17 Dec 2012  Research & Ideas

Teaming in the Twenty-First Century

Today's teams are not well designed for getting work done in the twenty-first century, argues Professor Amy C. Edmondson. One starting point: learn the skill of "teaming."

 

Even as academic journals and business sections of bookstores fill up with titles devoted to teams, teamwork, and team players, Harvard Business School Professor Amy C. Edmondson wonders if many might be barking up the wrong tree.

"I've begun to think that teams are not the solution to getting the work done," says Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management.

"Teaming is the engine of organizational learning."

The problem: Stable teams that plan first and execute later are increasingly infeasible in the twenty-first century workforce, she explains. Coordination and collaboration are essential, but they happen in fluid arrangements, rather than in static teams.

Read the Book Excerpt

In her new book, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, Edmondson says that surviving—and thriving—in today's economic climate requires a seismic shift in how we think about and use teamwork.

Edmondson has been studying teamwork for two decades. In that time, "we've seen fewer stable, well-designed, well-composed teams, simply because of the nature of the work, which is more uncertain and dynamic than before. As a means for getting the work done, we've got to focus on the interpersonal processes and dynamics that occur among people working together for shorter durations."

This means that people have to get good at "teaming"—reaching out, getting up to speed, establishing quickly who they are and what they bring, and trying to make progress without a blueprint. The skill set involves interpersonal awareness, skillful inquiry, and an ability to teach others what you know.

Teaming is very different from the idea of building a high-performance team to fit a known task. It is dynamic; learning and execution occur simultaneously."Teaming is the engine of organizational learning," says Edmondson.

From theory to practice

In the book, Edmondson makes the case for managers to shift from holding a static view of teamwork to this dynamic one. Real-world examples drawn from her research illustrate the concept, and she offers strategies and solutions applicable to organizations of all shapes and sizes to help them put effective teaming into practice.

Conference TableThe book synthesizes 20 years of research. And unlike many authors, Edmondson did not find writing difficult. "The hardest part was figuring out how to create a structure that worked," she says. "When I think about my research, it doesn't necessarily organize itself into a clear narrative from point A to point B."

Edmondson's career hasn't followed a clear narrative either. After earning her undergraduate degree in engineering and design from Harvard, she went to work for Buckminster Fuller. "It's what indirectly got me into this game in the first place," she explains. "I began to understand part of a larger vision of using thoughtful design to solve big problems in the world…and I became interested in how people come together and work together to innovate, to problem-solve, to do better things."

Edmondson cites her academic mentors at Harvard—J. Richard Hackman, a leading thinker in team effectiveness, and Chris Argyris, an organizational learning expert—as core influences. "This [teaming] was a blending of two different ideas: my deep interest in interpersonal dynamics that thwart learning and my growing interest in how work takes place in the team and in the team context," she says.

Understanding the impact of interpersonal dynamics is crucial. "There's a growing recognition that most of today's truly important problems related to the environment, related to smart cities, related to health care simply cannot be solved without cross-disciplinary collaboration," says Edmondson.

To illustrate, she tells the story of the execution of a CT scan, a process that took four days to unfold in one hospital, but should have taken a couple of hours. Each member of the highly trained staff involved with the scan performed his or her job well, but it was the hospital's hierarchical and siloed structure—so common in health care—that no longer worked.

The solution, according to Edmondson, is a teaming process that includes a deep recognition among individual players of the interdependency of their roles. This recognition leads naturally to early and consistent communication among formerly separate parties throughout their joint work. Once the task is completed, more communication—this time in the form of reflection and feedback—must take place.

Edmondson is careful to point out that conversations can be brief—but they need to happen. And the impetus for having those conversations must come from the top. As a leader of a siloed, specialized workforce, "your job is to see the bigger picture and create the culture whereby skills and knowledge of the workforce are expressed," she says.

"The most counterproductive thing a manager can do is to come down hard in a punitive manner on a well-intentioned failure."

"There's a growing recognition across all sectors about the importance of speaking up," Edmondson continues. "The financial crisis can be tracked back to no small degree to people's reluctance to speak up with concerns about models and products that were likely to fail." It's up to leaders, she says, to foster the climate of psychological safety required to overcome that reluctance.

But getting employees to speak up is no easy task. "The reality of hierarchical social systems is that people hold deeply ingrained, taken-for-granted beliefs that it's dangerous to speak up or disagree with those in power."

And management can be part of the problem without even knowing it.

"People in positions of relative power often inadvertently reinforce the very messages that are already deeply ingrained in our mental models," she says. Combating this takes conscious effort, including sending the message out that it is OK to fail.

"Very few people set out to fail, to make mistakes," says Edmondson. "And in a dynamic, unpredictable, and often ambiguous world, failures will happen." Managers must accept their employees' failures as well as their own. "The most counterproductive thing a manager can do is to come down hard in a punitive manner on a well-intentioned failure."

