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The classic team is dead

If you investigate the topic of teams more closely, there is no way around this woman: Amy C. Edmondson. The American scientist and Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the renowned Harvard Business School is an expert on teams. Her chair was created specifically to support the study of human interactions that lead to the creation of successful companies that improve society. The findings of her work, such as the new terms and concepts of teaming or psychological safety, are described in detail in her numerous academic papers and books. What and how teaming and psychological safety can be implemented, and what her statement that the classic team is dead is all about, she told PUMPS in an interview.

Amy Edmondson

© Amy Edmondson - Havard Business School

PUMPS:  When we were researching interesting people for this PUMPS edition on teams, we came across your quote “The classic team is dead.” This was, of course, a very strong message.


Amy Edmondson: You are right, that was a strong statement and meant, in part, to be provocative and get people thinking about this topic in a new way. It is an overstatement of a very powerful trend that we are seeing in the workplace. The history of research on team effectiveness has been largely focused on design and structure. If you are going to put together a team – whether it is a sports team or a product design team – you want to be very thoughtful in the design of that team. However, what I had been observing over a number of years was that in many workplaces, the nature of the work does not allow you to put together a stable, well-designed, clear-cut, bounded team. The work is too dynamic for that. Sometimes you might have a core team and many peripheral team members who come together at different times in often unpredictable ways to get the work done. I started thinking about what do you do when you do not have a clear enough line of sight – that is, enough certainty about the task – to design the right team. So the idea of teaming was not meant to be an alternative for teams, but rather an observation of what was happening in the workplace. I wanted to make the point that all of us need to get good, not just at designing and composing teams, but at working collaboratively with other people, even in the absence of a stable, well-designed team.


PUMPS: In different interviews, you were referring to the 2010 Copiapó mining accident in Chile as a good example for teaming.


Amy Edmondson: Yes, that was an extreme case of teaming. The goal was to rescue the 33 men who were 700 meters below some of the hardest rock in the world. There was no known technology for drilling in that industry context that could possibly get through fast enough to save their lives, given the amount of food, oxygen, and water that they had underground. It was a problem that cried out for innovation and cross-boundary solutions. What happened over those 70 days was a dynamic, constantly unfolding teaming operation, where people from different backgrounds, areas of expertise, and even nations came together in a 24/7 operation. A constantly shifting mix of people, workers, and experts who needed to team up to innovate on the fly. It serves as an extreme example of what is possible when people team up effectively across boundaries.

The idea of teaming was not meant to be an alternative for teams, but rather an observation of what was happening in the workplace.


Amy Edmondson


PUMPS: Looking at the Chilean case, you mentioned a continuous situation impacting the effectiveness of teaming, like to be humble, to be curious and, of course, the willingness to take the risk, that you call the psychological safety. How can we transfer this situation in Chile where people were thrown together to come up with a solution who did not know each other to an organization where people know each other and face internal barriers preventing them to be humble, open and without prejudice?


Amy Edmondson: Well, the one-word-answer to your question is leadership. It is not a simple answer. Leadership is the force that helps us swim upstream and do things that do not necessarily come absolutely naturally. For example, working across expertise boundaries does not come naturally. We often have communication problems, conflicts, and misunderstandings. Leadership is needed to keep people’s attention on what really matters such as the goal of a project. Psychological safety is something I define as a usually shared belief that I will not be penalized or thought less of if I speak up or try things that do not have proven value. So if I share an idea that might not be a good idea that this will be accepted by my colleagues. It is absolutely crucial to build such an environment if you want to team effectively because when you are teaming you cannot know for sure that what you are about to do will work out. You have to be willing to take these small risks of trying and speaking up about things that could be wrong or unpopular.


PUMPS: In our daily business what can we do in order to get this kind of teaming in the hands of our engineers and technicians?


