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Teams and Teaming

| June 26, 2018

by Jim Bruce

Today, most organizations, including a university’s IT organization, structure their work through a set of teams. Other examples include professional sports teams with their structure, their practice day-after-day of plays they may execute in the game, and a surgical team that performs the same procedure, for example, hip replacement, under tightly controlled conditions, perhaps multiple times, day after day.
Amy Edmondson,2 the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, has identified another approach to teamwork which brings experts together in temporary groups to solve new problems they are encountering. She calls this strategy teaming, which she believes exemplifies a new way of working. She notes: “Teaming is teamwork on the fly: a pickup basketball game rather than plays run by a team that has trained as a unit for years. It’s a way to gather the right experts in temporary groups to solve problems they’re encountering for the first and perhaps only time.” 
“Think of clinicians in an emergency room, who convene quickly to solve a specific patient problem and then move on to address other cases with different colleagues, compared with a surgical team that performs the same procedure under highly controlled conditions day after day. When companies need to accomplish something that hasn’t been done before, and might not be done again, the traditional team structures aren’t practical. It’s just not possible to identify the right skills and knowledge in advance and to trust that circumstances will not change. Under these conditions, a leader’s emphasis has to shift from composing and managing teams to inspiring and enabling teams.”2
I first heard about the concept of teaming when I recently viewed Edmondson’s TED talk, “How to Turn a Group of Strangers into a Team.”In her presentation, Professor Edmondson introduces the subject of teaming by talking about the August 5, 2010 collapse at the San Jose Copper Mine in Northern Chile which left 33 men trapped half a mile below some of the hardest rock in the world. The men would work their way to a small refuge stocked with food for two men for 10 days.
Above ground, experts quickly concluded that there was no solution for getting the men out. There was no drilling technology that could cut through the rock fast enough to get the men out alive, if they were alive and in the “refuge.” And, there was no initial clarity as to who was in charge. Yet, in 70 days those 33 men were brought to the surface alive. How did it happen? It happened through leadership under tremendous time pressure and work by hundreds of individuals in different professions, different companies, different businesses, from across the world. Three separate drilling teams, nearly every Chilean government ministry, NASA, and a dozen corporations from around the world cooperated in completing the rescue.4
The Chillan government appointed a brilliant mining engineer with 20 years of experience to lead the effort. They experimented, failed, tried again, continued forward. On day 17 they broke through to the refuge with a small hole. For the next 53 days that small hole would be the pathway for food, water, medicine, and communication. Meanwhile, individuals working in multiple groups continued to drill a larger hole, and design and build a capsule that was used on day 70 to lift the miners out of the mine one-by-one.
So, what enabled such a large number of individuals from so many different organizations, cultures, and technical disciplines to quickly come together and arrive at a solution? Edmondson says leadership and a different kind of teamwork, what she calls teaming. Teaming is about identifying the essential collaborators and rapidly coming up to speed on what they know so that they can work together to resolve the issue at hand. She notes that this form of getting work done is on the rise in organizations because work is increasingly complicated by interdependencies that have to be managed on the fly.
Edmonson has concluded from her research that organizations with a cultural expectation that everyone become more curiouspassionate, and empathetic are ideal for teaming. Curiosity leads people to find out what others know, what they bring to the table, what they can add. Passion drives enthusiasm and effort. People will care enough to stretch, to exert their maximum effort. And, empathy enables them to see the issue from the other’s perspective which is essential in hard-driving teams. A key task for the leaders is to model these behaviors.
For those who want to try the teaming approach with their next project that has a clear beginning and end, Edmondson indicates that the leader will need to draw on the best practices of project management, what she calls the hardware, and of team leadership, the software.
The Hardware: Leaders begin by scoping out the challenge, lightly structuring the boundaries, and sorting tasks for execution:

  • The first step is to scope the challenge, determine the expertise needed, enroll collaborators, and define roles and responsibilities.
  • The second step is to provide some structure – what Edmondson calls scaffolding – to help the team function more effectively. This would include a list of team members with biographical and professional information, information on how the team will communicate, visits to each team member’s location, temporary group space, etc. The goal is to make it easy for the team to get to know each other and to communicate.
  • The third step is sorting and is the conscious prioritizing of tasks, according to the interdependence, among the team members doing the work.

The Software: The “hardware” of teaming will not work well unless the “software” is well managed. In teaming, a team member may not have as constant a set of people working together as they might in the usual team work. This may be disconcerting. The software of teaming asks people to become comfortable with a new way of working rather than a new set of colleagues. Team members are asked to trust each other even though they have not interacted with each other for long enough to know each other that well. Leaders have four “tools” to assist them in this:

  • Emphasizing purpose – Articulating what’s at stake helps everyone understand the “why” of the task. This is fundamentally about shared values; about how can you see the assigned task to be of significant importance to your organization.
  • Building psychological safety – When you have not been working with a person for a long time, it may not be easy to share your information about their ideas and expertise. You may worry about what others think about you. Leaders need to facilitate a climate of psychological safety where it’s expected that people will speak up and appropriately disagree. Leaders model this behavior by asking thoughtful questions, acknowledging their ignorance about a topic, and acknowledging their own fallibility.
  • Embracing failure – Teaming always leads to failures, even on the way to great success. Failure provides information that guides the next steps, thereby creating an imperative to learn from the failure. This requires that everyone must get over the natural inclination to avoid embarrassment and loss of confidence associated with making mistakes.
  • Putting conflict to work – Conflict can feel like failure. It’s frustrating to not agree with your collaborators. However, differences in perspective are a core reason for teamwork. Instead of being angry and parting ways when we don’t agree, we need to stop and work through the differences and seize the new opportunities that work will provide. 

Edmonson has observed team work for more than two decades. She believes that teaming is becoming what individuals and organizations should want to do because it is an important driver of individual and organizational development. In “Teamwork on the Fly,”2 she lists a number of benefits of teaming. Included in the list are combining skills and perspectives, developing a better understanding of different disciplines, providing broader perspectives, building out personal relationship networks, improving communication, etc. 
Toward the end of this essay, she writes: “Teaming is more chaotic than traditional teamwork, but it is here to stay. Projects increasingly require information and process sophistication from many fields. And managers are dependent on all kinds of specialists to make decisions and get work done. To excel in a complex and uncertain business environment, people need to work together in new and unpredictable ways. That’s why successful teaming starts with an embrace of the unknown and a commitment to learning that drives employees to absorb, and sometimes create, new knowledge while executing.
I hope that you’ll think about the possibility of trying the teaming approach the next time you have a new project that you are responsible for and which involves staff beyond your own team. Give it a try and evaluate the results. You may find it to be a valuable tool in the way you do your work.
Do work to make it a great week for you and your team  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Note:  The Tuesday Reading will take a vacation on July 3 and next be published on July 10. Happy 4th of July!  

  1. Charles Duhigg, “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build a Perfect Team,” New York Times, February 2016.
  2. Amy C. Edmondson, “Teamwork on the Fly,” Harvard Business Review, April 2012.
  3. Amy C. Edmondson, “How to Turn a Group of Strangers into a Team,” TEDTalk, October 2017.
  4. Faaiza Rashid, Amy C. Edmondson, and Herman B. Leonard, “Leadership Lessons from the Chilean Mine Rescue,” Harvard business Review, July-August 2013. (This essay provides more details about the actual work of the rescue.)
  5. Amy C. Edmondson, “The Three Pillars of a Teaming Culture,” Harvard Business Review, December 2013.