Prof. Amy C. Edmondson: “There is nothing more motivating than a powerful mission”


Professor Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, was awarded an honorary doctorate from Maastricht University on the occasion of the university’s 38th Dies Natalis on 10 January 2014. In presenting the award, Prof. Wim Gijselaers, head of the department of Educational Research and Development (ERD) at the School of Business and Economics, praised Prof. Edmondson’s “immense contribution to the field of organisational learning” thanks to her pioneering research on leadership, learning and innovation processes in teams and organisations.

During her visit to Maastricht, Prof. Edmondson sat together with Prof. Mien Segers, Professor of Corporate Learning at ERD, and shared her insights on team dynamics, the relationship between psychological safety and team learning, the characteristics of good leadership, and the importance of field-based research. As a case in point, they discussed the story of the dramatic rescue in 2010 of 33 Chilean miners who were trapped alive 700 metres under the ground for more than two months, which Edmondson described as a “quite superb example” of distributive leadership and team management.

Segers: Amy, let me start with what intrigues me the most. How did you become interested in team research?

Edmondson: This is a good question because I did not set out to study teams. I became interested in team research because I was interested in organisational learning. I became absolutely intrigued by the question of what makes large organisations so unable to detect the signals everywhere around them that were indicating the need to change.

What is it for example that allowed the ‘big three’ US automotive companies to remain stuck in a particular way of doing things for years after Toyota and Honda entered the US market and showed the attractiveness of smaller, more fuel efficient cars?

I remember having a kind of naïve view at the time that maybe the people in the automotive industry weren’t very bright. Then I spent time in places like General Motors and I found that the people were very bright, and understood the need to changes. So the puzzle became: What is it that makes bright people unable to help their organisations learn and do the things they need to do to compete in a changing world?

The more time I spent in organisations as a researcher, the more I discovered that the action was happening in teams. And I don’t mean just formal work teams but also informal settings where interpersonal interactions needed to do the work take place. It seemed to me that the engine of organisational learning was the group. The organisation is too big and too abstract. The individual is unable to translate his or her ideas and perceptions into action. It is the team – teams of all kinds – that is important for translating insight into action. So I set to study these groups dynamics at all levels.

Segers: You take a different approach from many organisational researchers by not jumping into the lab, but by going to the scene. This is striking. I was very interested in your Chilean coalmine rescue operation story. Why did you decide to go on this type of scene and study this type of team?

Edmondson: Well, part of the learning puzzle in organisations is error and failure. The study of the psychology of error and failure in organisations and how people confront these issues has been a core interest of mine, particularly with the desire to understand learning. If we cant cope productively with error, our organisations cant learn.

Without meaning to, I found myself studying many crises or tragedies or large scale failures, such as the Challenger and Columbia shuttle tragedies. That led to a number of PhD students wanting to work with me, and one in particular, Faazia Rashid, wanted to look at management after a crisis has occurred. She is the one who was ambitious enough to head right down to Chile and talk to many individuals who participated at the site. She thought it would be the basis for a good case, which we wrote together, and a good research paper, which she is now working on.

Segers: The Chilean mine rescue operation was very challenging because it involved a multi-team system with high-risk, high-stake consequences, interdisciplinary teams composed ad hoc, working under pressure. All parameters were on red!

Edmondson: The Chilean rescue case presents quite simply superb management of all those challenges in almost every sense. The more you look at it, the more it is clear that they did an extraordinary job.  They got it right. When I say that, it sounds like there was a blueprint and that they followed it but that wasn’t the case.  That would be impossible because this type of situation is unprecedented and constantly changing. When I say that they did it right, I mean they went through a learning journey.  It started with the decision to “aim high.” They decided that the rescue operation was possible, even if all the experts were saying the contrary. They decided that they were going to go for it.

They teamed up with people from particularly outside of the mining industry, people from oil, from other aspects of engineering, people with ideas and a willingness to team. They teamed up and failed constantly. They had failures every single day but they didn’t let that disappoint them and send out the message that it was over. Every time they had a failure they learned fast and tried something else. This is classic innovation behaviour and high reliability learning behaviour at the same time.

