Team coordination refers to the processes and strategies organizations use to help their teams collaborate more effectively on their individual and collective goals. Studies show that businesses that do it best are twice as likely to outgrow their competitors (plus have lower expenses — a reduction of $1,660/employee every year).
However, although the definition is simple and its effect on success understood, in practice, team coordination can feel more like herding cats for many leaders.
Getting a team (or multiple teams) of people with unique feelings, ideas, and ways of doing things to work together seamlessly is not a small task. And perhaps, not surprisingly, studies also show that even organizations that think they’re doing it well usually still have room for improvement.
So, whether or not you think your teams are working well together, it’s key to your success to be on the lookout for ways to improve.
Below, we’ve fleshed out the two types of team coordination and four research-backed ways that drive effective collaboration between your teams and their members.
Types of Team Coordination: Explicit vs. Implicit Coordination
There are two types of team coordination: explicit and implicit.
Many of the strategies that leaders implement to drive effective team coordination fall into the “explicit coordination” bucket. These include things like building effective work processes, delegation, planning, and direct communication. You can think of these as things leaders actively do to organize their company.
However, while explicit coordination has been studied for decades, research has only recently started to explore “implicit coordination.”
Implicit coordination refers to the ways teams adapt to the needs of their organization and other departments proactively on their own, apart from direction from superiors or others. An example of it could be your sales team sending customer feedback proactively to your product team without being asked.
Needless to say, implicit coordination is kind of the holy grail for leaders who are trying to get their teams to work together seamlessly. If you can get your teams to anticipate the needs of other teams with little input or motivation from you, it makes everything easier.
4 Explicit Ways to Drive Implicit Team Coordination
It takes a certain amount of explicit coordination on your part as a leader to achieve implicit coordination. Here are four things you can do to encourage implicit coordination on your team.
1. Align Your Teams Around a Common Purpose
A study of 1,100 companies by IC4P found that the foundation for effective collaboration was rooted in purpose, namely, that their teams shared the same sense of purpose in what they were trying to achieve.
A common purpose gets everyone on the same page, working towards the same goal. It keeps them focused on what really matters and gives them a measuring stick they can use to make decisions that will affect the success of your organization (“If I do X, will it help us achieve our mission?”).
Further, research also shows that purpose improves employee engagement. For instance, a study by Imperative found that purpose-driven employees were:
- 64% more fulfilled at work
- 50% more likely to be in leadership
- 47% more likely to promote their company to others
Since engagement at work has regularly been tied to increases in productivity, it’s fair to say that anything you can do to encourage a sense of purpose within your teams will greatly improve the way they work together.
How to create a sense of purpose on your team
Simon Sinek, a well-known thinker on the psychology of work and business, provides a framework on how to create a sense of purpose within your teams in his book Start With Why. You should indeed always start with the “why” — why your company exists, why you’re working on a project, or why it’s important for one of your teams to hit a key performance indicator.
That’s because the “why” (when backed by concrete facts and examples) creates emotional buy-in, not just logical buy-in. This helps your team not only understand what you need them to do but champion it as well.
How Coinbase survived a Bitcoin crash by unifying their team
Back in 2013, Bitcoin surged higher than it ever had (up to $1,150), and Coinbase’s business (a currency exchange) experienced massive growth almost overnight. Then, less than a month after peaking, Bitcoin’s price dropped by over 50% and stayed there for years.
For most businesses, this would have been a crushing blow — major layoffs, financial trouble, etc. But many of Coinbase’s employees stayed, even though they were heavily invested in the market themselves.
This was all due to a shared sense of purpose: to create an open financial system for the world.
And not only did that shared sense of purpose keep the team together, but it actually helped them thrive in the years after the crash. They were able to avoid many of the issues that other cryptocurrency exchanges regularly struggle with while also driving huge growth.
Aligning your teams around a common purpose or “why” is the foundation for implicit coordination at all levels of your organization.
2. Create a Detailed Plan (And Then Document It)
Planning is often a challenge for innovative organizations because innovation requires you to be nimble (why put together a detailed plan when it will probably just change tomorrow?).
While there’s no doubt that being able to adapt quickly is important, as Ben Brearley of ThoughtfulLeader explains, figuring it out as you go is usually “…a false economy. The money and time you save by avoiding planning is spent later, when people are confused and things aren’t going well.”
That’s why it’s critical to formulate a plan upfront that explains how and why your teams will reach their goals. According to Ben, formulating a plan helps you improve coordination in three key ways:
- It helps set expectations. A defined plan gives your teams a sense of certainty around what to expect, which keeps them focused and also builds trust.
- It drives accountability. Each of your teams will know what should be done and why, which helps you hold them accountable (and also helps them hold each other accountable).
- It helps you allocate resources. If you know what needs to be done and when it needs to be done, it helps you organize your teams more efficiently to reach your goals.
How to plan and stay nimble at the same time
Planning and remaining nimble as an organization is a lot like professional downhill skiing: you have to pick the best route to the bottom (your plan) plus have the physical ability to keep both of your skis going in the right direction (coordination) at high speeds.
But since the snow on the side of the hill is rarely perfectly smooth, skiers train to build the muscle memory and balance they need to remain nimble even if they have to deal with an unexpected bump or two.
For fast-paced organizations, studies show that the equivalent of building this kind of muscle memory means developing your Team Mental Model (or your team’s collective understanding of important work knowledge). In other words, the more your team shares the same mindset and understanding of what the plan is (as well as why it’s the plan), the more effectively they can work together.
That’s why creating a plan and making sure it’s documented is key; even if it changes over time, it’s a record of where you’ve been, why you’ve pivoted, and where you’re going next (it’s called muscle “memory” after all).
