#163 Principles for Designing and Governing Regenerative Teams 

Silhouette Photography of Group of People Jumping during Golden Time

Article: Cross Functional Teams are Dysfunctionalfrom Harvard Business Review online, published June 23, 2015.


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Business Second Opinion Podcast digs deep to explore questions about business and business practice. In the process of examining them, we give you a second opinion, usually a contrarian opinion, but one that is well tested and proven to give the outcomes you really want without the side effects. And by the way, if you want to learn more about how to work more closely with us, stay tuned at the end of the show.

I am Zac Swartout, and always with me is Carol Sanford, our inhouse positive contrarian. Who responds to big and hard questions with a radically different take. 

Hey Carol

Carol: Hi Zac, 

Zac: We got an article for a second opinion from a listener, Jalen Glidersleeve who works as an Impact Manager at Waise Research. He wants a second opinion of a cross functional team article from Harvard Business Review in June 2015. 75% of Cross-Functional Teams are Dysfunctional by Behnam Tabrizi. 

Carol: We do have a Second Opinion. There are several shortfalls in the work from a regenerative perspective. One is the paradigm blindness on research methods. This leads to many assumptions they make about what was wrong. And the advice is based on what the teams they investigate were doing. What they also miss is what works so much better if you had a better paradigm and a much better source of teams we have worked with.

Zac, get us started with the diagnosis

Zac: Ok So as a quick overview, Mr. Tabrizi proposes 4 golden rules of governance for cross functional teams to keep them aligned and on track.

  1. Every project should have an end to end accountable leader
  2. Every project should have clearly established goals, resources, and deadlines
  3. Teams should have the project’s success as their main objective
  4. Every project should be constantly re-evaluated

Carol: What do you see as their paradigm blindness? 

Zac: Good question. I want to turn that back on our listeners for a second. As a reminder, the 4 paradigms we discuss quite often here are extract value, arrest disorder, do good, and regenerate. I would encourage you all to pause, go back and relisten to the 4 golden rules of governance I just read. Hold those paradigms in mind and watch the language that’s at play. Go ahead…don’t worry we’ll wait.

Ok so what’s my read on the 4 golden rules here. As I read through them and this article, the entire premise of the article here is that cross functional teams, by and large, do not deliver according to his 5 criteria – meeting a planned budget, staying on schedule, adhering to specifications, meeting customer expectations, and maintaining alignment with corporate goals. In other words they are disorganized and out of control. Therefore, they need rules in place to keep them in line. In other words, to arrest the perceived disorder that this paradigm sees at work. Carol what else do you see here?

Carol: When I see the word “research” as the basis of an argument, I am always alerted. They are imposing an authority or expert model and not mindful of their own bias. We have produced other episodes on this. I also just published an article on research bias in research. I will list it in the show notes. (https://carolsanford.medium.com/researching-the-biases-of-researchers-d26e7c529185)

Carol: Zac, What did you think of their suggestions. And give people a quick outline of their four solutions:

Zac: When I was in healthcare I rarely saw cross-functional teams come together. But when I did, it was like they had forgotten other people existed outside of their department. Oftentimes leaders would be nervous about these teams coming together outside of their respective silos, and so they would want to have rules put in place, not dissimilar from these. The issue was never having the rules, it was always connecting their abstract relevance to the actual work, while trying to remember to follow them. They would often end up written on the wall of wards, and within 2 weeks buried behind work schedules, health alerts, new procedures, and all the rest of the rules they had to follow. It just ended up becoming more noise.

Carol: Let’s start with a different set of explanations for the dysfunctional teams and alternative principles

First Regenerative Principle: Link the work to external stakeholders, the beneficiaries of a teams’ work. Particularly this means the goals, measures etc. are those of stakeholders. Projects are imbedded in work. e.g. maintenance is not a separate dept but within. Quality is within, not a separate department. Improvement of work is by the people who do the work as a different level of work WHILE they do the work. Nothing is imposed from outside. Like cleaning out your garage every five years or when a new car or crisis arrives, versus cleaning and reorganizing as you go and life changes as a family project. Light work.

Zac, how does this stand up to any one of their solutions

Zac: I think what you are pointing to here is about building one’s own capability while building the capability of those who directly benefit from the core offerings of the organization. This is the core of regeneration. Contrasted with say rules number 3, 4, and 5 which are about adhering to specifications, meeting customer expectations, and management expectations. This is about behaving like a machine. Here are someone else’s external guidelines. Follow them without discernment.

