Strategy Session: Bubble Up

How cross-functional teams at the American Occupational Therapy Association surface a strategic focus.

Two years ago, after about a decade in his role as executive director of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), Fred Somers took stock of the organizational structure he had established when he started. His executive team—still lean, with only six members, including Somers—was performing well, and the divisions that reported to them were busy doing the work they were responsible for.

It’s not only empowered them around the content of their work but also in the interaction with the senior management team.

But he saw that, amid all the activity, big-picture priorities were getting lost. The up-the-chain reporting to Somers through his five division chiefs wasn’t working the way he wanted it to, and people and projects were disconnected.

So Somers created a series of cross-divisional teams to “better help capture and share important knowledge, connect the dots, and encourage and foster collaboration around key projects”—in particular, the strategic priorities set out by AOTA’s board.

Somers established four standing teams. Three work on key issues for the profession, as identified by the board: healthcare quality, evidence-based practice, and occupational therapy’s role in primary care. Somers added a fourth team to focus on content strategy.

Each month, the executive team holds half-hour check-in meetings where individual teams report on their progress. The team provides a written update the day before, “so we’re able to drill right into whatever key questions the senior team has or whatever questions the [cross-divisional] team wants to ask of us,” Somers says.

The new structure has vastly improved strategic focus and communication between top management and the director-level staff working on the teams.

“It’s not only empowered them around the content of their work but also in the interaction with the senior management team,” Somers says. “People are more courageous and willing to give direct feedback in conversations with senior management. And we’re receptive to receiving it and also giving it.”

Although there was some resistance to the idea of “adding” team assignments to what people saw as their “real” jobs, the change created an opportunity to shift mindsets. “It was a process of helping people get to a point where they understood, well, the board’s strategic priorities are my most important job,” he says. The team assignments are built into job descriptions, and team members’ work is assessed on their performance evaluations.

And the new structure accomplished Somers’ goal of increasing AOTA’s leadership bench strength. “There are some people that we’ve identified who have some really extraordinary talent,” he says. “There’s going to be a lot more opportunity for them in the organization.”


Julie Shoop

By Julie Shoop

Julie Shoop is the Editor-in-Chief of Associations Now. MORE

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