Why cross-organisational ?

To stay ahead of the curve, companies have to continually improve their performance across the board. When handled holistically, this means they continually have to work effectively not just across their own organisation, but beyond, with outside partners (Power, 2012) — thus creating cross-organisational teams.

Haas and Mortensen (2016) found that one of the most critical enabling conditions for successful teams is a “shared mindset”, as modern teams are especially prone to ‘us versus them’ thinking, where members tend to view their own subgroup more positively than others, creating tensions within the group.

For cross-organisational teams this behaviour is especially dangerous as it can hinder information sharing and true collaboration, endangering successful projects, and in the end causing harm to both partner companies.

artist: anonymous

Or, in more human words…this is here to help you so that when large organisations have to work with outside partners on critical projects, the ‘whales’ won’t eat the ‘sharks’.

They rather create something exceptional together…like whale sharks!

The toolbox

In the following I’ll share 10 tools / exercises with hastily created Keynote icons that I’ve found helpful (and a few that I haven’t tested yet but believe would be helpful) in building and managing cross-organisational teams.

what the tools help you do

#1 Empathy for individuals: The Stinky Fish (30′)

Why is it important?
All too often in cross-organisational teams the participants tend to see each other only as roles, and not as humans. It’s easier to fight the ‘us versus them’ mentality (Mortensen, 2016) by gaining empathy for each other as individuals.

How can we get there?
The ‘Stinky Fish’: at the beginning of a new team’s development, members are asked to share something personal: a fear, anxiety or a personal trait that can effect team work (Hyper Island, nd).

“The Stinky Fish is that thing that you carry around but don’t like to talk about; but the longer you hide it, the stinkier it gets.”

Everyone gets a template, and takes 5 minutes to think through what they want to share. Then one by one each member shares their stinky fish with the team.

image source: HI toolbox

Extra value alert!
Sharing the stinky fish at the beginning of a project also allows team members to be mindful of each other’s ‘fish’ and even try to help navigate them throughout the project. A good follow-up question when sharing can be: “How can we help you with that?”

#2 Empathy for the other culture: Guided Tour (60′)

Why is it important?
Most likely the two organisations working together have completely different work cultures, responsibilities and even different vocabulary to describe similar things. It is essential to gain an understanding of how each side operates to prevent unnecessary misunderstandings.

How can we get there?
Guided Tour: Both organisations get 30 minutes to prepare a short ‘guided tour’ on how they work, as if the others were complete tourists in their world. Include ‘peaks and valleys’ — what is great about your jobs, and what can be challenging.

image source: you know it 😉

When the time is up the tours commence, and the tourists are encouraged to ask clarifying questions, similarly to a real tour. In the end, the tourists leave ‘reviews’ in the ‘guest book’, picking up on the most interesting learnings they had. And then it’s time to switch roles!

Role-play and projections help participants disassociate and be more playful (Kapoor Duque, 2018) 
note: Even though role-play is a proven method, ’Guided Tour’ itself is a new tool conceived especially for cross-organisational teams, and hasn’t been fully tested yet.

#3 Set goals: Project Point of Departure (60’–90′)

Why is it important?
“Team members from diverse backgrounds often interpret a group’s goals differently” (Haas and Mortensen, 2016). When members are from two or more different organisations, this is exponentially true. The organisations might even have slightly different goals, or put the emphasis on different aspects of the same project. Understanding these in the beginning is key to success.

How can we get there?
Project Point of Departure: a short workshop that helps discuss the key aspects of a project (see image) right at the start (Hyper Island, nd). It could be an open, facilitated discussion, but to capture the nuances initially individual write-ups and then group merging is suggested.

Note: when discussing the roles, here the focus should be on the ‘official’ roles of the team members. An additional exercise can be added, where all the roles are written on post-its on the wall, and everyone has 10 minutes to write their expectations of each role under it, on additional post-its. This way everyone can see what the team expects of them and even manage the expectations if needed (e.g. I don’t feel ‘x’ is realistic, I see it as a shared responsibility, etc.).

#4 Helpful Roles (20′)

Why is it important?
There are many things that need to be done for a team to operate in a positive and productive manner. Usually all the responsibility for this falls on the project lead. But through our work at Hyper Island we realised that it’s healthier to share — and even rotate — some of these responsibilities as separate roles. This thinking is also recognised in Holacracy, where there is a distinction between the roles and the people who fill them, resulting in people holding multiple roles at the same time that they helped define (Lee and Edmondson, 2017).

