Beyond Teamwork: Reflections on Amy Edmondson’s book,
Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy
Fifteen years ago, like many managers, I took a seminar that taught Bruce Tuckman’s concepts about teams moving through the phases of forming, storming, norming, and performing. (Bruce Tuckman, 1965.) I used those ideas to improve the performance of the management team I led and encouraged the managers who worked for me to do the same with their teams. That seminar taught that whenever team membership changed, a team must go through all the phases over again—from forming through storming and norming, and optimally to performing. My former company Medtronic often held “leadership assimilation” offsite meetings when a new manager took over a team, with the goal of accelerating that team building process.
While useful, such a perspective looks at teams as relatively stable. But organizational structures are increasingly fluid, with the organizational structure changing yearly or even more often, with the goal of addressing whatever needs the most focus.
Furthermore, employees were always part of many teams, not just one. In a centralized informational development group, in addition to being on the writing team, writers are often part of one or more product development teams. They may also be on committees or ad hoc groups that address tools, editing, content management strategies, or other issues. They may volunteer to work on issues inside or outside of work. They may be on sports teams, part of faith congregations, involved with various groups of friends, and members of families.
In reality, especially given accelerating change and increasing competition, employees need to be part of an ever-changing mix of teams that form and disband in response to continually changing needs of organizations at work, as well as in other parts of their lives. With this broader perspective, Amy Edmonson looks at “teaming” as a verb rather than a noun, a skill with a set of behaviors that help people to work with others.
The idea of teaming resonated strongly with me, perhaps in part because of my high school and college theater experiences. My formative experience of teaming in theater helped shape my leadership style. I loved the collaborative process of producing a play, especially the rehearsals, and tried to bring the joy that can come from team collaboration/creation to my leadership in Technical Communication.
In theater, a diverse temporary team collaborates to produce a play. The cast and crew are a team, including people with a variety of skills playing many roles: producer, writer/script, actors, director, set design, props, costumes, lighting, sound, and sometimes music. Rehearsals can be seen as experiments in how to stage and act the play. A common practice is to hold note sessions after each rehearsal to reflect on how that rehearsal went, diagnose problems, and plan the next rehearsal or experiments. During early rehearsals the director stops the actors, provides feedback or suggestions, and the actors try something again.
In my experience, some (arguably the best) directors asked for or at least welcomed input from key members of the cast and crew—or even all of them. They recognized that director/leaders often don’t have all the answers, and consciously sought to use the strengths and perspectives of the whole cast and crew/team. The director—and to some extent the actors—have the final decision, but the final performances benefit from the richness of diverse perspectives and contributions. At the end of the performances, the cast and crew disband and move on to other casts and crews in other plays.
This process of temporary teams forming to do something, then disbanding and forming into different teams, happens in organizational work in many spheres. Some behaviors are particularly helpful in making those teams successful.
The following behaviors help drive teaming success.
- Speaking up
Speaking up is key. Many of us have been on the proverbial Road to Abilene. In the educational video with that title, on a hot day before air conditioning, a family decides to go on a car ride to Abilene, TX. After an uncomfortable afternoon when everyone ends up exhausted, it turns out that no one wanted to go, but no one had the courage to speak up. Speaking up can take many forms: asking questions, sharing information, seeking help, talking about mistakes, or seeking feedback. These behaviors are fundamental to making improvements and solving problems. Without them, people go on doing the same old activities the same way, even if circumstances have made the old way no longer valid or useful. The reluctance to speak up can come from wanting to accommodate others or from fear, but in either case it is often counter-productive.
Collaboration is important because many problems are too complex for a single person to solve, and often individuals with different experiences have knowledge or perspectives that can be key to a solution. At Medtronic, “Kaizen” teams made up of people from various groups get together for 3-5 days of intensive work to explore and solve problems. I recently participated in one to better understand the whole information development and distribution process. Participants came from around the world, across divisions, and across many functions—Technical Communications, Translations, Packaging, Manufacturing, Supply Chain, Order Services, and IT. Representatives of those functions each understood one part of the elephant. Only by pooling our knowledge did we arrive at an overall picture of the information development and distribution processes—and therefore what might be necessary to change our processes to take advantage of a new European Union law that allows paper manuals in packages to be replaced by information distribution via the internet.
Experimentation is consciously exploring different options in order to better understand a problem and derive a solution. Just as in scientific experiments, one develops a hypothesis and then seeks to prove or disprove the hypothesis. Pilots of processes or systems, or proof-of-concept experiments, are intended to do that. Unfortunately too often pilots are set up to succeed no matter what or to prove a particular position rather than to truly push a system to see whether and where it breaks. Figuring out where a process or system breaks during a pilot can actually help ensure long-term success of a system.
