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strategy and business
 / Summer 2012 / Issue 67(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Right Role for Top Teams

Defusing the Conflicts of Constituents

When interpersonal tensions or power struggles exist among the members of any senior leadership group, many chief executives respond either by ignoring these conflicts or promoting them as healthy competition. But few look at the reasons conflicts happen in the first place. Typically, even simple disagreements among senior leaders are based on hidden struggles between the constituents of their networks. Even when the top leaders agree on a change or new initiative, the conflicts in the broader organization — where people may have strong historical, political, or emotional reasons for opposition — can continue to fester, with an invisible but potentially devastating performance impact. Therefore, when an effective executive leadership group erupts with a sudden, seemingly inexplicable conflict, the CEO and members can best resolve it by looking at it from a network and subgroup perspective — and raising questions.

Not long ago, the senior leaders in the innovation function of a well-known food company were struggling with low R&D returns. The company’s innovation investment was not fully reflected in its ability to bring new products to market, and it had missed some significant competitive opportunities. To address this concern, the group put in place a six-month-long team-building effort for the R&D staff, relying on interviews, one-on-one feedback from the facilitator, and group sessions to create an atmosphere of candor and trust. This was intended to enable the staff to work more productively.

But the intervention did not succeed, and one of the recognized reasons was resistance: Skeptical members of the innovation team tended to discount the team-building consultant’s feedback as a “one-off” encounter that they could ignore. In other words, the company had fallen prey to a common fallacy, that having a team in place is always better than having individual leaders. In reality, as we’ve seen, the value of the team depends on the context and the mode in which it operates.

To understand this tension better, the food company turned to network mapping, analyzing information flow, decision making, trust, and people’s stated objectives. This analysis depersonalized the diagnosis; because it contained no comments on individual behavior or attitudes, all members could talk openly about what to do. The network analysis revealed that some people with high informal influence and expertise were particularly skeptical about the R&D initiative, even as they formally complied with it.

For example, one group of well-known nutritionists was central in the network and influenced many conversations outside the formal review process. They tended to be wary of exploring new and potentially disruptive ideas. They had dismissed some attractive product launch concepts in the past, including low-glycemic-index foods (foods beneficial to diabetics and people trying to lose weight). Several competitors were pursuing these foods. Moreover, these informal influencers did not voice their concerns in formal reviews (where objections could be considered in context), but rather in casual conversations and hallway interactions. Great ideas were often screened out before the top team even heard about them.

Because of their command of informal information channels compared with the rest of the organization, the nutritionists — and a few others — had more impact on key decisions, overall, than some people with higher positions in the formal hierarchy. Members of the top team unwittingly reinforced this imbalance by inviting only the people they knew and liked to brainstorming or problem-solving sessions. Nobody had ever taken the time to get the right people in the room at the right time to talk constructively in the right way about a given issue.

Meanwhile, people with other kinds of expertise, including sensory science and production quality, were not as well connected; their ideas were often overlooked except by one or two champions who occasionally raised their concerns at the senior team level. Had they been more directly involved in discussions of new product development, especially earlier in the process, their technical competencies could have yielded benefits. Instead, their voices were lost. Rather than being invited into problem-solving discussions, these employees were simply told what to do.

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  1. Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith, The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization (Harvard Business School Press, 1993): More detail on the three types of teams, including “real teams.”
  2. Jon Katzenbach and Ashley Harshak, “Stop Blaming Your Culture,” s+b, Spring 2011: The next step for an effective top team is reinforcing and building new behaviors that make the most of the existing corporate culture.
  3. Tim Laseter and Rob Cross, “The Craft of Connection,” s+b, Autumn 2006: How organizational network analysis can improve performance throughout a company.
  4. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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