How can we get there?
Helpful Roles: As opposed to the ‘official’ roles discussed during the Project Point of Departure, team members are encouraged to think about helpful roles that can help the team’s operations. A good starter pack can be seen below from our experiences through multiple teams at Hyper Island. These roles can rotate between team members even as frequently as daily, and of course as the team evolves the roles can be updated or changed.

#5 Co-created agenda: Kanban Board (10′)

Why is it important?
In today’s fast paced environment projects cannot be planned from A-Z in advance. Even though milestones can and should be set, next-in-line tasks may change daily. And as knowledge and new information are unevenly distributed across organisations (Lee and Edmondson, 2017) it is more efficient to set the daily agenda together.

How can we get there?
Kanban Board: Create a large board in the team’s workspace that has constant visibility. A simplified kanban board might just include 4 columns: 
 1. Backlog: for everything that needs to be done 
 2. To Do: for what the team plans on doing that day, 
 3. Doing: for tasks that are in progress, 
 4. Done: for completed tasks.

Every morning the team has a quick stand-up, reviewing what they want to accomplish that day, and move tasks throughout the day accordingly. This helps create a shared understanding of the work we do as a team and the way we do it (Anderson and Carmichael, 2016).

note: even though the kanban board was originally created for software development projects, this simplified version can be very helpful in any project to keep the entire team engaged and on the same page.

Extra value alert!
Co-creating the agenda gives team members agency and a feeling of ownership and motivation.

#6 Clear decisions: Decision Board (2′)

Why is it important?
Decision making works differently across different organisations. What for some people might seem just like a discussion, others may already take as a decision. This may cause unnecessary tension within the group, while it is relatively easy to prevent.

How can we get there?
Decision Board: Simply mount a Flipchart paper on the wall, and whenever the team makes a decision which has consequences, make sure everyone is on board, by asking ‘Can this go on the Decision Board?’ — then write it up.

To give this weight, decisions that are noted on the decision board can only be changed if new information has come to light that influences them.

Extra value alert!
For members who have to divide their time between the team and other responsibilities, this gives a one-glance overview of the decisions that have been made since they left the room.

note: the ‘Decision board’ was conceived and experimented with throughout various teams during the 2018 semester of Hyper Island.

#7 Focused sessions: Parking Lot (2′)

Why is it important?
Cross-organisational projects are almost always complex in nature. And complex projects can be easily derailed in their timings by ‘side-discussions’. These are usually important issues — that’s why people get involved in the discussion — but raised at the wrong time, and will inevitably be discussed again when they are actually relevant in the process. Why not just save them until then?

How can we get there?
Parking lot: “The Parking Lot is quite literally a place to “park” thoughts and questions that come up during a session that will take you away from the focus of your [session].” (Herndon, 2017)

To create a Parking Lot, simply draw up a small space on the wall and draw a parking sign in it.

Whenever the facilitator catches a conversation that’s not relevant to a session, ask that it be taken to the Parking Lot. Make sure to revisit the Parking Lot from time to time to check if something that has been parked is becoming relevant.

#8 Connected team: Team Love (30’+)

Why is it important?
It feels evident that working in a positive environment with a well developed team is pleasant. But research also shows that building positive relationships among group members increases trust, member satisfaction, individual commitment and cooperation (Wheelan, 2016).

How can we get there?
‘Team Love’: Making time for activities where members of the team can spend time together, while not strictly working on the project.

Team building activities are often thought of as going out ‘after-hours’ for socialising. This might also be a reason while they get neglected in cross-organisational teams: members have other commitments. But while going out after work may be an aspect, this is a much richer territory.

‘Team Love’ can take many forms

Dedicating a half-hour coffee break for going out together, playing energisers, or simply recognising if at the end of the day the team is not productive anymore, and dedicating that time to ‘team love’ are a few examples of how it can regularly fit into the daily schedule.

#9 Adapt to needs: Reflections (30′-40′)

Why is it important?
Regularly assessing how a team is working, though initially might feel like a waste of time, actually saves time and lowers stress on the long run (Wheelan, 2016). When immersed in a project, it’s easy to run with things if they seem to work sufficiently. But taking just a little bit of time to listen to everyone’s perspective can significantly raise productivity.

