‘Big Teaming,’ Audacious Innovation, and the Uncompleted Dream of a Smart City

New Book: How do you organize a project that spans professions, industries, and even nations? A new book by Amy Edmondson and Susan Salter Reynolds describes the approach of 'big teaming' with a case study of a high-profile smart city.
  • Author Interview

Interview by Sean Silverthorne

Amy Edmondson likes to think big—or at least study how people organize to do big things.

Her new book, Building the Future: Big Teaming for Audacious Innovation, written with Susan Salter Reynolds, looks inside the workings of an entrepreneurial quest to develop from scratch a demonstration smart city outside Porto, Portugal, designed to showcase the company’s software.

Dubbed Living PlanIT (pronounced “planet”), the project was indeed audacious, and involved gaining government cooperation, creating technical and structural innovations, managing complex negotiations, and, most difficult of all, organizing a “Big Teaming” collaboration among software entrepreneurs, real estate developers, city government officials, architects, construction companies, and technology corporations. (“Teaming” is how Edmondson describes the process of actively building and developing teams, even as a project is in process, while realizing that a team's composition may change at any given moment.)

Most of the world’s big problems, including accessible health care, environmental degradation, escalating cost of education, poverty—you name it—will require teams of innovators and fresh-thinkers collaborating on solutions across borders of geography, language, and skills. Building the Future offers guidelines and best practices for Big Teaming, drawn from the lessons learned observing the Living PlanIT project, which ultimately lost momentum and pivoted to a new mission focused on smart-city software.

We discussed the book in her Harvard Business School office recently.

(Edited for length and clarity)

Sean Silverthorne: How did the book come about? What piqued your interest in smart cities?

Amy Edmondson: I’ve been studying teaming for a while, but had not studied innovation in the built environment in my first 15 years as a scholar. I started writing cases on the built environment to learn more about it. For example, I wrote about the 2008 Beijing Olympics Water Cube, which was innovative in sustainability and aesthetics and involved multiple organizations coming together to do something really extraordinary on a budget and on a timeline.

I also became interested in the two megatrends of increased concerns about sustainability and rapid urbanization and thought they pointed to an important area of innovation. With several colleagues, including Bob Eccles and Tiona Zuzul, I did library research on the smart-city space. While doing this secondary research, we also started interviewing architects and technologists and met Andrew Comer, who was head of engineering at BuroHappold Engineering. He introduced us to (LivingPlan IT founder and CEO) Steve Lewis, and Living PlanIT sure seemed like an interesting project to study.

Q: When did you realize you had the makings of a great story here?

A: In an early part of these interviews, a key “a-ha!” popped up one day when we were doing the nth interview and talking to a couple of very thoughtful folks from the construction sector. The way they were talking [in an uncomplimentary way] about the IT folks, suddenly it all came together. We had heard the IT folks talk about the real estate people in a similarly unflattering way. I thought, uh-oh, this cross-industry teaming is going to be challenging. I recognized a kind of culture clash across industry domains that seemed exaggerated compared to those across professions. The cultural differences were greater than those across functions within a company.

Q: What was their organization like when you sat in? What did you see?

A: There was lots of energy. Everybody was passionate, positive, and enthusiastic. They spent a lot of time building an image of what this demonstration city would be, who would learn from it, why it would be important. So they had lots of conceptual excitement. It didn’t take long to notice, however, that the action-oriented details were few and far between. I ultimately began to think this was a major leadership challenge, to balance the big vision with the need for small, smart, learning-oriented action.

Q: One difficulty in leading such a vast multi-industry project such as building a city is determining who is in charge.

A: In our library research of eight different smart-city projects, including this one, one variable that stood out was, who is leading? There is always going to be one industry domain leading the project. Sometimes it was government, especially in China; sometimes it was real estate; sometimes, rarely, it was design or architecture; and sometimes, as in this project, it was IT. I think it matters who leads.

IT folks have incredible ideas and innovation and visions of what’s possible, but they are the least well equipped to mobilize forces, to bring things together to a place where shovels start to hit dirt. It’s just not in their wheelhouse. They can envision it, absolutely, and the visions are very plausible. But getting from vision to action is easier if you are in the real estate development domain. IT folks were trying to think about real estate development, but in a very different way: not in terms of ownership, but leasing—more like you would think about certain big technologies. And maybe more like what the future will bring.

Q: We don’t have many examples of smart cities as role models.