Reflection is taking the time to think back on what worked or didn’t work, whether in a deliberate experiment or in something as simple as what one did that day. To be effective, it requires making conscious choices about what to do the next time.
Edmonson explains that while these team skills needed by employees are still important, they are no longer sufficient. In addition, more effective organizations cultivate employees skilled in recognizing when a team is needed and quickly forming a group to solve a particular problem, without waiting for a manager or someone higher in the organization to recognize and facilitate the team.
Furthermore, Edmondson asserts that teaming is necessary for organizations to become learning organizations, which in turn is key to innovation and therefore to successful competition. Innovation in particular requires experimentation followed by reflection and learning, in multiple cycles. Especially in endeavors that are complex and/or that require collaboration between many functions, for the organization to learn, and therefore to improve, people must form teams fluidly to solve problems and innovate.
Fortunately, whether they are theater directors or managers in a corporation, leaders have a lot of influence on teaming, on learning, and on innovation.
What Leaders do to encourage teaming, learning, and innovation
- Cultivate psychological safety
- Help frame the situation
- Cool and appropriately channel conflict
- Encourage experimentation
- Treat failures as learning opportunities
- Invent/encourage mechanisms for reflection and learning
- Help span boundaries between people and groups
- Recognize where a problem lies on the process knowledge continuum
Cultivate Psychological Safety
Perhaps the most important thing leaders can do is to help people feel safe. Only when people feel safe will they overcome their natural reluctance to take risks, including the risk of speaking up, which is a fundamental step in teaming. We’ve all seen leaders execute a messenger. To encourage the behaviors important to teaming, learning, and innovation, leaders should be accessible and approachable. It also helps to acknowledge the limits of current knowledge, invite participation, and to display fallibility. Edmondson tells a compelling story of hospitals getting widely different results in implementing a complex new technology. Surgeons tend to be undisputed kings of the operating room. Hospitals where surgeons asked for help and others’ ideas were far more successful in incorporating technology that made the hospitals competitive. Using direct language and setting boundaries are also helpful because they allow people to understand more clearly what is acceptable.
Help Frame the Situation
Leaders recognize problems and opportunities and then communicate the situation to stakeholders—their management chain, their people, peers, and others with a stake in the situation. They use persuasion and all its techniques to help people see things in a new way.
Cool and Appropriately Channel Conflict
Conflict is inevitable in organizations. In work situations, conflict about the content of the problem and how to solve it can be very useful, because it should lead to more robust solutions. On the other hand, leaders want to minimize or diffuse personal friction and clashes. Leaders need to identify the nature of a conflict. Edmonson points out that what appear to be personality conflicts may be differences in values. In such cases, it can be useful to discuss underlying assumptions and values. In all cases, leaders can model good communication. One of the best ways to cool and channel conflict is to identify shared goals. Leaders also should encourage difficult conversations in order to break through conflicts to solutions.
When my department at Medtronic was struggling after implementing a content management system several years ago, one of the managers realized we needed to better define new processes. He admitted we didn’t know the answers and that only by working together could we find them. His team listed all their questions on flipcharts posted around a war room. He then had them volunteer to tackle a few of the questions. The volunteers came up with tentative answers and then experimented to see whether their tentative answers worked in practice. Every week they came together to report results, document what worked, and design new experiments for answers that didn’t work. Such experimentation was especially useful because at that time we were in a relatively uncharted area.
Treat Failures as Learning Opportunities
In our culture, failure is almost always seen as negative. Edmonson usefully explains that there are many types of failures and that only a small fraction of failures are really blameworthy, say for example when someone intentionally does not follow a procedure, or fails because he or she is not really paying attention. However, many other types of failures are unavoidable, such as when the person doesn’t have the skills or training to do a task, when a process is faulty, when the procedure is too difficult to do it right every time, or when new complex factors interfere with the result.
Some “failures” are the result of experiments, where the whole purpose of the experiment is to see whether a hypothesis can be borne out.
In fact, as problems get more complex and as uncertainties grow, it becomes desirable to find the boundaries between what works and what doesn’t as quickly as possible I saw this at Medtronic as researchers were developing and testing revolutionary products. It doesn’t make business sense to pour dollars into directions or technologies that don’t work. So they pushed to identify failures as quickly as possible.
So in nearly all cases, failures are good opportunities to learn. I remember the story about a young manager who made a mistake that cost the company a million dollars. Expecting to be fired, the young manager offered to tender his resignation. The boss refused, saying, “I just paid a million dollars to educate you!”