That just doesn’t happen by accident. It happened because of extraordinary leadership at various levels, distributive leadership. There wasn’t just one boss with everybody following along. Different leaders took on different responsibilities at different times and kept motivating the teams.

I believe this is deep case from which we can learn a lot about how to cope with this sort of very fluid and uncertain situation.

Segers: To some extent, the Chilean mine rescue case had the same ingredients and challenges that many organisations are facing today. What were in your opinion the key success factors?

Edmondson: Teaming across disciplinary lines played a crucial role, because the solutions were not and I believe could not have been found within any given industry expertise. It had to be the Chilean special rescue operations teaming with the mining experts teaming with the oil experts teaming with NASA, and so on. Leadership does not have the answers but continually empowers and supports and emphasizes what is at stake. People get caught up in what they’re doing, they get scared and tired. The role of leadership, in this case especially in the form of André Sougarret, consisted in constantly supporting innovation behaviour, the willingness to keep trying new ideas, persistence through failure and constantly emphasizing what it was all about.

Segers: Accepting failure and learning from it. Isn’t this more than problematic in many companies?

Edmondson: Yes, this is more than problematic in most companies. There are very few who have figured out how to build it into their DNA. Toyota would be the classic example of a company that celebrates failures and errors as the meat of learning. This requires a great deal of horizontal communication not just vertical communication.

Segers: We at Maastricht University are currently working on a project on crisis management with hospitals in the region and it is amazing to see how hard it is for people just to speak up about near-misses and other problems. A lot of money in invested in training programmes but there is no room for speaking up. It is as if reporting failures means attacking their own professional identity.

Edmondson:  This is exactly what I’m talking about. The culture is so deeply embedded and so hierarchical. It is as if people will instinctively resist speaking up even if intellectually they understand the need to do it.

Segers: How does a climate of psychological unsafety get created in a group? How does this mechanism work?

Edmondson: Maybe from very small, early events. Maybe when the group comes together, something happens. Someone takes a risk and gets shut down and everybody freezes. Conversely, a climate of psychological safety can be created if early in the life of the group, there is a good sense of humour, a sense of compassion that allows people to realise that this is a place where they can be themselves and where they can be primarily focused on the patients and not on impression management.

Segers: Indeed, the research that we have been doing at SBE supports this idea. Those first minutes are so important! They are what we call the golden hour.

Prof. Amy C. Edmonson

Segers: I am always asked to make a top 10 list of suggestions for businesses.  What should be on this top 10 list? 

Edmondson: I think the list fundamentally starts with mission, the deeply shared clarity about what we’re doing and why it matters. There’s nothing more motivating than a powerful mission. There will always be challenges, so in order to psychologically and collectively overcome them, we need to be passionate about what it is that we are trying to do together. And that’s a leadership job. Even when the mission is obvious, the leader has to emphasize it every day because we’re humans, and humans get caught up in details, we’re natural impression managers. Most of the time we care more about what people think of us than about the joint enterprise. Not consciously, but unconsciously. It’s the leadership’s job to bring us back to where we need to be in our heads.

The second aspect, which is not unrelated, is the creation of a cultural climate of psychological safety where people feel absolutely able to speak up, ask questions, raise concerns.

Segers: It’s more than speaking up, it’s having the freedom to share responsibility.

Edmondson: Exactly, and also the freedom to be wrong. No company has ever innovated for any important product or service without having a large number of bad ideas and failed projects along the way. You have to have failure along the way to success.

Failure is the treasure that companies squander. Most individuals are capable of learning from their own mistakes but it’s very rare to see organisations doing it. If I make a mistake, I quickly recognise it and I learn from it. But do I tell everybody else about it? Nine times out of 10 I don’t. But I will do so if I’m in the right kind of organisation where the leaders have emphasised again and again and again that there’s nothing more valuable for learning than the little failures that we’re encountering.

The third element is empowering and supporting the fundamentally team-based learning processes that must go on in different ways in different parts of the organisation. If you’re in a part of the organisation that’s doing routine work, you need to be willing to engage in what we call continuous improvement, in thinking about the small details that can help make processes a little bit better every day. If you’re doing innovation, then you need to have the freedom to experiment. The nature of the team-learning process will be different depending on the kind of work you are doing, but what must be common throughout the organisation is that it needs to happen. Most of the time, it doesn’t happen naturally or spontaneously. It’s the cultural and procedural infrastructure that will enable the learning process to occur.

