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(originally published by Booz & Company)


What Washington Needs to Learn about Teams

The Limits of Compromise

To understand how to change this, you have to understand the limits of compromise — and the ways of moving past it. In the early 1900s, a thoughtful organizational thinker named Mary Parker Follett called out the critical difference between compromise and integration. A team that compromises has settled for the lowest common denominator: a solution, no matter how incomplete, to which all can easily agree, just to move things forward. Compromised solutions made in this way are more likely to break down.

A team that integrates, by contrast, is looking for the best possible solution — one that takes into account the best of all the perspectives of the people involved. This type of team is determined to understand conflicting positions, and the members don’t quit until that understanding is reached. They may still disagree, but they persevere until they can come to a solution that incorporates the things that both sides want (or need) most. If trade-offs are involved, the team thinks them through and works out a way to give everyone the best of what they are looking for. The integrated vote of this real team would never be counted as, say, six Democrats versus four Republicans, or vice versa. There is no such thing as a minority opinion.

Of course, this takes hard work and accountability from all members. The team may still reach impasses, but now its members are keenly aware of the need to achieve certain results. If that hard work and accountability are lacking, then those seeking a real team must look more broadly at the context in which the team operates. They must look, in other words, at the culture of the organization.

The Culture of Government

Perhaps that’s why real teams seem so rare in Washington. Leaders of a real team must have a culture that is reasonable and coherent enough to ensure that disciplined choices can be made, including those about when to team, how to team, and when not to team. Your organizational culture can either energize or encumber senior team efforts. Those who fail to explicitly enlist elements of their existing culture in setting up and managing teams will rarely achieve the benefits of real-team performance.

Is it plausible to suggest that integration could permeate the dysfunctional culture of a major government capital like Washington? Isn’t the essence of a political culture the battle over every compromise — each party trying to get the greatest advantage in each case, so that it can claim to have “won” in the next election? Maybe, but most political cultures tend to have, operating under the radar, a large number of administrative people who are simply trying to get things done, who need one another to do so, and who adopt various ways to integrate without overtly clashing with the more visible culture of compromise. This culture of integration exists in any government, but it is often hobbled by the rest of the system; a truly savvy political team organizer needs to find it, understand it, and cultivate it to achieve real results.

The political cultures within most governments today reflect an unhealthy combination of conflict, strong elements of compromise, and the subculture of integration. They work at cross-purposes, making it extremely difficult for real-team efforts to emerge, much less succeed. This problem is exacerbated by the reliance on compromise that is built into the culture itself, in which opponents discuss, debate, and dispute in legalistic fashion, rather than trying to accomplish results together. This cultural trait is not likely to change much within any reasonable time frame; it is far too deeply embedded and self-reinforcing.

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