But not coming down hard doesn't mean coming down soft. "Psychological safety is not about being nice; it's not about letting people off easy and being comfortable," Edmondson stresses. "It's about the courage to be direct and holding high expectations of each other, understanding that uncertainty and risk are part of the work, as is the occasional failure." A leader's challenge is to set a climate where psychological safety, accountability, and pressure to do the best possible work exist together.

"We're in a new world, and our old management models don't fit as well as we would like," she says. "Those organizations that aren't harvesting and using the knowledge and ideas and questions of their members are not going to remain viable compared to competitors that do." In Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, Edmondson provides the tools organizations need to do this.

About the author

Maggie Starvish is a writer based in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Post A Comment





By hitting “Submit” you agree that your comment, in whole or in edited form, may be posted online. Comments are selected on the basis of relevancy and variety; not all will be posted.

 

Comments

    • James Bird Guess
    • President, International Success Academy

    I was intrigued about this topic, but help me understand how "teaming" is a new idea that is distinctly different from open communication and accountability occurring in high performing teams today?

    Grind for Greatness! James

     
     
     
    • Vikram Verma
    • Senior Manager, Genpact

    Very valid points.

    I first heard about this concept of providing, "Psychological Safety" to the team members when I saw an interview of Formula 1 Team owner Eddie Jordan.

    In a Formula 1 Team, you have members from Aerodynamics, Tyres, Engine Design etc. etc. departments all working to win the Race on Sunday. In these kind of situations, it is very important that if any of the department is struggling or they foresee a challenge, they must let everyone know. Otherwise the Race will be lost. In traditional companies this kind of participation is not always encouraged, as the folks in the Leadership positions, at times, don't know how to handle failure. Maybe for them the stakes are way too high or they lack futuristic vision. I am sure this book will help us all in formulating and developing a deeper understanding of the Team structures in the new economy.

     
     
     
    • Jack Slavinski
    • SVP SE Market, HMI Consulting

    This can a high value, critical success factor and powerful difference maker in every firm. My experience from doing organizational leadership consulting with my clients at all levels as well as internal firm experience is that while corporate culture sets the climate, that the real psychological safety net does indeed come down to leaders who put the organization ahead of their personal interests. When leaders, starting at the top, "get it" and behave in a manner that sets the right teaming example, that will create a positive environmental ripple effect impact. You can hear teaming at work in the words and see it in the actions with corporate cultures that have this as part of their DNA. In this case, having "each others back" extends well beyond a local team throughout the entire organization, enabling a "firm first" mentality. Great article!

     
     
     
    • Jim Fong
    • Professional Development, NAAAP Boston

    I like this idea, thanks for bringing it forward. In my volunteer work at non-profits, we take on significant projects and I find it almost impossible to set the conditions for successful high performance teaming of the style I have known in my professional experience. I'd been thinking, how differently my mostly Millennial colleagues want to work. I think your notion of Teaming may help here and I'm eager to see the book and learn more. Thanks!

     
     
     
    • Jack Slavinski
    • SVP SE Market, HMI Consulting

    This can a high value, critical success factor and powerful difference maker in every firm. My experience from doing organizational leadership consulting with my clients at all levels as well as internal firm experience is that while corporate culture sets the climate, that the real psychological safety net does indeed come down to leaders who put the organization ahead of their personal interests. When leaders, starting at the top, "get it" and behave in a manner that sets the right teaming example, that will create a positive environmental ripple effect impact. You can hear teaming at work in the words and see it in the actions with corporate cultures that have this as part of their DNA. In this case, having "each others back" extends well beyond a local team throughout the entire organization, enabling a "firm first" mentality. Great article!

     
     
     
    • Michael Aschenbach
    • Owner, VisionBuild Author Services

    Over three decades as communication consultant to organizations large and small have given me lots of experience with "instant teams." Amy's best point: It's about the quality of communication between individuals. Every interaction in a team comes down to a collection of back-and-forth dialogues. Care about the other person, be forthcoming in sharing info, give credit liberally, and adapt to change quickly. That, and clear thinking, is what works.

     
     
     
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited

    To be successfully result focused, a team has to be well-knit with the team members following the plan of action and the leader's guidelines/directions carefully. However, the team members must not move like dumb-driven cattle but remain alert to their responsibilities which be shouldered after full understanding and conviction. Doubts must be freely expressed to get absolute clarity on what is what. The leader has to be very understanding and cooperative to welcome observations and suggestions for improvement. In short, a healthy team-spirit is the remedy and cure for all work-related ailments. Any hostile team member has to be watched, given some time to change and, if he doesn't, to be removed. There will be whims and fancies of members but ther should not be allowed to hinder performance.