Team work, by ribosomis via Flickr (some rights reserved)

Segers: I think that this is challenging for many organisations, because their core goal is to make profit. They see learning as just something that should happen “somewhere”. But they don’t know how to capture this “somewhere”. How to do it?

Edmondson: Nearly all the theories about learning focus on why it doesn’t happen, why it breaks down, not about why it spontaneously happens.

More often than not, we need to help leaders to take off their execution hat and put on their leadership hat. The leadership hat is the hat you’re wearing when you’re developing people and developing the organisation into a better entity, a more viable, thriving entity for the creation of value. Other people are doing the work to get products and services out the door to help the customers or the community. In a sense you’re not really doing your job as a leader when you’re too much directly involved in execution. Conversely, you are doing your job when you lean back and help build the capabilities for the future execution.

Segers: I recognise this ambition at the top level management but I see a totally different picture when I look at the middle management level.

Edmondson: Middle management is often sending the wrong messages. That’s where a lot of the gaps are. The Chilean mine rescue wouldn’t have been a success without the middle management.  The best organisations don’t have this gap because they have recognised the value of what Toyota calls the manager as teacher, the leader as teacher. The job of every supervisor all the way up to the CEO is to teach.

Segers: Let’s talk about research. What should be the core research agenda with respect to teams and team learning?

Edmondson: Too many young scholars and PhD students are looking exclusively to the literature instead of going out into the world. They produce very carefully, beautifully executed studies that say something extremely small and isolated from practice and that only work under highly controlled conditions but not in the messy world of practice. I really hope that young researchers will aspire to be useful. We have a lot of problems and challenges in the world of organisations and the world at large and we need to have the brightest young minds helping solve these problems.

I tend to think that it can be incredibly illuminating and powerful for researchers to be problem-focused. Find the problem in the world that you care about and try to understand it deeply in the field. Step back from the abstract and start from the field. Very often, the most interesting challenges need some cross-disciplinary insights. They cannot be solved fully within social psychology, education. Sometimes we really don’t understand what is going on.

Segers: I think that it is a flaw of our current research system that it is so disciplinary and so separate.

Edmondson: I agree. Every discipline produces papers that are essentially proving something that is already well known. We don’t read each other’s journals. At Harvard we really try to overcome this problem but the traditional forces of academia make it really hard. Ultimately we won’t be able to afford this type of luxury.

I think you can get many papers out of a research study that is field-based, and perhaps even more interesting papers. Researchers will have more fun in the classroom because they will have more knowledge about the world. It pays off in multiple ways.

Segers: I like your suggestion to become more multi-disciplinary. We address problems too narrowly. We need to have multidisciplinary people to sit together and come up with creative ideas, go to the teams on the scene, try to see the clear markers and develop the measures to capture them. I think this kind of research is more and more needed because the pace of innovation and complexity is increasing dramatically. There is hardly any company that is not facing the problem of the need of teaming, the need of having good leaders, and at the same time I really hope that researchers will come closer to practice, because companies and leaders will not be able to solve these challenges on their own. 

Segers: How can universities reward this type of on the scene research?

Edmondson:  At Harvard Business School, we try to address three types of audiences – scholars, educators, and practitioners – and each scholar feels a need to influence at least two of them. We see value in finding evidence that our research has been able to influence how people in the real world think about an important problem and we take that into account in promotion decisions. But it’s very hard, because the tools to measure this are not as obvious.

Segers: This on-the-scene approach also calls for different competences from researchers. They need to understand what is going on, translate it into a research question and translate results back to the initial question from practice, but these are not competences that we currently develop in schools.

Edmondson: Our job in academia is to make sure that this kind of closer-to-practice research is not seen as having a lower status. It should be the most respected and most sought after type of research.


By Sueli Brodin
Editor Talkin’Business

There is one comment

  1. Andrea

    Great interview – thanks for sharing your insights! I love the idea of looking at leaders as teachers. Some supervisors seem not be aware of that role.

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