Author Profile Picture

Blaire Palmer

That People Thing

Author, speaker, agent provocateur for senior leaders and their teams

Read more from Blaire Palmer

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Professional development: the team is dead but we still need to engage employees


Traditional team structures have dissolved. In their place, we have more a more complex organisational matrix, which presents challenges for professional development.

For a long time, activities like dropping teams off cliffs or challenging them to cross a river using only a pile of pallets and some baling twine was what was expected of team building exercises.

There’s still plenty of money to be made running these kinds of ‘experiential learning’ activities, but these days most people are too busy and too cautious to spend their company’s money on a jolly.

More than that, did they ever actually work? Is a team better able to address business critical topics, make tough decisions, identify root causes and inspire their people because they spent a very wet and very cold night together half way up Snowdon hacking at a tin of beans with a tent pole?

Goodbye to cosy, functional teams

In the old days you will have spent most of your time in your cosy, functional team.

You had little to do with ‘the business’, which was an entity separate to your own. Instead, you sat with your HR colleagues all day, isolated from the rest of the company, with your opinions about what matters being reinforced by people who ‘get it’.

In a matrix, our conventional understanding of teams is blown to pieces - and this is a good thing.

Your colleagues in finance, IT and sales felt the same, by the way – all speaking the same language as each other, seeing the business from the same angle, through the same lens, reassuring each other that, if only everyone else saw things as they did, the company would be far better off.

Those days are now over. How much time do you get to chew that fat with your HR friends? In today’s working environment, you’re part of a CBU (central business unit), you're a business partner, or you’re attached to an affiliate or a product.

Solid and dotted lines are the norm

When it comes to organisational structure, nowadays it’s more common to see a solid line from you in to the function head but a dotted line in to the local head. You’re part of a couple of project teams, each with their own project leader.

Maybe you’re lucky enough to have two line managers, or you report to the head of your function within your business but you’ve also got an equivalent at group headquarters.

Perhaps your organisation is structured by solution but your internal customer is structured by region (or vice versa), so you are part of a range of regional teams representing your solution alongside other people in your function who are representing theirs.

When I initially predicted the end of conventional hierarchies, the first question I got was ‘but who will do my appraisal?’ Of course, as we now know, who does your appraisal is the least of your concerns if you now live in the world I’ve described.

In a matrix, our conventional understanding of teams is blown to pieces - and this is a good thing.

Silos are terrible for creativity

Stagnant functional teams create silos and silos keep information and ideas trapped in disparate parts of the organisation. That’s very bad for creativity.

Creativity occurs when two seemingly unrelated concepts collide, and that can’t happen when information and ideas are locked within stagnant teams.

Of course, we know that the matrix, which was intended to overcome the disease of silos and create a more agile, responsive structure, has it’s own issues.

Orphans looking for a family

When organisations use a matrix structure, one danger is that people don’t feel they have a home. They are orphans looking for a family to adopt them but instead are moved from one temporary foster home to another.

They can’t see their career path clearly because the hierarchy has been disrupted and the business is no longer made up of straight vertical lines.

The real problem is that the traditional hierarchy created families with parents and children, while the new matrix requires everyone to grow up and be adults.

They are managing conflicting priorities from multiple stakeholders who all have their own pressures and deadlines. Moreover, they are lonely – who do they talk to who really understands their world?

In reality, there is no structure that works perfectly. No matter how you organise your people you’ll gain some benefits and lose others.

Struggling to let go

The real problem is that the traditional hierarchy created families with parents and children, while the new matrix requires everyone to grow up and be adults.

We’ve now reached the point in most companies where the kids are behaving like teenagers – they want their freedom, their autonomy, their voice to be heard. But they also want someone else to do their laundry and keep the fridge well stocked.

Meanwhile the parents are struggling to let go and give their teens the space to learn by making mistakes because they may destroy the house and, anyway, they’ll always be your babies, right? What if they grow up and don’t need mummy and daddy any more?

The matrix presents a cultural challenge not a structural one.

Making the matrix structure work for all

It only works when individuals see a connection between their behaviour, their decisions, their attitudes and the results of the company.

It’s when they take responsibility for their contribution and make their own decisions about how they are going to make a difference that we see real succcess.

They need to care enough about the company and its customers to know where they need to invest their energy and what they can neglect for now. In other words, it only works when the kids grow up.

Senior leaders also need to realise that their job is to turn their children in to productive adults and guide them through their teenage years without worrying that doing this successfully will diminish their own authority.

Rethink how you develop your people

It means a rethink of how you develop your people – your leaders and those they lead. Any intervention that reinforces childlike and parent-like behaviours and mindsets undermines the structure you’ve intentionally created.

Any traditional ‘training’, any tell-and-sell style communication, any competition between functional heads, indeed any team synergy building, risks sending conflicting messages. If you’re going to treat your people like children, how can they ever grow up?

Re-thinking the team is the right thing to do, but you can’t just break a structure that has become part of people’s DNA and expect them to embrace it. 

The bravery needs to come from HR. When a team begs you for training where an external trainer will simply tell them what to do differently, you need to resist.

Instead, provide a talented coach for them who will challenge their way of thinking about the problem and prod them to have their own ideas that address the specific challenges they face in their organisation at this time.

When a leader wants to run a roadshow where they present the strategy followed by a nod towards participation (the 10 minute Q&A) you need to resist. That’s how you treat children, not teenagers, let alone adults.

When a team (you still have them, they just look and operate differently today) thinks that an hour of paintballing followed by dinner together is going to resolve the challenges they’re facing, you need to resist.

Instead, invest in giving them time together to put the elephants on the table and have the conversations they’ve been avoiding. Then they can go to dinner.

Re-thinking the team is the right thing to do, but you can’t just break a structure that has become part of people’s DNA and expect them to embrace it. There’s still some growing up to do and that has to start with you.

Interested in learning more about this topic? Read The reality of performance: no team is an island.

6 Responses

  1. Blaire, I love the family
    Blaire, I love the family analogy you use to describe the state of teams today. I absolutely agree that the matrix structures of today demand a new way of connecting and that only focusing on the core team structures and connections lead to competition and lack of awareness of the big picture. I do also believe that belonging is a hard wired need in most of us and that there is room for being a part of a team and connecting across teams. The suggestion of using coaches instead of trainers definitely resonates with me. Thanks for this well written and clearly thought out essay.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts! It
      Thanks for your thoughts! It’s still difficult to explain to some L&D people that you aren’t going to teach anything, you are going to coach. But the reality is that there is no right or wrong way to behave in this brave new world. What we need is people who take time to reflect, to talk to each other and work out what’s going to work best for them…and then keep that conversation alive as they adapt and tweak and learn. Coaches can help move people towards this approach.

  2. Always refreshing to have
    Always refreshing to have someone come along with another view. I hope everyone reads this and then considers the possibility of this “option” working as suggested.

    Having done that, I struggle with the concept of a heap of individuals out there doing their “thing”. I suspect this has come about due to the practice of IT companies treating programmers etc in this fashion. What we tend to overlook is that in behind/alongside the whizkids are the administrators; the marketers; the engineers……and in my research of those companies these folk work in teams.

    Main reason the “wired-in” structure of a leader and a team; and a leader and a team; has not delivered of late is that too many so-called management gurus have tried successfully to get folk, especially managers rather than the coach or the mentor, from setting specific performance standards/goals…….helping people achieve those goals…..and THEN helping them to raise those standards/goals. The invaluable role of the coach/mentor is to assist the manager in their “helping”.

    Simple but true. By following this approach to managing teams, you address the needs of the individual as well as maintaining the human need of belonging, so you get it both ways.

    Cheers. DonR.

    1. Hi! Thanks for your ideas!
      Hi! Thanks for your ideas! People still work in teams all the time, of course. But those teams tend to be more flexible than in the past. It’s this which many people find hard to adapt to because they used to have a home and they wish they did still. But we aren’t going back to that any time soon. This means that even when you are in a team, you need to know what your contribution needs to be towards the bigger goals of the organisation. You can’t just turn up and work through your to do list. You have to think “Am I adding value to this project and to this team in a way that moves the business forward?”. To do that you need to know 1) what moves the business forward and 2) how you contribute to that. This is why I say it requires an adult attitude. I’d love to know more of your thoughts.

      1. No problem with what you
        No problem with what you specify Blaire about what you should think, but I refer back to my comment above requiring the Manager/Team Leader to be the guardian if you like, of that thinking.

        In other words, in answer to any of the thoughts you mention it falls to the Manager to confirm or otherwise, and then help take the next step. It is that next step which sets the better manager apart from someone just collecting the extra pay and having the title.

        Therefore I am slightly at variance with your requirement they have an adult attitude………….in my experience they can gain that by receiving the right “leadership” from their Manager…………and before everyone jumps on this notion managers are different from leaders, I disagree in that managers have also to be leaders. If their job description [call it what you will] is done correctly it will include the leadership as well as management tasks required. In my world leaders have to be managers and vice-versa. What differentiates in the amount of leadership required vs the amount of management required.

        Cheers. DonR.

  3. Blair – Nicely done! Re
    Blair – Nicely done! Re-thinking teams is what really needs to happen. Old ways of understanding teams defies the changes that have taken place in the way work is structured. And, coaching is much more important and effective to build strong interpersonal skills and team approaches to solving business challenges. Teams (cross-functional, cross-cultural, cross-business, etc) will and need to exist. It’s really interdependent work that’s happening. But, our approach to developing critical mindsets and skills to help teams to function is more important than ever. Thanks for challenging old mindsets.

Author Profile Picture
Blaire Palmer

Author, speaker, agent provocateur for senior leaders and their teams

Read more from Blaire Palmer

Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!