A: Not at this point, but I do think we underplay the reality that, if you stood on the corner of 86th and Madison in New York City in 1860, you were standing on farmland. A proverbial minute later it’s Manhattan. Things do happen quickly during certain periods of history. Skyscrapers came out of nowhere in the minds of most people a century ago, and it happened because of advances in steel and in construction techniques and technologies. Suddenly we could do things we had never done before that earlier would have seen like a pipe dream.

Q: What does leadership look like in these megaprojects?

A: I am bullish on the power of a big vision. It’s a very powerful thing. You can get people excited, you can get people to sign up. I think it takes more than meets the eye to create Big Teaming. You need structures and systems and techniques—soft (interpersonal) and hard (technical) combined—to get the different players on the same page. You have to be very clear on answering the questions: What’s in it for me? What are the contractual arrangements? What are the different tasks that need to be done and how are they divided up, and how do we team up to work well together?

Something that is being used increasingly for innovation in the built environment is called a charrette, [a meeting that] brings people together from different professions around the table. They work like crazy to bridge knowledge gaps, understand each other, and dream together about what might be. At the outset of a project this is really, really important.

Q: What is Big Teaming and when do you use it?

A: It’s teaming across industries, or teaming across any particularly wide boundary between knowledge domains. Industry barriers are the thickest I can think of because, not only do you work from different companies, but you also come from different professions, and often you are physically in different places. People working in this way may not have the same incentives, time frames, or take-for-granted values. You see, jargon, which gets a lot of attention, is only the beginning of the barriers to good communication. And yet really big things in society, really big innovations, are increasingly interdisciplinary and interindustry.

For example, think about the health care system. It can only be fixed, reimagined, and recreated with the help of clinicians, payers, businesses, and community members. There’s a conference on campus right now about changing what they call the culture of health. The focus is not just on treating the sick; it’s on how do we powerfully change the game on the health of the population. There is no single player that can do that. It’s challenging and rewarding to figure out how to get people to work together across industries and across companies.

Q: If you are leading a cross-boundary project, what capabilities are required?

A: Some traditional capabilities would be the same for all projects. The ability to inspire, to create a positive and a realistic stretch-vision of what might be possible. But when you are working with people across companies, you don’t have any leverage over them in the strictest sense, although you can have contractual agreements. A real difference is creating a space for people to come together but more important, to act and experiment together. That takes more than talking. It takes structure and discipline. You have to set up meetings and spaces where people can come together to be led in a process of learning from each other.

Q: Was the Living PlanIT project a failure?

A: I wouldn’t say that. I would say it’s not a success yet. There was a failure to realize the original vision in a timely way; there was a failure to even make visible, tangible progress on the original vision. There were failures of keeping on track on some aspects of the project, small but meaningful.

But there is a good possibility that the software the company has, and the vision it has for the kinds of innovation unfolding now, is even more important than the original idea of building a demonstration city in northern Portugal. The new vision is to be the backbone of urban Internet of Things projects around the world in ways that can materially impact cost, sustainability, and quality of life. The potential is there.

But it’s materializing slower than anybody would have liked.

Q: What’s your advice for carrying out a big vision?

A: Often, the people who can glimpse the future are not the ones who can successfully marshal the forces to enact it. Some might say Steve Jobs was a visionary and a doer, and I’d agree. But vision and action aren’t always natural bedfellows. There has to be a real partnership, teaming up, where people who have different strengths can really respect each other, respect the genius of the vision, and respect and support the kind of step-by-step experiments through which it can come into being.

This is not about just executing. You can’t just execute when there’s no blueprint. It’s like running an R&D lab or any organization that can only learn by trying stuff. But a lot of the work involved in building the future, especially in the built environment, can’t be done behind closed doors in a lab. It has to be done experimentally, across domains, in a live project, like building a new urban innovation district downtown, for example.

Q: So you have to know how to innovate. It’s iteration by iteration, not just flipping a switch and it’s done.

A: Right. And knowing that innovation involves timelines, thoughtful experiments, thoughtful use of resources—deciding to experiment on this not that, in this timeframe not that timeframe.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: One of the things is working with doctoral student Michaela Kerrissey on work being done at the YMCA on diabetes prevention. Again, this requires teaming across industries. To be successful, the Y has to work with providers, payers, communities, schools, and the participants themselves. There is some of the same culture clash. How do you think health care providers might see folks at the Y? Yet the Y is a perfect vehicle for diabetics to control their weight, get on a good regimen, stick with their medicines, and so on. That could really change the game, but it’s not easy to get it going. That’s a field study we are launching this summer.