     
     
     
    • stanley wolshin
    • founder, kauai tours direct.com

    aloha from hawaii, u.s.a. we here in hawaii like to practice the aloha spirit. in all relationships especially tourism our #1 business. I find that showing consideration and treating all team members with respect inspires great results. to continue to learn and improve all team members positive results requires me to lead by example saying thank you and please and preventing ''faliures by doing great work and motivating ''a no failure team''! we must not just be ''competetive globably'' all of us 'leaders must lead our country to be the best in the world a world leader as our children and future generations deserve the best as our parents and grand parents did for us! please let us all raise the bar and exceed expectations growing team work starts with me ! together everyone achieves more team! by providing growth were all of the team enjoys the fruits of our excellent work and comes up with the company as the company grows so does the teams compensation and reward no room for faliures these days! thank you respectfully.

     
     
     
    • Atul Paradkar
    • VP, CoStrategix

    In the knowledge economy, the teams are dynamic in nature. In my company, resources from different managers come together to work on a project and then disband. It is very rare for all members reporting to one manager are on the same project at the same time. Since we use Agile and not waterfall model, the project duration is in weeks. So with the fast moving environment, teaming is more important the before.

     
     
     
    • John Bing
    • Chair, ITAP International

    You write: "'The financial crisis can be tracked back to no small degree to people's reluctance to speak up with concerns about models and products that were likely to fail.' It's up to leaders, she says, to foster the climate of psychological safety required to overcome that reluctance."

    The financial crisis was, to no small degree, caused by leaders who profited from models and products that were likely to fail, and that they knew were likely to fail. In such cases, there is little climate of psychological safety for employees to report their misgivings. The failure of academics to understand that there are systemic failures unrelated to skill learning is depressing.

     
     
     
    • Peter Lee
    • Mg Consultant, RDS

    Yes, the issue is lack of working "trust".

    Most organisations & managers may appreciate its importance but shy away from managing it properly.

     
     
     
    • Subhan

    well, it all depends on what kind of supervisors you are working with. Top Management might be receptive to ideas from the employees, but mid-level managers are the ones that create the atmosphere: "dangerous to speak up or disagree with those in power."

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    Teaming is only effective when all members share the same common objective and eventually get rewarded equally.

    Example: Team A - teaming of MBA students to finish group assignment of which each will enjoy the same mark.

    Team B - teaming of staff in a company. Individual member will harbour own agenda although they are working together on the same project.

    Teaming for Team B will likely to fail compares to Team A. To ensure teaming is effective, reward system towards each members of the team is very important.

     
     
     
    • n.k.singh
    • owner, nks bricks

    Problem unites people. So team are formed.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    I have had personally feel that 'teaming' starts from the leader who provides the security, safety and respect to each team member whatever position (s)he holds in hierarchy or in team. Then expect out of box results from the team. Sometime, team leader works as a cushion to protect the team from extrinsic storms. Racal Strategic Radio Ltd (Vodafone) is the best example of 'teaming'. All the characteristics of good teaming one can find in Racal team of 6 when they launched Vodafone first time in UK.

     
     
     
    • SRILA RAMANUJAM
    • Business Consultant

    Leadership and leading by example are so much part of the problem as they can be part of the solution.......today's leaders are heard and they are also equally observed for role modelling just as before but most of the subtle differences in leadership styles of managing a successful team comes into foreplay also through the process of living up to what you believe in each moment when you don that role I guess.

    So it must be that more people love to not just follow by example but also to simply follow the behavioural patterns that are employed by their managers and leaders in the day-to-day workings of getting the project done. It therefore becomes a natural conclusion that these subtle differences practised over a period in time might just go to make all the difference between being autocratic and totally democratic in their styles of management and the responsibility of tying teams together by that common purpose

     
     
     
    • Syed Afaque Kazi
    • Operation Manager, Saudi Cranes

    I like the article and yes you need to change and adjust fast and form a team to be a sucessful manager , this skill is must in todays world.you come across with many individual from different part of world having their own culture & traditions. I have such experiance working in Saudi Arabia , We have individuals comming from different part of world , working for different companies but working on same project completing the projects in time and moving forward to work another project with some other group of individuals .

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    I have recently relaunched my HR career into the non profit sector. Re the comment around old management models not fitting as well as we would like. In my organization which is terrific) we are obligated to follow very specific rules and regulations around the education and support of individuals(children and adults) with developmental disabilities. Creativity and innovation are generally essential to moving an organization forward. My task is to find a way to evolve a culture that still has to follow chain of command associated with Fed and State regs to a culture that fosters and recognizes creativity and innovation. Teams are a big component around the work we do. I am sure I can figure it out - eventually - but any and all advice would be appreciated. Its quite the balancing act. Due to the nature of our organization's business I prefer to remain anonymous at this time. Thank you!