Today’s teams are not well designed for getting work done in the twenty-first century, argues Professor Amy C. Edmondson in a recent issue of the HBS Working Knowledge newsletter. 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.
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.
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.
The 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.