I’m working on another study with doctoral student, Lisa Kwan, on boundary clashes in organizations between groups, when feathers fly. We call this cross-boundary flouting, because it so frequently involves people on one side of a boundary flouting the official processes that don’t make sense from their vantage point. We want to better understand why this happens and what leaders can do about it.

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  • Book Excerpt

from: Building the Future: Big Teaming for Audacious Innovation
by Amy Edmondson and Susan Salter Reynolds

Future building is creative and iterative but not haphazard. It is interdisciplinary, and it takes leadership to bring it about. While few would advocate for rigid organizational hierarchies anymore, understanding and practicing the new forms of leadership that enable complex, team-based, whole-system innovation is—we’ll say it again and again—challenging. In this book we describe two basic requirements that entrepreneurs and leaders of mature organizations alike must embrace to build a sustainable future.

The first is a new kind of collaboration that spans more (and more-diverse) groups than ever before. We call this Big Teaming. The second—essential to enabling the first—is leadership that blends big vision and small action to pursue audacious innovation. Big vision inspires, calling attention to what might be possible. But achieving big vision is never straightforward. It is essential to empower people to experiment with small action that might, with luck and skill, help bring the vision about. In the case study of a smart-city startup that runs throughout this book, the challenge of spanning industry boundaries looms large, while experimenting through small action ultimately proves essential.

Big Teaming

Many organizations have shifted to a new way of working that makes teaming and learning part of the job.  Prior work on teaming includes examples of people in crisis situations working together to surmount seemingly impossible, but finite, challenges. In such situations people often team up across geographical, social, and cultural boundaries to get the job done. Building the future takes teaming to the next level. The same fundamental principles apply, but the distances between players are greater than when we encourage cross-functional teamwork within a company. The boundaries are more difficult to cross. Goals are more often at odds. And clashing professional cultures are likely to inhibit meaningful communication.

"In sum this book proposes that building the future requires three crucial, ongoing activities"

In this book we highlight both the challenges and the opportunities that lie in teaming across the cultural divides that separate people in different industries. To do this we first must explore how industry cultures differ, taking a deep dive, chapter by chapter, into five domains—information technology, real estate development, city government, architecture and construction, and the modern corporation. As we do so, we follow the ups and downs of a startup’s efforts to span these industry boundaries. In each chapter we supplement our field research with published sources to paint fuller portraits of the industry than our case study could provide on its own. We then take a look, in chapter 8, at why it’s difficult to collaborate across these worlds and what leaders can do to facilitate it. Chapter 9 updates our case study and concludes with ideas about how leaders can help build the future.

Leading Audacious Innovation

Future-building leadership starts with imagination that fuels vision: ambitious, bold, creative vision informed by deep expertise in a relevant field and yet paradoxically open enough to adapt when needed. Such vision thus has three essential components; it’s bold, it’s meaningful, and it’s open to adaptation as more is learned.

Big vision must be followed—and dynamically realized—by small action: small, tentative action that is deliberately framed as an experiment and that builds knowledge quickly. This iterative process of action, feedback, and learning expects and tolerates failure on the way to success. It takes a particular leadership mind-set to cope with the contradictory demands of envisioning and advocating audacious new possibilities while engaging in small imperfect action, not to mention the contradictory demands of believing in one’s own vision while enrolling a host of other experts to help transform that vision.

Balancing the competing goals of influencing and innovating is thus a new and essential leadership practice for future building. When you’re doing the new-new thing, it is easy to prioritize activities that build credibility in the external world, such as giving talks and building relationships with prestigious players in varied sectors.  This can mean that the actual work of the organization—the day-to-day work of innovating and developing products and people—takes a backseat to selling a story and building a reputation. The charisma and excitement that swirl around a pioneer’s vision are critical for drawing people into the orbit, building a solid team, generating funds, and building the ecosystem of players it takes to realize that vision.

But a leader’s focus must encompass the outside and the inside, influencing (vision) and innovating (action). Through our multicultural journey through the various industries with which we came into close contact during our study, we offer some ideas about how to manage this tension.

In sum this book proposes that building the future requires three crucial, ongoing activities: building a shared vision that evolves as more is learned, building meaningful cross-sector relationships, and building an iterative collaborative process. To explain why they matter--and how to bring them about--we use a case study that highlights both the opportunities and the challenges of Big Teaming for audacious innovation.

Reprinted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Excerpted from Building the Future: Big Teaming for Audacious Innovation by Amy Edmondson and Susan Salter Reynolds. All rights reserved.

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