Carol: Second Principle, work and projects are initiated from the teams or a person that has stewardship for the beneficiary or the ongoing management of the work (a department of function) or beneficiary (buyer node). E.g. if a cross functional team for a new data management project, they are managing it and will initiate and lead it, drawing in a reflection of the org that will benefit from it. In person, or in mind, such as a particular buyer group.

Zac: Back to the healthcare example – these cross-functional teams were often spawned from projects initiated from up on high by leaders or governmental structures totally disconnected from patients and even hospitals directly giving care. These projects would almost always fizzle out or get lost in the shuffle of day to day work even with all of the rules in place from this article. That’s because the stewardship of this work was imposed rather than generated in relationship with a specific beneficiary.

Carol: Third principle, teams are not defined by cross-functional nature, although it will likely be. The principle is: Teams are a reflection of the whole they are seeking to serve. Which might include customers, distributors and suppliers. May or may not include all functions, and outsider stakeholders may not attend all meetings but are core members. Work it all out based on effects on stakeholders of our choices.

Zac: In the article there is an explanation of a cross functional structure put in place by Cisco. In it Mr. Tabrizi describes the physical structure of the team and its purpose – to heighten security for router lines. While this is certainly a worthwhile endeavour – as a reader I’m curious how this router line security helped to grow Cisco at 80% per year. How was the team structure derived? Why were these people in the team? And why 3 layers? Was this structure then deployed elsewhere? Regardless in a regenerative paradigm the structure is relevant only to the degree that it reflects the whole they are seeking to serve. If their buyer node was one focused on a desire for greater security, we should ask ourselves how to design teams that appropriately reflect that node – rather than bringing folks together to keep them informed. Plus designing teams in this way keeps the Will high from intrinsic motivation and the teams connection to what matters to stakeholders rather than bosses being in know while holding the reigns.

Ya know Carol, these methods feel like a Sisyphean task. For each new goal, it looks like they would need a new cross functional project team. When I saw this at work in healthcare, each new project team would form, put some rules in place, and then evaporate by the next quarter to avoid burnout from all the teams and tasks. 


Carol: BTW, we are starting our management community in 2021, which includes how to build what I am speaking of here, Builds from a Regenerative strategy, and Regenerative approach to leadership, Email me if interested to know more. carol@carolsanford.com

Zac: I have been in these for about 3 years now and I see our participants getting a tremendous amount from the learning they implement in their organizations. Plus there’s so much to gain from being in the Community with business leaders developing and redesigning stuff together. It’s not a course but ongoing learning and development work with a Regenerative Paradigm. 


Zac: Which reminds me, Carol, does the rest of a business have to operate differently to run teams this way?

Carol: Yes, the fourth principle speaks to part of that. The Fourth principle, an organization has Operating Infrastructure that fosters self-managing of all individuals and teams tying all work to the overall direction and markets. There are two ongoing teams or team infrastructure. A Core Team and Market Teams. They are thinking about capability building all the time to boost knowledge or the industry and businesses strategy in it or a specific buyer/user/distributor node and what will help them fulfill their aspiration and their lives lived well. These are much better alternatives to more accountability oversight because they are ongoing, deeply connected to the external world (all in this article is internally focused).

Zac, How does this compare with real life and the less artificial world?

Zac: Looking at these more traditional cross functional teams at work, because the goals are externally determined, the will for the work fades quickly. It’s fundamentally disconnected from the day to day, and therefore lacks relevance to how one gets work done. That’s another reason why these teams quickly slip into being “extra work done off the side of my desk”. It’s like all of this is done because my boss wants me to, so I do it as a favor or to stay employed – rather than seeing how it works to build my own capability and the capabilities of those we’re serving.

Carol, how do people pull this off with everything else a business does?

Carol: Well, if something is driven from intrinsic, and you have permission to look at anything you’re currently doing as a group does not make any sense. If you’re feeling like, “why are we doing this? Here’s the real work we need to do,” you have a totally different culture. And if you have one where you start to engage people in growing self accountability, which is the principle we’re talking about here, the fundamental motivation switches from external to internal or intrinsic versus extrinsic, where it’s not from outside. Now, you have a responsibility for serving a particular customer group with what you’re making for Earth, with what you’re buying for communities, with some decision you’re making in product development or even in philanthropy. So, the work falling off the desk isn’t a thought anymore, because no one’s imposing that on me. 

