As a leader, it’s reasonable to expect your teams to work together to achieve collective goals. Disappointingly, even when teams have a shared purpose, clear strategy, and aligned success measures, cross-functional collaboration can feel harder than it should be.
When cross-functional execution is dysfunctional, a frequent root cause is competing mental models. A mental model is a composite of the beliefs and assumptions you hold about how something is supposed to work. Often, teams hold perfectly valid but competing mental models about collaborative partnerships. Here are a few examples we’ve recently seen:
- A tech company has a centralized strategy team and decentralized field teams. The centralized team sees itself as command central, accountable for setting strategy, which the field executes. However, the field sees the centralized team as a resource center to be called upon when needed for research and analysis to inform local strategy
- A pharma company establishes a marketing function and asks all the business units to contribute budget to fund it. Once it’s up and running, the GMs expect the marketing department to act as an internal service provider who will dedicate specific people to fulfilling the marketing needs for their business unit. The marketing team sees itself as peer, with the authority to define its own portfolio, processes, and priorities
- A non-profit hires development personnel at the national office. The team believes their role is to advise the local offices, but the local sites begin to expect the national office to set direction
- A biotech company establishes an operations team to support the sales force on a broad range of issues. They create a data team for researching particularly complex issues. The operations team perceives the data team as a back office support department. The data team sees themselves as elite specialists
Problems arise because our mental models drive our day to day behaviors. Competing mental models inevitably cause spin or conflict, and ultimately business impact.
If you think competing mental models are hindering collaboration within your organization, bring the group together to talk through it. Ask them to explicitly describe how they see themselves in relationship with one another. If their respective pictures are different, help reconcile them. As a leader, you have several levers for doing so.
- Get clear in your own mind. It’s possible that even you aren’t sure how to think about the relationship between these teams. If that’s the case, consider these questions: What results do I want? What behaviors will produce those results? What mental model will yield those behaviors?
- Make the implicit, explicit. Often, teams have different mental models simply because you did not state your expectations, and each made different assumptions about what you intended. In the case of the non-profit, the teams just needed to hear the CEO say that local offices were still empowered to establish their development strategy, and they were off to the races.
- Send consistent messages. If you refer to marketing as a “shared resource” when speaking of the GMs, but you call it a “business” in conversations with the marketing leader, their models will diverge. Watch for – and minimize – those small differences that lead to larger issues.
Competing mental models consume time, degrade relationships and distract the organization. Make it a priority to ensure that you – and your leadership team – can quickly spot and reconcile them. And who knows? You may find you can even put the fun back into cross-functional collaboration.