Teaming: teamwork 2.0

Teams are a valuable structure to get certain kinds of work done. There is, however, an increasing amount of occurrences when teamwork is badly needed to coordinate and collaborate, but stable team structures are not practical. This is where the concept of teaming comes in.

“Teaming as such is not a new activity,” said Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard University during a visit to the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics (SBE) in early May 2013. “It’s instead a new lens – a new way of looking at situations where people must collaborate during a short time-span on a challenge that does not allow for a ‘blueprint’ for either the process or the outcome.”  In such situations, people may not know each other well and they lack answers for how to proceed.  This means they must quickly figure out ways to work together to accomplish challenging goals.

In her 2012 book entitled “Teaming, How Organizations Learn, Innovate and Compete in the Knowledge Economy”, Prof. Edmondson argues that the focus in business is gradually shifting from working with stable teams to managing flexible, dynamic entities with no fixed team composition. She further believes that these entities are most productive when solving issues where outcomes are difficult to predict.

At the invitation of SBE dean Prof. Jos Lemmink, she shared her insights on the concept of teaming and its applicability in consultancy and education during a seminar at the Service Science Factory (SSF). Speaking in front of an audience of business professionals, she said that the teaming approach is particularly relevant for an institute such as SSF, where service innovations are based on the collaboration in multidisciplinary teams between students, academics and business representatives.

Prof. Edmondson noted that SSF’s approach is consistent with the principle of teaming. ‘’With each project, every team member is doing something that not only each of them has not done before, but nobody has done before. So everyone has to learn and execute at the same time”.

Success factors for teaming

Teaming involves a difference process from managing stable teams in the sense that while stable teams plan first and execute later, teaming allows for diving in and making fluid arrangements as the project progresses.

Prof. Edmondson identified three important factors for the success of teaming: goal clarity, psychological safety and interpersonal competence.

In order to achieve a shared understanding of the goal, it is important for team members to spend time at the start of the project to state the problem at stake and the result to be reached. “Make sure we share our insights and our concerns,” she advised. The problem statement of a project or challenge may appear obvious, but a person’s understanding of the problem statement can vary depending on background and interpretation.

The second success factor is what Prof. Edmondson called psychological safety. “It has got to be okay to offer crazy ideas”, she says. “People should not be held back to state the absurd.” The task of project leader or team coordinator is to create a climate of openness, transparency and psychological safety.

Finally, interpersonal competence plays a key role in building relationships and managing conflicts. Prof. Edmondson says:  “You won’t be good at this way of working right off the bat”.  It requires time and practice to develop the interpersonal competences required to function well in a flexible team.  “This is an important and in many ways exciting skill to practice in a setting like the Service Science Factory,” she added.

Teaming in education

Applied in an educational setting, teaming can enhance the effect of teamwork exercises. More than ‘classical’ team exercises which have a predefined outcome, teaming leaves room for students to learn and innovate and can give students an opportunity to do something more similar to what happens in real life. In Prof. Edmondson’s view, universities and executive education are not leveraging the learning potential of teaming in developing technical and interpersonal skills. “In today’s workplace you can’t get anywhere if you don’t have both technical skills and interpersonal skills,” she said

Teaming and consultancy

Traditionally, consultancy firms are used to assigning fixed and stable teams for client assignments and these types of structures work well on longer-term engagements with clients.

“Teaming, on the other hand, opens up the possibility of doing things more quickly and more flexibly,’’ Prof. Edmondson explained. “Based on skill requirements, teams must be able to add and subtract people according to the needs of the work to be done. They’re not only self-managing, they’re self-organizing and self-composing as needed.”

Teaming provides opportunities for consultancy firms to distinguish themselves. “They can do the kind of projects where you just can’t predict who you need at what time,” she commented.

Motivating teams

How can such flexible, ever changing teams be motivated?

“The most important thing that is often forgotten by CEOs and senior leaders is the necessity to continually connect the work that the organization does with some meaningful purpose in a broader context,” Prof. Edmondson commented. “If the CEO of a mattress store were to ask an employee to achieve an ROI of 14 percent, the employee may be happy to help, but not motivated. The same CEO would however send out a stronger and more meaningful message by making employees aware that their work is helping people to be more productive, thanks to a good night’s sleep.”

Motivation comes when I am given the opportunity to participate in doing something larger than myself, something that I couldn’t do on my own. Motivating is reawakening that inner desire to do more, and to do it better. It has got to relate to purpose, full stop”, Prof. Edmondson states.

Future outlook

Prof. Edmondson believes that there will be more heterogeneity in business in 20 years’ time and sees teaming as an effective way to dealing with the challenges companies will face in this diversified, ever-changing economy, because it will provide the flexibility to quickly respond to external and internal stimuli.

“In a very dynamic workplace, the processes are more important than the structures,” she stressed.


By Laszlo Determann
Communication and Events, Service Science Factory 


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