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Boost Agility Through Strengths-Based Team Collaboration

Boost Agility Through Strengths-Based Team Collaboration

by Fabian Schumann

Story Highlights

  • Today’s rapid change demands agility
  • Many organizations aspire to agility but fail to achieve it
  • Strengths-based collaboration is key for agile business

Like it or not, continuous, ever-faster change is now the name of the game. While the world seems to have moved beyond the COVID-19 crisis, leaders are more aware than ever that businesses are constantly being affected by disruption from geopolitical, technological, climatological and competitive forces. The public emergence of new AI tools like ChatGPT is just the latest example of today’s pace of change.

The Agility Challenge

Agility -- an organization’s capacity to respond quickly to new business needs -- is becoming increasingly central to an organization’s long-term success. However, many companies struggle with it as they hold on to old ways of working, focusing on process optimization and perfect resource allocation instead of flexibility and adaptability. For example, a 2022 Gallup study in Germany found that only 16% believed their companies were agile and able to respond quickly to business needs.

Leaders are often very aware of this challenge. In a study of business leaders, Gallup found that they were even more pessimistic about their company’s agility than their own workforce. This may be because they see challenges their company needs to tackle but question its ability to do so, which is why many have started implementing changes to improve organizational agility.


One common solution many organizations have adopted is matrixed structures that, in theory, offer greater flexibility by improving cross-functional connections and accelerating decision-making. This trend was already in full swing before the global pandemic when Gallup found that 75% of U.S. employees were working in slightly or highly matrixed teams.

A second, more recent trend is using “project” structures or “talent ecosystems,” which is shifting value creation from day-to-day role-based operations to on-demand project work. According to the Accenture report Harnessing Revolution: Creating the Future Workforce, nearly 80% of executives believe that the future workforce will be structured more by projects than by job function. The COVID-19 taskforces -- addressing everything from supply chain disruption to remote work -- are an example of the power of cross-departmental global teams that are temporarily set up to handle specific business challenges.

But new structures alone do not make a company agile. In a 2018 European study, Gallup found that 12% of employees working on matrixed teams perceived their companies as agile -- just slightly less than employees working in non-matrixed structures. It is not only the structure and processes that make a company agile -- it is the people working in these structures and using these processes.

Making Teams Work

At the heart of every agile company are great teams that drive innovation, tackle new business challenges and solve complex problems. Without this type of teamwork, agility is impossible. Organizations need to understand teamwork and how to improve it to become more agile.

Organizations need to understand teamwork and how to improve it to become more agile.

At its most foundational level, outstanding teamwork is built on trust. To create this trust, team members must feel respected and heard, safe enough to raise problems and present diverging ideas, and empowered to use their strengths.

Gallup research consistently shows that many organizations struggle to create environments where their teams can excel. Globally, one in four employees strongly agree that their opinions seem to count at work, and one in three strongly agree that their colleagues are committed to doing quality work and that they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day.

Especially newly formed teams -- a major part of the emerging project-based ways of working -- often need help realizing their potential and using the diversity of expertise and backgrounds in the group.

I recently worked with a cross-departmental global team with a mission to identify new opportunities in three potential expansion markets. In the beginning, the energy was high, with team members sharing countless perspectives and ideas, each bringing their unique skills and experiences to the table.

But soon, this team began to experience disagreement. The Marketing and Sales team members wanted to find ways to grow market share in the selected markets but would interrupt all colleagues’ objections to their suggestions. Finance and Risk team members gave lengthy speeches about potential costs associated with adapting the product to meet local guidelines and the potential risks of expanding into unfamiliar regulatory environments. Operations removed themselves from the conversations by only speaking up to complain about the difficulties of scaling up production and distribution.

What began as a team eager to collaborate and combine their diverse areas of expertise to expand into new markets quickly degenerated into a disjointed group of individuals with little trust in one another and focused solely on defending the interests of their department.

Strengths-Based Collaboration

While project teams formed from the right mix of people across the company are crucial to creating a truly agile organization, these teams often face a challenge: a lack of trusting relationships vital to great teamwork.

Research has consistently highlighted the importance of strong team relationships in the workplace: Employees with strong interpersonal relationships are significantly more productive and more likely to drive innovation.

Gallup has developed an approach that accelerates relationship-building, boosts teamwork effectiveness and helps cross-functional teams take advantage of their diversity of expertise and backgrounds: strengths-based collaboration.

Gallup has developed an approach that accelerates relationship-building, boosts teamwork effectiveness and helps cross-functional teams take advantage of their diversity of expertise and backgrounds: strengths-based collaboration.

Strengths-based collaboration is based on the concept that we are all inherently different in a uniquely powerful way. Each of us has a distinct set of talents: patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that, when applied, allow us to excel, be our best selves and perform with excellence.

Creating Strength-Based Teams

Returning to the predicament of the project team described above, we implemented a strengths-based approach to accelerate and foster the team’s ability to work together effectively and make progress toward its collective objective.

The foundation for strengths-based collaboration is building knowledge and awareness of strengths, starting by identifying each team member’s strengths. Each project team member took the CliftonStrengths assessment and then participated in a workshop to understand their CliftonStrengths themes and create a shared understanding of how they can use them on the team.

Everyone learned about the Futuristic theme that motivated one Sales team member, the Analytical theme that colleagues from both Finance and Operations shared, and -- a surprise for most -- the Ideation theme belonging to their colleague from Legal. CliftonStrengths gave team members an easier and better way to clearly and succinctly discuss their reasons for thinking, feeling and behaving how they did.

Next, we had team members reimagine how to use their individual and joint strengths. They redistributed specific tasks to fit with each member’s strengths, established complementary partnerships to take advantage of the team’s diversity and identified strengths-based best practices to guide their teamwork.

After establishing a clear understanding of each member’s strengths, the group’s collective strengths and how to apply these strengths, the team revisited their previous areas of conflict to resolve their issues using a strengths-based approach. The team discussed how some team members considered those with the Activator theme reckless and others with high Analytical and Deliberative talents as putting up roadblocks to progress.

They also recognized that the team tended to “go deep” when discussing every issue or topic. While this was necessary for the team’s success in many ways -- after all, they were brought together to perform a detailed market analysis -- it became clear that examining every issue often led to endless unresolved debates. To fix this, the team created rules for these discussions, using one team member’s Focus talent to keep them on track.

Ultimately, through a series of strengths-focused interventions, the team overcame its collaboration challenges and developed an effective strategy for the firm’s entry into the selected expansion markets.

Outcome: Greater Agility, Collaboration and Performance

Strengths-based collaboration not only gives organizations a practical, highly effective approach to fostering the right environment for teams to excel and work together more effectively but also:

  • offers people a language to introduce themselves and what they bring to the team
  • fosters relationships through sharing of similar strengths (we are alike) and complementary strengths (we are different and offer value to one another)
  • creates an inclusive environment where diversity is celebrated and different ideas and opinions are valued and appreciated
  • reinforces both team and individual empowerment and freedom to experiment by encouraging team members to take ownership of and apply their unique strengths

When colleagues from different functions, backgrounds and areas of expertise collaborate with an awareness of each other’s unique strengths and how to apply them collectively for the good of the team, complex challenges become solvable, business opportunities are attainable, and the power of greater organizational agility is unleashed.

Bring strengths-based collaboration to your organization:

CliftonStrengths® and each of the 34 CliftonStrengths theme names are trademarks of Gallup. Copyright © 2000 Gallup, Inc. All rights reserved.


Fabian Schumann is a Managing Consultant and Subject Matter Expert at Gallup.

James Rapinac contributed to this article.

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