How URX created an internal wiki to build company self-awareness
URX specialized in something called deep linking or linking directly to internet pages within apps.
They had always prioritized culture and transparency, managing most communication through one-on-ones and honest feedback. However, as they grew, this was hard to scale:
“You get to a point where there’s so much complexity, or you see the same question or issue so many times that you need to write it down so that new people can learn it without you telling them, and everyone gets on the same page.”
– John Milinovich, founder, URX
To solve this, they built an internal wiki containing all of the documentation that their teams needed to know — starting with a five-page essay on the history of their product and all of the changes it had gone through (including the reasons why the changes were made).
This history (and additional documentation that was added after) helped create what their founder described as “company self-awareness.” Their wiki continued to be an important part of their success until they were acquired by Pinterest in 2016.
Defining and documenting your historical and future plans provides the context your teams need to coordinate themselves.
3. Define Clear Roles and Responsibilities
The best way to understand why you should define clear roles and responsibilities is to look at organizations that have tried to coordinate their teams without doing so.
The flat organizational chart is a great example. It was invented because employees at growing, innovative companies are often stretched thin with multiple responsibilities. So the thought was, if you could give everyone more autonomy by removing their need to report up, it would drive more decentralized decision-making.
It sounds great on paper. But company after company has proven that a flat org chart simply doesn’t work (even those that championed it initially). Buffer’s COO Leo Widrich explains why:
“The way I would describe it is that the amount of freedom people had, with absolutely no guidance, expectations or accountability, was pretty overwhelming.”
Too much freedom creates uncertainty. Without clear definitions of what they’re responsible for, your teams will have a difficult time knowing what to focus on or how to work together.
How defined roles enhance implicit coordination
In short, defined roles and responsibilities enhance your Team Mental Model, making it easier for each person to anticipate the needs of others because they know where their own domain starts and ends.
Think about it like this: if your product design team of six people doesn’t have a designated point person responsible for a final decision, a lot of time (and potentially money) will be wasted trying to come to a consensus on the best way to proceed.
Contrast that with a team with a designated leader, where they’ve communicated the information they need to make a decision — a decision can be made much quicker.
Here’s a real-world example of how defining roles can make a world of difference.
How Airbnb defined clear roles to reorganize their data science team for the better
Riley Newman joined Airbnb in 2010 as their first data scientist. Data-driven decisions were easier back then when the team was small. But as they grew, he faced the challenge of figuring out how to use data to their advantage proactively rather than reactively:
“… when data scientists are pressed for time, they have a tendency to toss the results of an analysis ‘over the wall’ and then move on to the next problem. This isn’t because they don’t want to see the project through, but with so much energy invested into understanding the data, ensuring statistical methods are rigorous, and making sure results are interpreted correctly, the communication of their work can feel like a trivial afterthought.
But when decision-makers don’t understand the ramifications of an insight, they don’t act on it. When they don’t act on it, the value of the insight is lost.”
Riley goes on to explain that their solution was to connect their data scientists more closely with decision makers. To do so, they redefined the roles of their data team, moving from a centralized model to a hybrid model (both centralized and decentralized) where their data scientists were embedded with individual teams rather than siloed.
This helped their data scientists better communicate the insights they derived from the data they analyzed, so the teams that would use them actually understood their impact.
Defined roles and responsibilities make it easier for your teams to direct themselves because they have a better understanding of where their domain starts and ends (as well as those of their colleagues).
4. Centralize Internal Communication
Poor internal communication has many negative effects on organizations — disengaged employees, turnover, and major productivity losses. But one of the biggest problems that stems from it is how it creates organizational silos.
However, as Jeff Erwin, former CEO of Intego, explains via the Lighter Capital blog, the kind of communication failures that create a silo mentality is rarely an accident. Instead, they’re usually the result of conflicted leadership:
“It starts, and ultimately ends, at the top. If we can peek into the conference room of a leadership team, we will begin to see the symptoms of silos and the related causes. Watching the interactions between the members of the leadership team will usually reveal behaviors that create and enforce silos.”
Research by Salesforce backs this up. A survey they did of 1,400+ employees and executives shows that 86% of employees and executives think ineffective communication is part of the reason for workplace failures.
So simply put, improving communication across your entire organization is key to eliminating silos and improving collaboration.
How to improve communication on your team
First and foremost, alignment at the leadership level on overarching goals is a must. After all, if your leaders aren’t on the same page, how will your employees be?
However, it can still appear that leadership is not aligned, even if they are. Incomplete information or multiple sources of information can still create confusion and uncertainty, making it hard for your teams to work together effectively.
That’s why creating an easily accessible, centralized hub for all communication and important information is so critical: it makes it easy to communicate the things that matter to every person in the company (which builds a stronger Team Mental Model).
How Firmatek breaks down silos by centralizing communication
Firmatek specializes in analyzing data from mining quarries and other physical sites using drones, laser scanning, and other mapping technologies. And standardized collection practices are essential to achieving reliable results.
However, they found that their field techs weren’t always collecting the data the same way since much of their team is spread out across the country, and their standard operating procedures were spread out across several online storage platforms (Google Drive, Egnyte, etc.).
To solve this, they created a central repository for their SOPs and all other important information (like training and policy updates) using Tettra so that their techs could easily find what they needed.
A single, central hub for communication and information breaks down silos and drives consistency among your teams.
If there’s one thing that’s most important to take away from this article, it’s the idea of building your team’s Mental Model. The more you can do to build a collective understanding of the things that matter across your entire organization, the easier it will be to coordinate your teams both explicitly and implicitly.
Key to achieving this is communication — that communication is documented and accessible to all. The more informed and aligned your employees are, the more easily they’ll work together.