Home/Publications/Best Practices Newsletter/2013 – Best Practices Newsletter/Teaming—How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy


August 2013


Teaming—How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy

CIDMIconNewsletter Bill Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

The venue for CIDM’s 15th annual Best Practice conference will be the beautiful city of Savannah, Georgia from Sunday, the 15th of September through Wednesday, the 18th. We have two theme books for this conference. The first is Transforming Business: Big Data, Mobility and Globalization written by Allison Cerra, who will give this year’s keynote address.

The second theme book is Teaming—How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy by Amy C. Edmondson. Here I am reviewing Edmondson’s book.

What is Teaming? How Does it Differ from a Team Organization?

Edmondson makes some important distinctions between “Teaming” and teams. The way we create technical publications has changed since the 1970’s. We all remember being employed to write manuals. We were assigned a particular volume, “User’s Guide”, “Maintenance Manual”, “Quick Start”, ……….. Our boss would assign us a manual to write. We wrote the entire manual from beginning to publication, in the arbitrary deadline our boss gave us. The boss evaluated our work. That was it, provided that we designed a spiffy cover and met the deadline. The good thing about this system was that we individually “owned” the manual and used it to get a new job after we could no longer stand working at our current job.

We commonly call this group of writers and specialists a team. In a stable organization, the team stays together as a cohesive, collaborative group and does project after project.

Edmondson writes that many organizations have gone a step further. Teams are created from a pool of available specialists to work on a particular project. The team created is temporary. After project completion, the team members become available to be placed on a new team. This process is “teaming.”

It’s easy to come up with examples. Think of a baseball team. It stays together all season. Staffing a team for the all-star game is teaming. A grand jury is a team put together that looks at many cases. However, a petit jury is teaming, brought together for a specific trial and then dissolved and available for jury duty later. Forest firefighter hotshot teams are organized as teams. U.S. military units are organized as a hierarchy of teams.

Edmondson points out that teams and teaming have advantages and disadvantages. Teams are more cohesive. There’s more time to get to know each other than for teaming. It’s more difficult to add a new person to a team because of this cohesiveness. It makes hiring more difficult. Status on a team partly depends on seniority. For teaming, seniority is the same for all members. Status depends on knowledge and experience. Teaming allows the selection of team members after the needs for specialization are well known. Teams tend to be less specialized because they are created before the details of their project are well defined. When a team needs a specialist, it may have to go outside of the team to find the specialization it needs.

After the definitions, Edmondson discusses the process and benefits of teaming.

Teaming to Learn

Teaming is a temporary collaboration of people with different experiences, skills, and status for the purpose of accomplishing a goal. Some may be very specialized in their contribution to the team. Others will have a broader role. A group learning process must occur, both internally to learn about each other and externally to learn about the project assigned. The goals of each member of the team must be in line with the team goals.

Team members must all be willing to speak up and promote their ideas. They must be willing to collaborate closely with others and be willing to experiment with ideas and process to reach the team’s goals. It is important that the team members be willing to analyze the results of their efforts and change the project direction if necessary. Edmondson refers to this as “reflection.” Facts and reality count. Leadership is important.


Frames are interpretations of team goals that all members agree on. When a team is assembled, the members may not initially be clear about the direction of the team. Framing is important to bring the members of the team from a skilled and experienced disparate collection of people to a cohesive team that can work toward a common goal and achieve that goal.

Psychological Safety

In a team that is functioning well, all members of the team have to feel that their opinions are important and will be taken seriously regardless of their status on the team. As we know from our experiences in hierarchical situations, many times the manager’s recommendations are closely followed even though he or she frequently is not the most knowledgeable person in the department. I am always amazed that after fully researching an issue, members of the Comtech team will sometimes expect me to make a decision with little or no information on my part. I am tempted to make a quick reply when I should ask that the fully researched path be followed.


Failure is an important learning tool in Teaming. Failure is not the same as error. Edmondson uses the term trial and failure rather than trial and error. Failure is the inability to accomplish a task or goal. An error is not following a prescribed procedure. Although all of the facts are not yet in, it seems that the crew of the recent airplane crash in California made errors in not monitoring their landing speed correctly. The result was a failure to land the plane safely.

Failures are not always the result of errors. Suppose my goal is to be the first man over age 70 to run a four minute mile. I train and train, but am never able to achieve my goal. My failure was not caused by an error.

The more complex the path is toward a goal, the more likely a failure will occur. