Preparing for Atlanta’s Next BIG Snow and Other Wicked Challenges: Three Insights for Multiteam System Leadership

From two very different views of the “2 inches of snow” that resulted in disaster recently for the city of Atlanta, GA (one author inching home for FIVE HOURS on a commute that typically takes 30 minutes and the other watching the city grind to a halt on TV), we both had ample time to reflect on the challenges of what is called “Multiteam System Leadership.”

This term refers to the leadership needed to orchestrate the efforts of networked systems of teams working together toward one or more common goals (DeChurch & Marks, 2006; Mathieu, Marks, & Zaccaro, 2001). The multiteam system structure is the basic organizing framework for disaster relief response and other large-scale attempts to address complex and “wicked” challenges. However, these structures also have built-in impediments to coordination. Many things that help single teams working in isolation (e.g., high levels of team cohesion) can actually exacerbate coordination and collaboration breakdowns between teams. Tight-knit teams that should collaborate with one another, may instead, compete for scarce resources, place blame on one another unnecessarily, or exert effort toward opposing or misaligned objectives. Effective leadership is needed to enable smooth synchronization of activities across teams. Quite possibly, many of the breakdowns that resulted in Atlanta’s recent shutdown could have been avoided by heeding several research-based insights for multiteam leadership:

Insight 1: Even when teams are adept at their own team tasks, failure is likely to occur when inadequate attention is paid to linking separate teams. Leadership for multiteam success needs to focus on setting clear direction (vision and objectives) and enabling alignment or coordination between teams.

Insight 2: To align efforts between teams, leadership needs to help the members of different teams change their thinking. Individuals must develop larger identities that incorporate not only their own group membership, but also their group’s relationship with other groups. An important part of this process is to highlight the differences and unique attributes of each group. Even when team memberships are strong, leaders can motivate collaboration between teams by emphasizing the different, but equally worthy contributions of the separate groups within the larger collaborative relationship. Identifying and clarifying contributions are a start, but leaders of multiple teams must ensure that appropriate interactions among the teams are made explicit. There were many examples of poor coordination in the response to the Atlanta snowstorm, including disjointed decision-making regarding the closing of schools and businesses and a tendency for decision makers to point toward other groups when asked about the lack of preparedness and response. Snowstorms and other environments in which multiteam systems operate are often ambiguous with regard to team and system objectives, responsibilities, and coordination plans. Leaders can act in a boundary-spanning role to help bring clarity and reduce this uncertainty. In times of turmoil, it’s natural for leaders and teams to focus inward, but to successfully address the challenges at hand, leaders and teams need to hold an understanding of how all the pieces should fit together to ensure the success of the system as a whole.

Insight 3: Often, the actions of formal leaders in multiteam systems are not enough. The silver lining in many of the news stories about the Atlanta snow storm were the actions of everyday citizens as well as non-profit and corporate organizations who opened their doors to provide relief to people stranded by the snow. Examples include Home Depot keeping many of their stores open throughout Atlanta as shelters, and neighbors organizing efforts to bring food and water to people stuck on the expressway. These are examples of informal leadership. People aligned themselves in service of helping those affected by the storm and exerted substantial effort to achieve this end. Of course, these actions did not replace the need for formal leaders. Complex challenges require both formal and informal leadership. Research suggests that groups with multiple leaders function most effectively when those leaders coordinate and rely on one another for leadership. Thus, the lesson here for organizations is to systematically distribute responsibility for problem solving throughout the system (before disaster strikes).

The snowstorm that crippled Atlanta is just one vivid example of the type of complex challenge civic and organizational leaders face. Natural disasters, disease outbreaks, global relief efforts, military exercises, scientific breakthroughs in clean water, air, and energy and many everyday challenges facing organizations cannot be addressed solely by the efforts of a single individual, team, or even an entire organization acting in isolation. Cities (and organizations) can’t wait for the time that action is needed to lay the groundwork for effective interactions between interdependent groups or teams. Research on multiteam system leadership provides guidance for preparing to take on these wicked problems when they arise.

Suggested Reading:

DeChurch, L. A., Burke, C. S., Shuffler, M. L., Lyons, R., Doty, D. & Salas, E. (2011). A historiometric analysis of leadership in mission critical multiteam environments. The Leadership Quarterly, 22, 152-169.

DeChurch, L. A., & Marks, M. A. (2006). Leadership in multiteam systems. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(2), 311.

Ernst, C., & Chrobot-Mason, D. (2011). Boundary spanning leadership: Six practices for solving problems, driving innovation, and transforming organizations. McGraw-Hill.

Hogg, M. A., van Knippenberg, D., & Rast, D. E. (2012). Intergroup leadership in organizations: Leading across group and organizational boundaries. Academy of Management Review, 37, 232-255

Mathieu, J. E., Marks, M. A., & Zaccaro, S. J. (2001). Multi-team systems. International handbook of work and organizational psychology, 2, 289-313.

2 thoughts on “Preparing for Atlanta’s Next BIG Snow and Other Wicked Challenges: Three Insights for Multiteam System Leadership

  1. Hey guys, great blog post. i think these insights are spot on. The one question I have, is what kind of relationships can we expect from our various factions of government before, during, and after a crisis like this. For example, do you think it would be helpful for principles of high-schools in Atlanta to have had any prior relationships with the department of transportation before the snow crisis began, would that have helped? Any idea of what an ideal structure would be in order to facilitate this emerging collaboration?

  2. Great point Phil! Yes, we do think that building a network of relationships between the various factions would be very helpful for facilitating the between-team processes, intergroup relational identity and cognitions, and informal leadership needed for system-wide success. In general, we think that developing relational structures that reflect bridging influence (i.e., across teams) would help. For example, one big issue was a lack of coordination in closing businesses and schools, which clogged the streets with commuters. In news conferences, several city officials pointed out that they can’t mandate business or school closings, but with some advanced preparation and relationship building, coordination could be improved through mutual agreements. With regard to specific network structures, we definitely advocate for more research that identifies the precise structures of leadership networks that are most effective for facilitating coordination in times of crisis.

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