Amy Edmondson: I have a big smile on my face right now in answering this question because it is in many ways the most important creative act of leadership. I say creative because there is not a single right way to do this, but one of the most important things that leaders must do is to get people to act with the seriousness of purpose, energy, ingenuity, and enthusiasm even in the absence of a crisis. How do you do that? Well, the details will be different in different settings, but the formula will be roughly the same. Firstly, connecting and reconnecting people to a purpose that is larger than themselves. You might be in the most mundane business such as making mattresses and yet it is possible through leadership to connect people to that larger purpose of helping people everywhere to get a good night’s sleep. Keep reminding people that what they do matters to people’s lives. It is a creative job to make sure you can articulate it in such a way that it is meaningful to people. Secondly, help people to get in touch with their own sense of efficacy and development. All of us want to feel that we are learning and growing as time goes on. In almost any job there ought to be a way where I am not only here to contribute to getting this job done, but in the act of doing that I am learning, growing, getting smarter and more capable because of the challenges that people set before me. You as the leader have to be in there to coach, and to enable people to have that sense of contributing and learning as they go, to something larger than themselves.

Amy Edmondson

© Amy Edmondson - Havard Business School

PUMPS: Do we need a new skillset for our leaders to enable them to foster all these three parameters of teaming: psychological safety environment, and an inspiring and emotional environment?  


Amy Edmondson: I think we do. Most people in leadership roles have a default or a taken-for-granted mental model that their role is to have the answers to make sure people get things done on time and hit the target. This model works fine in reasonably, certain environments, where the path between right now and the goals is clear-cut, and it is a matter of all you have to do is do what you are told and it will be fine. But so much of the work environment today is not like that anymore. The only way to achieve the things that need to be achieved is through a little bit of creativity, collaboration, risk-taking, and experimentation. That is a new skillset.


PUMPS: In our industry, more and more innovations are developed by joint teams with our clients. In this environment, trust plays a major role. Looking at these kinds of teaming challenges with externals, you also mention Paul Polman, the former CEO of Unilever, who said that water scarcity is an area where we talk about teams needing support from governments and institutions. What would you give these teams at hand in order to become successful in the area of teaming?


Amy Edmondson: You mention trust and trust is not our default. Our default state is to not trust a stranger. I think what people misunderstand about trust is that they think trust is something that if you do not have it, the other person is going have to prove to deserve it. But that is actually not right. Trust is actually a decision and you have to make the decision to trust that other entity because you have to work with them to get something done. So you decide to trust or to act as if you trust because that is the only way to proceed. Now you could get burned, meaning the other entity could act in a way that does not put the project’s interest first. But frankly, you have to be willing to take that risk if you want to team up across organizations. Most of the time, the participants really are more reliant than we think because they want to participate too and to be a part of accomplishing something that matters to both organizations.

Psychological safety is something I define as a usually shared belief that I will not be penalized or thought less of if I speak up or try things that do not have proven value.


Amy Edmondson

PUMPS: Do you think that your research findings about teaming have an impact concerning the area of project management?


Amy Edmondson: Project management covers a spectrum of projects for which, for lack of a better word, we have blueprints. If I am going to build a house, most of what needs to be done is pretty well understood. So project management is a very wonderful process of making sure we are doing the right things in the right order by the right time to get it all done in the time allotted. There is also a kind of project management in innovation. It is a much more highly innovative domain, where project management has to be a little bit more dynamic. It has to acknowledge that we do not know exactly what we will need at every step of the way. The design of this project management is to remove critical uncertainties progressively so that there is progress.


PUMPS: You mentioned the aspect of cross-organizational or cross-industrial teaming. What do you consider the risk of these kinds of teaming and how can we manage them best?


Amy Edmondson: Well, it is inherently risky. When you are collaborating with people who have very different expertise, backgrounds, incentive and so forth there is a lot that can go wrong. The obvious advice would be: don’t do it. Things can go wrong, why would you do that?


To find out why Amy Edmondson nevertheless advises investing in cross-organization or cross-industrial teaming and what else she has to say about teaming continue reading in the magazine...

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