ means ‘freedom from consequences‘.  It doesn’t.  It means ‘you get to choose, and the consequences are yours‘.

Freedom is not liberty or licence.  It’s not escape.  A person becomes free when they are willing to stand up and say ‘this is my situation, I am taking ownership of it, and of whatever happens next.’  The moment this occurs, choice comes back into play.  The boat gets a motor.  The hot-air balloon’s fire-thing starts up again.  We have agency, and it feels good.  Energy.

This is the principle we use when we help our clients with how their organisations are designed and lead….that people want freedom.  They want choice.  They want a level of challenge that pushes them without blowing their minds.  And they would like to know how things work so they can make more informed choices.

Leaders at all levels have the opportunity to give people freedom.  But it’s not always taken.  It’s hard to trust, and decades of high control leading to unaccountable behaviour simply reinforces this, and it’s not just the managers.

So how do we create freedom?

Through conversations and other communication that creates clarity for all on who is delivering what, and how roles fit together.  And decisions when decisions are required so people can get on with it.

People cannot make choices about their own way to get things done if they don’t know what ‘done’ is or how things work.

But above all, this requires a willingness to trust again.  This is the hardest part, and it applies to everyone.  For managers, it’s trust that people will take ownership.  And for employees, that their managers will let them take ownership.  This is the foundation of any successful enterprise.

Clarity and trust.

Pre-requisites for freedom.


Developing a Strategy? Read This First


You’re in charge of ‘developing a strategy’.  Perhaps you’re a General Manager, where developing and delivering strategy (what work, why that, and why us) is the key part of the job.  Or maybe you’ve been assigned the task because you’ve put your hand up, or you’re an agitator, or someone wants to see what you can do.  Or perhaps you’ve been asked to bring together the ubiquitous ‘cross-functional team’.

So what do you do?


Strategies are developed by convening gatherings of people who want to be there, then having real conversations about possible futures.

They’re not developed by working through a process of identifying the current situation, by doing a SWOT, PESTL….whatever.  These things might be useful to identify things to talk about, but they come at a cost, which is the implication that the process will reveal the strategy.

It won’t, and here’s why.

Real strategy, as in strategy that actually happens, is created by people imagining what might be possible, then making the choice to create a new future.   Read more…

GM of Operations? You might like to try this…

Are you, in one form or another, a General Manager of Operations?  In the US you might be VP Operations.  Either way, if you are in an Executive role, and you have any accountability for delivering the products and services to your customers…then you might be interested in giving this a shot…

Wander over to your friends (or enemies) in the Marketing area and ask for a copy of every current advertisement and promotion that’s out there.  In particular, anything with a sentence, ideally, advertisements by video or radio.

Now call an all-hands meeting with everyone in the Operations area, and play the ads.  That’s right…play the videos, run the radio ads, big screen, loud speakers….and  have everyone in groups note down their understanding of what is being promised to people should they become a customer.

Then point this out – these promises are operational requirements.  They aren’t optional extras, they aren’t arguments to be used to show how unreasonable the Marketing department is….these are the dead-set requirements that Operations is being asked to deliver.  And even better, deliver within a certain budget.

To not do so is to break a promise that the organisation has made, either to customers if you don’t deliver or deliver and charge too much, or to owners if you deliver as expected at a loss.

Now ask the room to discuss what needs to be different in order to deliver that promise with the budget given.

Watch closely which people choose to take on this challenge, and which choose to use their capability to avoid it.  Avoiding won’t look obvious, it will take the form of very rational reasons why what is being asked just isn’t possible.  You’ll be tempted to agree.

But it’s still avoiding.

Don’t get angry or frustrated because do you know where it comes from?  From the messages that people have been sent for years by the very way the organisation is designed and run.

What you’ve now got is the need for genuine dialogue about what everyone is experiencing.  Which requires you to listen, then listen, then listen.

And this might be the hardest work you do all year.


One advantage of organisations…

An old friend from school dropped past our office last week.  He’s left work in the corporate world to do what he likes doing the most – developing houses.  He’s good at it – a combination of trade know-how (he pretty much built his own place years ago) combined with the ability to organise, get along with people and take a risk.

As we often do, we got to talking about how things get done.  He was talking about the balancing act of having to schedule various trades to work on his properties, all of whom have other work on, with the whole thing relying on each trade doing their bit on time so the  next one can start.  And even if everyone puts in a great effort, sometimes the weather thwarts everyone…there’s just nothing that can be done.  But then the next tradie has to decide who they are going to let down…my friend, or the next customer whose job will now start late.

“But that’s how it goes” he said.  “Because they’re all running their own business, they’re not employees.  So why should they wait for me?”

Fighting to get people to show up.  Cajoling, negotiating and trying to get ‘buy-in’ so your project comes first.  Does this sound like your organisation?

The key difference between organisations and my friend’s occupation as a developer is that organisations have roles that have the authority to decide what gets done next and to allocate resources.   They’re called managers, and it starts with the CEO.  Make good decisions in this area and everyone’s talents become more valuable and are directed toward something bigger that they are a part of.  Sounds good.

But if this fundamental work isn’t getting done, then why have an organisation at all?