Earlier this year, many of us watched with bated breath as a massive operation was underway to rescue 12 young boys and their football coach, trapped deep inside a flooded cave in Thailand. After two tense weeks, all 13 were successfully extracted through the four-kilometre-long underground tunnel.
This superhuman feat was pulled off by a remarkably diverse group of people who came together solely for this purpose, including members from the Thai Navy SEALs, Australian Federal Police, US Air Force, British Cave Rescue Council, Beijing Peaceland Foundation, and Thai authorities – not to mention the hundreds of volunteers and representatives from local agencies who carried out tasks like pumping water, setting up camp, and ferrying supplies up and down.
This incredible story is an excellent example of “teaming”. Amy C. Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, offers a succinct definition of this concept in her TED Talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_edmondson_how_to_turn_a_group_of_strangers_into_a_team). I also recommend getting a copy of her book Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy.
Teaming is teamwork on the fly. It’s coordinating and collaborating with people across boundaries of all kinds – expertise, distance, time zone, you name it – to get work done.
To put it another way, teaming is a more flexible, on-the-go, new age version of teamwork. So, this week, my message focuses on the power of teaming and how leaders can build a strong teaming culture.
Teaming vs. Teamwork
In traditional terms, a team means a fixed group of people who operate within stable structures for an extended period of time. Such a team enjoys many advantages: it has fixed roles and processes, the members know and trust one other, and they learn to work well together over time. As we all know, this type of teamwork can produce great results.
But the reality of business today is that static teams aren’t always possible – or even desirable. In the Harvard Business Review article, Teamwork on the Fly, Edmondson elaborates:
When companies need to accomplish something that hasn’t been done before, and might not be done again, 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 those conditions, a leader’s emphasis has to shift from composing and managing teams to inspiring and enabling teaming.
As we tackle increasingly complex and evolving issues, teams are becoming more dynamic and adaptive. People from various functions and countries come together temporarily for a specific purpose – once that is achieved, they disband and join new teams. Some people are even part of multiple ad-hoc teams at the same time. Some of you, especially those in product development or strategic decision-making, would be quite familiar with this style of working.
Teaming supports organisational learning and improvement. By combining our skills and expanding our expertise, we can solve cross-disciplinary problems, respond nimbly to opportunities, and innovate in a timely way. At an individual level, too, there are advantages: broader knowledge, a larger professional network, sharper collaborative skills, and a better understanding of the company as a whole (across divisions and geographies).
The pillars of teaming
In her article, The Three Pillars of a Teaming Culture, Edmondson highlights three qualities that are essential for a strong teaming culture:
When joining a new team filled with unfamiliar faces, people’s first instinct may be to act like they already know it all – which is the worst enemy of teaming. In order to combine knowledge and produce results, members must be willing to admit knowledge gaps and learn from each another.
In a teaming scenario, with varying priorities and values at work, being able to see things from someone else’s perspective is key. When this doesn’t happen, differences can escalate and create roadblocks.
How do you motivate a disparate group of people to achieve a common goal? The secret ingredient is passion, which bolsters collective enthusiasm and dedication. Passion is infectious: if a few people have enough of it, it spreads and multiplies throughout the team.
In an inspiring article about the Australian Federal Police officers who were part of the cave rescue effort, Senior Constable Justin Bateman explains that the Thai Navy SEALs’ commitment to the cause was a huge source of inspiration for all the rescuers:
The Thai Navy SEALs never left the cave. They would sleep in the cave along different chambers and then continue on working. It demonstrated the type of commitment and strong work ethic they had to the mission…. We saw the way they worked and communicated with each other, which made us work even harder. It also motivated the other international parties.
How to team
Without thoughtful leadership, a temporary team can quickly dissolve into chaos. The challenges are numerous:
- People from different professional backgrounds/cultures often clash with one another
- Lack of familiarity means there is a low degree of trust
- Short timeframes and moving targets add to the tension
- Competing priorities
- Communication impeded by technical barriers – different time zones, jargon, etc.
Here are 4 of Edmondson’s key recommendations for leaders who want to create a successful teaming culture:
1. Provide helpful scaffolding
Traditional project management – which relies on fixed goals and predictable phases – isn’t suitable for teaming. What’s required is a supporting structure that allows execution and learning to happen at the same time:
Offer some structure – figurative scaffolding – to help the team function effectively. In a building, a scaffold is a light, temporary structure that supports the process of construction. For improvisational, interdependent work carried out by a shifting mix of participants, some structuring can help the group by establishing boundaries and targets.
Scaffolding can include simple things, such as an updated information sheet with relevant details of current team members; a chatroom for quick updates and queries; a weekly highlights check-in for members/sub-groups to share key learnings; and a temporary meeting room for teammates in the same location.
2. Identify and prioritise joint tasks
To begin with, not every task needs to be a lengthy team encounter – some things can be done perfectly well by individuals, even in a teaming situation. Leaders must first decide which tasks are independent, and which require collaboration. Then, Edmondson advises paying special attention to the interdependent tasks.
The management of tasks involving reciprocal interdependence – work that calls for back-and-forth communication and mutual adjustment – is most critical to successful teaming. Because it’s often difficult for people in cross-functional, fluid groups to reach consensus, these tasks tend to become bottlenecks. They should therefore be prioritised. It’s crucial that leaders specify points when individuals or subgroups must gather – literally or virtually – to coordinate upcoming decisions and resources or to analyze and solve problems.
3. Create a safe collaborative space
People often enter a teaming scenario with personal fears: they don’t want to appear ignorant, they want to be seen as competent, and they hesitate to “give away” hard-won knowledge. In a highly competitive environment filled with strangers, these barriers make it difficult to collaborate in any meaningful sense.
As Edmondson emphasises, it’s up to leaders to facilitate a safe space for rapid knowledge-sharing. The best way to do so is to model the following behaviours:
- Acknowledge knowledge gaps and ask questions. This makes it easier for team members to admit they don’t know certain things and show curiosity about other people’s expertise.
- Listen attentively to everyone. By treating each person’s input as valuable – regardless of department or hierarchy – you make it clear that solutions can come from anywhere.
- Welcome dissent and new ideas. If a team member counters your view or comes up with a seemingly-wild plan, don’t get defensive or shut them down. Instead, demonstrate the ability to see things from their perspective. Let people know they’re expected to disagree (even with you!), show empathy, and produce ambitious ideas.
- Share your expertise generously. When leaders hold back information or resources for personal gain, the rest of the team adopts the same attitude. Your willingness to share will kickstart a true exchange of knowledge.
4. Harness conflict
Clashes of perspective are inherent to ad-hoc teams. Such conflicts can seem counterproductive, but remember, the entire point of teaming is to bring together different perspectives – and butting heads is a necessary part of this process. At the point where conflict is resolved, new opportunities emerge. So, don’t ignore or stamp out arguments; instead, work towards resolving them in a productive way.
In order to reap the benefits of teaming, do note that teaming is a verb – not a noun. And so, this demands a different mindset from conventional teamwork.
As always, I look forward to your thoughts.