How can we get there?
Reflections: Reflect early and reflect often — not just when there is already a problem. Reflections can prevent conflicts by diagnosing risky group behaviours early on.

1. Take a few minutes together to list all the exercises/events that happened since the last reflection.

2. Take 10 minutes to individually reflect on them, using guided questions similar to these:

Example Reflection Questions

3. One by one, share reflections with the group. Only clarifying questions may be asked, no judgement.

4. Process the learnings as a team. What can be done to preserve helpful, and minimise hindering behaviours?

At the beginning of a project, it’s advisable to reflect every few days — this might be rarer after the first 2 weeks.

#10 Learn: Team Termination (120’+)

Why is it important?
In our ever busier work lives we tend to move on as soon as a project is completed, without looking back. But each project comes with a plethora of learnings that could actually make our and our colleagues’ lives easier on the next project, if we only captured them.

How can we get there?
Team Termination: A planned workshop at the end of the team’s project that “helps ensure that learning is extracted and that members feel a sense of closure.” (Neuman, 2016)

It’s important to capture both personal and team-level learnings. The steps to a regular team termination session are:

  1. Draw a map of major events and milestones of the project
  2. Take 10 minutes to individually reflect on your top 3 positive moments, and what you can learn from them
  3. Take 10 minutes to individually reflect of your worst 3 moments and what you can learn from them
  4. Share with the team
  5. Try to identify as a team what were the factors that helped when things were going well and what could have been done for things to go better
  6. Take 10 minutes to write personal, individual feedback to each of your teammates.

For a cross-organisational team termination, however, an extra step could be added at the end:

7. Each organisation’s team writes a ‘Dear Future Team’ letter: in it, they capture the most surprising and useful learnings they had while working with this specific partner organisation. It’s a letter of advice, written from their company culture’s perspective, so the next team who has to work with this partner already has a head-start on how to best work with them.

note: The ‘Dear Future Team’ letter is a new addition to Team Termination that was especially conceived for cross-organisational teams, and hasn’t been fully tested yet.


We tend to spend quite some time on the planning of the project and process, but not so much on the human aspect of it — while time spent on this in the beginning actually saves time and work long-term.

Here’s a rough suggestion on how to apply the above mentioned tools in a project timeline. Of course you don’t always have to use all of them, pick and choose what fits your team:

…and add any new tools or exercises you’ve found helpful in the comments 😉


Anderson, J. D., Carmichael, A. PhD (2016), Essential Kanban Condensed, 1st edn. Seattle: Lean Kanban University Press

Haas, M., Mortensen, M. (2016) The Secrets of Great Teamwork, available at: https://hbr.org/2016/06/the-secrets-of-great-teamwork (accessed: 22 May, 2018)

Herndon, K. (2017) Post a parking lot to keep your session on track!, available at: https://creativeresourcesgroup.com/coach_k_posts/view/25/post-a-parking-lot-to-keep-your-session-on-track (accessed 28 May, 2018)

Hyper Island, (nd), Project Point of Departure, available at: http://toolbox.hyperisland.com/project-point-of-departure (accessed 28 May, 2018)

Hyper Island, (nd) Reflection: Team, available at: http://toolbox.hyperisland.com/reflection-team (accessed 28 May, 2018)

Hyper Island, (nd) Stinky Fish, available at: http://toolbox.hyperisland.com/stinky-fish-13d9ce8d-e64f-4085-8a06-8d212c627788 (accessed 27 May, 2018)

Kapoor Duque, A. (2018) IDEO+Co-creation, lecture notes, Understanding People, Hyper Island, delivered 15 March, 2018.

Lee, Y.M. and Edmondson, C. A, (2017) Self-managing organisations: Exploring the limits of less-hierarchical organizing, Research in Organizational Behavior 37, pp. 35–58

Neuman, A. (2016) Creating Teams — The Detailed Curation, available at: https://www.hyperisland.com/community/news/creating-effective-teams-the-detailed-curation (accessed 28 May, 2018)

Power, B. (2012) Get Your Team to Work Across Organisational Boundaries, available at: https://hbr.org/2012/04/building-a-team-across-organiz (accessed: 27 May, 2018)

Wheelan, S. A. (2016) Creating Effective Teams, 5th edn. London: SAGE

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