September 10, 2006

One of the key ingredients of the GE script directed by legendary Jack Welch was the concept of boundarylessness. He declared that turf wars within the organization needed to be treated on par with grave organizational crimes like leaking company secrets. This strategy worked wonders for GE because turf wars are typical bottlenecks within an organization that immobilize the entire organization.

Despite the success achieved by GE and other companies from removing turfism, a large number of companies are yet to learn and imbibe this simple yet profound strategy. Numerous organizations today are suffering from the cancer of internal turf wars and are performing below potential. All these despite a rich organizational vocabulary of teamwork and collaboration!

Functional priorities still command great deal of attention. As a result, suboptimization becomes a fairly common sight. Functions get optimized while the entire system becomes suboptimized bringing friction and inefficiency in the system.

There are perhaps three reasons why turf wars are so widely prevalent in organizations despite many earnest attempts by the leadership to minimize them.
  1. Leader's inability or failure to immaculately weave the organization around a broad agenda.
  2. Lack of metrics to measure performance on collaborative results.
  3. Lack of metrics to measure the cost of turf wars.
Unless there is a concept of ‘one organization, one goal’, functional barriers cannot be removed. Very often it is seen that every department/ function has its own goals which at many times conflict with the organizational goals. For example, it is often seen that purchase department tries to reduce cost of raw material and end up purchasing slightly inferior material which results in compromise with quality delivered to customer. Similarly, it can be changing suppliers for minimizing cost and compromising timely availability of raw material resulting in erratic supply chain. On a similar note, operation can engage cheapest transporters with scant regard for proper stacking on trucks resulting in damaged goods. All these are cases of functional optimization but suboptimization of the system.

Here the role of the leader becomes vital. He has to ensure that each and every employee of the organization thinks of the organization goals and the role they are supposed to play in it. It needs simple and clear communication of the organizational goals. Perhaps a story telling leader can be more effective in ensuring that the concept of ‘one organization, one goal’ is absorbed across the organization. A constant reinforcement of this theme can go a long way in making people rise above functional affiliations to organizational affiliations. A better analogy will be to make Indians rise above regional affiliations like Bihari, Bengali, Gujarati, Tamil, etc. and think of themselves as Indian first and anything else second.

Next step is design of right metrics to measure level of optimization of the system. The prevalent metrics that measure the optimization of the function rather than system has to go. Currently, performance of people is measured on how well they are meeting functional goals thereby increasing the tendency of the people to view functional goals at the top of the priority list. But business is more of a process. Individual performance needs to be measured in terms of the performance of the system/process. So if a process has players from marketing, sales, finance, and supply chain then individual performance should not be based on functional part of the process. Collective responsibility rather than individual responsibility is needed. So if the process fails to deliver, none can play blame game. Also, it will ensure that people become more concerned with getting things done rather than just doing their part.

Another metric that I feel is needed is the metric to measure the cost of optimization of functions and suboptimization of the system. Unless there is a way to quantitatively and unambiguously measure the associated cost of functional focus, it will be difficult to rally the entire organization around organizational goals.

In the end, it has to be a culture of ‘one for all and all for one’.


  1. Rajesh Kumar // September 11, 2006 at 11:58 AM  

    Mayank, turf wars are a truth. They can never possibly be completely removed especially in organisations in technology areas, where revenue streams come up and dry up based on technical innovations and adoptions etc. My opinion.

  2. Mayank Krishna // September 12, 2006 at 12:15 AM  

    Yes Rajesh bhai, turf wars cannot be totally removed particularly in knowledge intensive industries/ organizations. But definitely they can be minimized. In fact they have to be minimized. Else the cost will be too much from an organizational point of view.

    Again it's a culture issue and this cannot be done overnight. It will take time, may be a few years of focused effort before turfism becomes a non-entity, or it finds its grave.