Despite public agencies' rhetorical preoccupation with the idea of teams, I've found that it is a rare government organization that has achieved the consistency, agility and stamina that characterizes a high-performing, competitive enterprise. Often the exhortation to work like a team is in reality a plea to subdue competitive instincts, play assigned roles and not rock the boat.

The challenge in most large, complex organizations is that the units of identity and action are often narrowly programmatic, isolated from one another by authorizing legislation, budget codes or differing constituencies. Breaking such sub-organizations out of their siloed interests is challenging, and harder still is maintaining a cross-agency perspective.

But often the problem is in the framework through which leaders within an organization learn about others' interests, priorities, competition for resources and political support. The agency head must commit the time to exchanges that inform and weld together units that may see themselves as parallel strands with little interest in others' goals. Strategic planning that does not break down these boundaries will be of little use.

How does a leader jump-start a process that can lead to true cohesion within an organization? Here's an approach that I've road-tested and seen replicated successfully by others.

Ingredients: Crucial to this process, in addition to the agency head, are leaders of programmatic units as well as senior support staff (budget, legislative affairs, policy, legal, press).

Pre-meeting assignment: Program leaders must be prepared to sketch out the transformation they want to achieve over the course of three to four years — a time frame based on the agency's "lifecycle," such as the term of a mayoral or gubernatorial administration. Senior support staff must be prepared to respond knowledgeably about legislative, budgetary, policy and political issues faced by the agency as a whole.

Meeting agenda: Each program leader describes what they want their units to look like and those units' expected performance levels at the end of the agreed-upon period. (Examples: "We will have fully implemented a welfare-reform program; we will have reached agreement and begun implementing a critical policy for land protection; we will have revamped services for the developmentally disabled by closing institutions and expanding community care; we will have merged two agencies into a cohesive entity providing improved service at lower cost.")

Next, the program leader must identify specifically what must happen in year one to reach the year-four goal. (Examples: "We must persuade the governor and legislature to pass comprehensive legislation; we need to do significant outreach with diverse constituencies to identify common interests and communicate both economic and environmental goals; we must have a rationale and process for closing institutions and a plan for expansion of services; we must achieve passage of legislation effecting a consolidation and demonstrate in our advocacy that a combined agency can better meet public needs.")

The next two steps are the flexion point for this process. With the program leader's plan on the table, he or she must now point out how these initiatives will affect others in the agency, both in other program offices or in staff units. (Examples: "Legislative priorities may displace others' goals; a mandatory work program may interfere with obligations of households in local child-welfare systems or behavioral-health programs; an ambitious environmental program may appear to conflict with other policy goals or local political constituencies.")

Finally, each program leader must identify what he or she needs from others to accomplish the goals. (Examples: "Legislative staff may need to guide new proposals through the legislature; new requirements to track clients may require quick changes to information systems; budget staff may need to find front-end investment dollars to launch a new program; legal staff will need to prepare carefully for legal challenges; human-resources staff may have thorny collective-bargaining issues to be resolved as part of a merger.")

Discuss, and repeat from the top for each program unit.

While this may seem to be a surface treatment of goals and strategies, this process makes visible the collective demands that program units are making on the organization's human infrastructure, its political capital and its capacity for supporting change. The result can be a productive and decisive conversation about how an agency should prioritize and maximize its impact. It's a way to turn the rhetoric of teamwork into the reality of a high-performing enterprise.