If you’ve read my book or heard me speak, you probably know my story about how cross-functional teams aren’t like rowers (members aren’t all pulling in the same direction), instead, they are like people trying to spread a tarp over a tent. Each person is pulling on a different rope and in a different direction. The goal is to cover as much territory as possible.

Teams get amazing results when they use this metaphor to talk about the tensions that each role is obligated to put on the discussion to make the available resources go as far as possible (without having any one role pull the decision off center.) If you haven’t heard me tell this story, have a listen or the rest won’t make much sense!



The Role of the Team Leader

Beyond the insights the team gleans about the necessary and productive tensions among roles, The Tarp exercise also sheds light on the role of the tarp owner. The tarp owner is my name for the person who gets to make the decision represented by any given Tarp. That might be a team leader, a project manager, or some other accountable person. Here are a few of the most important insights about the person responsible for a decision:

The tarp owner doesn’t pull on a rope, instead, they own the whole tarp and are responsible for the stakeholders inside the tent (the shareholder, customer, etc.).

A team leader who lobbies for a specific point of view compromises the decision-making process. Paying attention to only one perspective takes the emphasis off of making a decision that optimizes all the interests in the mix. This is a common problem when a cross-functional team leader has been promoted from within one of the functions and fails to elevate their contribution above that single perspective.

The tarp owner must ensure that the right ropes are attached to the tarp and that the right people are pulling on them.

If there are unique perspectives required to make a good decision, it’s the decision-maker’s job to form a team with the appropriate representation. The decision-maker also needs to ensure that each function has assigned the right individuals who are capable of providing the required knowledge, skill, experience, and style to contribute to an efficient and effective process.

The tarp owner must ensure that the people pulling the ropes are doing so in balance, with no one either pulling so hard that they pull the tarp off the tent or letting go so that a part of the tent is left exposed.

A decision-owner has considerable work to do to facilitate the conversation so that each perspective is heard and understood in the context of each of the other positions. It’s also critical that the decision-owner provide feedback and coaching to those who are over- or under-contributing.

When the tarp is too small to cover everything, the tarp owner determines which parts of the tent must be protected and which, if necessary, can be left exposed.

One of the hardest things to cope with as a decision-maker is that the allocated time and resources are often insufficient to achieve all of the project’s goals. When that’s the case, the team leader must be prepared to make difficult trade-offs to ensure the most important criteria are met while the risks being taken are known and mitigated.

The tarp owner needs to stay tuned in to the conditions to know when the winds are shifting, and the tarp will need to be moved.

Situations change and a good decision-owner will anticipate and respond to changes in the external environment to know when the factors in decision-making need to be rebalanced.

Sometimes, the tarp owner, when faced with too little plastic to cover the required ground, needs to lobby for a bigger tarp.

If it’s clear that no matter how hard you work to optimize the use of resources, your solution will still come up short of the goals, the decision-owner is responsible for making the case that there needs to be an injection of resources.

The Tarp exercise has helped so many teams normalize the tensions that they experience as a result of the conflicting obligations of different roles. After doing The Tarp exercise, teams have a shared language to help them negotiate productive tensions without misinterpreting them as destructive friction. But the more I use The Tarp, the more excited I get about its value in clarifying what is, and is not, the role of the team leader.

Further Reading

Tension is a good thing

Recognizing Superpowers

The #1 Crisis Facing Organizations: The Need for More Conflict



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