In addition, often people learn best from failures. In almost all cases leaders will be better served to treat failures as learning opportunities. Figure 1 shows behaviors leaders can use to encourage learning as a result of failures.
Mechanisms for Reflection and Learning
One important role for a leader is to set up mechanisms that help people to reflect and learn. Encouraged by my own boss, a few years ago I asked my team to set up reviews at key phases in projects. Some of those were lessons learned after phases or projects. Others were at the beginning as plans were solidified. We invited key outsiders, including writers from other projects, and leaders from other key functions such as product development and translations. We asked for input and advice to help us avoid mistakes. Being asked to serve as an adviser became an honor as well as a responsibility. Over time, the practice of reflection and learning started to become part of the culture, so people began to do it automatically.
Help Span Boundaries
Another way that leaders can encourage teaming is by helping to span boundaries. By their nature teams are diverse. While that diversity in cultures, background, and perspective is a strength that can lead to more robust processes and solutions, diversity in teams is also a challenge. People from different cultures have different training and expertise, different languages (or different meanings for the same words), and different ways of thinking and acting. By cultures here I mean very broad differences. They could be geographic, but also functional (software engineers vs. electrical engineers vs. marketing people). Many leaders in CIDM have talked about the challenge of leading teams that span the globe.
Figure 2 lists some strategies and tactics for helping teams to span boundaries. Probably the most important is setting shared goals. Also, once I got over some initial squeamishness that doing so was a silly waste of time, I have found it very useful to name teams. Using an acronym that carries some meaning or connotations for the team is particularly effective. We named our global content management system (which integrated English and language translations) MAPS, for Medtronic Advanced Publishing System.
The Process Knowledge Spectrum
Edmondson posits that certain processes or operations tend to be routine, for example, automotive assembly. On the other end of the spectrum, for operations or processes where the outcomes are uncertain or unpredictable, innovation is required (think new product research and development). In between are complex processes such as those in hospitals. While some activities in a hospital are routine, outcomes are affected by a host of factors, making such an operation complex.
Going into more depth, Edmondson points out that even within a particular type of operation, some individual activities are routine, while others are complex or even innovative. The kinds of tools or practices vary according to the amount of uncertainty/complexity/need for innovation. Statistical process control fits well with routine operations in manufacturing. Complex operations often need cross-functional teams to explore and solve problems. Innovative operations must experiment and quickly find what works and what doesn’t (see Figure 3).
I think that most information development operations are complex most of the time, as are hospitals. Activities such as making PDFs are routine, but the overall process is quite complex, making schedules difficult to predict and often challenging to meet. However, I’ve worked with and reported to many people who assumed incorrectly that the work of information development was routine rather than complex. In part, I think that our work products appeared simple, at least in the past when we primarily made books.
Because information developers are used to dealing with complexity, but less frequently with innovation, I’ve noticed that as a field we sometimes don’t recognize situations that call for innovation. A prime example of that is implementing a content management system. I initially dealt with it as another complex scheduling and process issue, rather than one calling for experimentation and innovation in how we did our work. Another example is recognizing when we need to do something completely different to meet evolving customer needs—for example to move from producing enormous libraries of books to something more modular and focused on the most important customer needs.
Efficiency Focus vs. Learning Focus
Seen often only as cost centers, information development organizations tend to focus hard on efficiency. However, focusing exclusively on efficiency can actually be dangerous. At least tempering the efficiency focus with some on learning can help us to ensure we’re providing value to our larger organizations. Figure 4 illustrates some of the differences between an efficiency focus and a learning focus.
In order to help provide value to our organizations, information developers need to continually learn and innovate. Edmondson argues that due to the complex nature of the problems we face, and the uncertainty of many outcomes, we must often do such learning and innovation in teams. No one person has all the answers or a broad enough perspective even to understand the problems fully.
CIDM itself is in a sense team of people coming together to solve problems. In the case of the CIDM team, we share a lot of common problems, but we come from diverse organizations in many industries. Together we share our knowledge and expertise and jointly come up with ideas for better processes and solutions. But even so, “Best Practice” is and always will be a moving target.
About the Author:
Daphne Walmer & Associates
Daphne Walmer is a thought leader and expert in medical device labeling and user instructions, with over 30 years of management experience. Recently retired from Medtronic, where she was Director of Technical Communications, she is now available for consulting on medical device labeling and instructions, language translations, automated global content management, information distribution, and European Union eLabeling.
Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Complete in the Knowledge Economy
2012, San Francisco, CA
John Wiley & Sons
“Developmental sequence in small groups,”
Psychological Bulletin Volume 63 (6): 384-399