Zac: Right, that makes sense. As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, by the way, these initiatives, including the example from Cisco, are always fragmented. It’s rarely clear how they connect to everything else going on. Yet another reason why they are often force-fed to folks and then tried to make stick with external deadlines, team structure, and goals.

But, Carol, I can hear some listeners asking, but “what do you do with people who are not high performers. Don’t they need inspiration, motivation, discipline? Or we have to go and hire great talent, to do all this?”

Carol: Now, the Fifth Team Design Principle, Work Developmentally. People across the organization are assumed to have capacity to build the capability to be the accountable persons for the project, a self-managing way of running the work or a project. Adding another layer of hierarchy and accountability is counter-productive to manage. We do this work in our Regenerative Educator Community of corporate, public and private institutions who educate and even home schoolers. 

Zac: That sounds hard to conceive of. Can you give some examples?

Carol: Right, I know it’s not an idea in most people’s head. They want to treat people better, pay them better, equity and all that stuff. When I go into an organization or they come into one of our ongoing communities, we show them how to set up a patterned ritual of development where everyone in the organization is involved in regular meetings where they’re introduced to better living systems thinking, critical thinking skills, personal self management, and they’re in natural work teams.

So they’re applying it every minute of every day, so it’s not separate from the work. That process of meeting and then applying it with everyone having the same language and the same frameworks rapidly speeds up how everyone can work and everyone gets smarter. We’ve never done IQ tests, but we have people say that within a year they feel smarter, they’re taking it home and into their communities. I’ve done that everywhere with every business that’s ever shown up. So it’s not as hard as it sounds, but you have to put all that in place and you have to switch paradigms to do that.

Zac: Any more principles from a Regenerative Paradigm?

Carol: There are a few more principles I work with but here’s one to add grit to Work Developmentally. Build individual capability to lead, ubiquitously. This happens by rotating leadership of all members to lead teams (usually for 6-9 months and by building from them leading and being in other teams. It is also part of a promise-beyond-ableness in every development plan to prepare to and lead groups. Hierarchy shifts to resourcing roles for and to teams to building the capability, knowledge and fiduciaries for decisions as they work on in meanings. Provide high quality restraints to thinking, not take over decisions.

Zac: We’ve discussed this before but now I can see that these principles underpin an ongoing developmental process, rather than act as symptoms which we should look to mimic or duplicate. 

Carol: Join us for The Regenerative Business Development Community to learn more about why the article’s solutions are so outdated. And we have a great community working on Governing Boards to learn a new way to govern. (Learn more at carolsanfordinstitute.com)


Zac: We have several new learning communities to do this kind of thinking starting in January. A Community of Board members-For profit, not for profits and hybrid boards of directors or advisory. A new cohort of Business Teams who engage in Regenerative Strategic Thinking. A way to use Systems Thinking in developing strategy. Plus an on-going community for Educators in all domains. We still have a few seats in the women entrepreneurs community, Email us if you are interested. carol@carolsanford.com


Carol: We need your help. Recommend an article or business practice on which you want a second opinion. Thanks Jalen for your offer this time. You can email us at carol@businessSecondOpinion.com or find us on Twitter @biz_second_opinion Or, Donate to support productions costs. On Business Second Opinion Webpage. 


Zac: Your organization can set up a book club for The Regenerative Life, using an extensive workbook and video online Workshops for Free. 50% discounts on bulk buys through my publisher. More at carolsanford.com.

Zac: This has been Business Second Opinion


Business Second Opinion Podcast digs deep to answer questions about business and business practice, you may not know you need to ask. But we believe you should be asking for the benefit of your understanding and your businesses ethics and practice. In the process of answering them, we give you a second opinion, usually a contrarian opinion, but that is well tested and proven to give the outcomes you really want without the side effects. 


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In today’s show, we examined:

This episode is helping us think about team design and how to do so Regeneratively. Overcome the mechanicalness that picking among and adhere to outdated paradigms used for teaming design. We speak to six principles that overcome dysfunction without more hierarchy to tightening the screws on accountability, governance and goal tending.


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