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Mark Burke is CEO and founder of mynddset

Organizations and Teams Must Understand “Divide and Conquer”

By Mark T. Burke

“Divide”…simplify….to separate…to isolate…to break down.

“Conquer”…to win over…to defeat….to overcome.

This phrase has been used for years within organizations as a way to build capacity. It could be said that staff hiring models have been built around the idea of “Divide and Conquer.” Check any org chart and you’ll more often than not see a model of “Divide and Conquer.” Positions are created based on skill sets and how they align to the needs of the organization. The org chart shows how the organization has decided to divide and conquer from a human perspective.

Look a bit deeper within organizations and teams start to appear. Teams are yet another model of “divide and conquer.” Teams are formed when organizations need to solve something rather complex. The combination of human skill and experience created by teaming is meant to increase an organization’s capability.

Look even closer within teams however and you’ll frequently find teams struggling with how to actually accomplish their task. The models of divide and conquer are often ignored, misunderstood really. As such, the model is avoided because team members feel as though…”We’re a team…we can’t divide and conquer. We’re here to work as a group…not separate into smaller work units.” The misunderstanding stems from not thinking how the model of divide and conquer applies to the team. At the organizational level, team formation level and intra-team level, the model offers unique guidance. So…what is the guidance for teams?

At the team level, I use “Divide and Conquer” as a model for task analysis and resource assignment. The goal of the team is to complete the task. The team will work hard to stay together as a unit. Much time can and should be spent on group designing solutions and mapping next steps. All of these efforts represent a team “dividing”, building an understanding of an effort’s parts and how they relate. During the “divide” phase, distinctions are being made between what needs to be done and who can take on that effort.

Teams are formed from the bonds that are built between members. The bonds are associated with purpose. So, naturally, teams feel a need to keep those bonds intact. So, teams often feel like they must all be involved with everything team related. Have you felt that sensation on a working team? In literal terms, all team members may feel they need to be at every meeting, involved in every decision and assume a role (or have a say) on every task. Team bonding is meant to create strength, but too often BINDS team members into a belief that they can not and should not DIVIDE and CONQUER. In these cases, teams and especially team members can start to be overwhelmed by all the team takes on (ie…each person plays a role in ALL team efforts). It is this overwhelming energy that can quickly bring down a team.

Divide and conquer as a work model within organizations can fail if we forget the intent of the organization or team. As teams break down tasks and create assignments, it will need to work to stay together. This is where “conquer” as a guiding force plays a role. The team’s mission is critical to guiding what the team does with the results of their divided actions. It can also lead to increased communications DURING work on divided tasks. As a team working model, if the goal is always to accomplish the mission (conquer it), the team will find communication vitally important.

So, when I suggest a team “divide and conquer,” I spend time explaining how we’ll use the model. We need to clearly break down our tasks and create clear resource assignments. During our efforts, we must work hard to keep our mission in sight so that we know we’re on a track to “conquer” it. I also explain how the team must group design AND act as individuals.

At first glance a “Divide and Conquer” model may seem scary to a team, even threaten it’s very existence. If applied in the correct context and used as a model to accomplish complex efforts, a “Divide and Conquer” model can empower teams and help them accomplish great things.


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