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Tool Box: The Waterline Model – A Tool For Resolving Team Breakdowns

Tool Box: The Waterline Model – A Tool For Resolving Team Breakdowns

Last month I wrote about the way we tend to make things personal when we run into conflict or challenges at work. This month, I want to offer a simple tool for understanding and addressing those sorts of breakdowns. It’s called the Waterline Model, and I have found it extremely useful over the years in my work with leaders and teams.

The basic idea of the Waterline is pretty simple. As a group, your team has particular goals that it’s moving toward. Both individually and collectively you’re working on tasks that are intended to achieve those goals.

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So far, so good. At this point, everything is working smoothly above the waterline.

But we all know that team and organizational life is rarely that simple, right? Inevitably, a breakdown happens. Maybe in the middle of a team meeting conflict erupts, or a project has gone off the rails. Whatever it is, the team is no longer working smoothly toward the goal. Instead, you’re mired in muck.

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So, what do you do? The Waterline Model invites you to switch from a focus on task to a focus on process, and to dive beneath the water to better understand what’s happening and know how to address it.

The model identifies four aspects of team and organizational life that operate under the waterline and that might be the source of the muck you find yourself caught in. These are: 1) Structure; 2) Process and Patterns; 3) Interpersonal Issues; and 4) Intrapersonal Issues. The image below gives some detail about what’s included in each of these categories.

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It’s not rocket science, right? But because muck is, well, mucky, it can be hard to see clearly when you’re in the middle of it. The Waterline Model can help you distinguish between the common issues that bog teams down, and be deliberate about how you address them.

Principles for applying the Waterline Model

1. Whatever breakdown your team is facing, it almost always has to do with something in the first two categories.

The vast majority of team and organizational strife is due to a lack of alignment on goals or roles, unclear leadership, a lack of clarity about authority and decision making, ineffective patterns of communication, or a lack of trust and accountability.

The tricky part is that these issues often show up as conflict, and as I wrote last month, we have a tendency to perceive conflict as personal. So, when the team gets mired in muck, we assume that the problem is either between two people or due to one individual’s shortcomings. The bad news is that we can “fix” that problem and find the team still mired in muck because the real issue remains unresolved.

The good news is that if you address any breakdowns in the top two categories, you’ll find that the interpersonal “conflict” often clears up by itself. This leads to the second principle for working with the Waterline Model, which is…

2. Start at the surface.

Whenever your team is facing a challenge, explore possible causes by starting at the top of the model and working your way down. Make sure that people are clear about roles and responsibilities, that the team is aligned around goals, and that decision making is well-defined. If that doesn’t address the problem, make sure that communication is flowing effectively and tackle any breakdowns in trust or accountability. Remember that these issues can be a problem both within your team, and between your team and another part of the organization.

If you’ve addressed these issues in the first two categories and the problem persists, then consider the possibility that there is something interpersonal or intrapersonal going on. Check to see if there’s a relationship that needs mediating, or if someone needs training to increase his or her competence.

3. Keep the focus on learning.

When teams hit roadblocks, many of us feel the impulse to point fingers. However, the more you can keep the focus on learning rather than laying blame, the faster your team will be able to get back on track. Use the Waterline Model to guide where you look, and keep the tone of your questions or statements curious rather than accusatory.

The secret of great teams

Many of the teams I’ve worked with have this idea that really great teams don’t hit roadblocks. They just keep sailing on smoothly toward their goals. This is not true. What sets really great teams apart is that they’ve gotten very good at recognizing when they’ve hit a roadblock, and are able to quickly drop beneath the waterline, identify and address the problem, and get back on track.

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To help your team get better at quickly addressing roadblocks, share the Waterline Model with everybody. Once the team understands the model and has a common language, you can have a discussion about which areas outlined by the model tend to slow you down. Finally, make some agreements about what the team will do to get better at recognizing the muck and cleaning it up quickly so they can stay focused on the work goals.

Additional Resources

Here are several links to other people’s interpretations of the Waterline Model. The model itself is based on Roger Harrison’s article “Choosing the Depth of Organizational Intervention,” published in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science in 1970.

Gonzaga University

Primary Goals, OD Resources

Vancouver Island Health Authority


Leading is Learning

Community Consulting Partnership

What about you? How does the Waterline Model help you understand roadblocks you’ve experienced in your team or organization? How could you use it to address those roadblocks? I’d love to hear your comments!


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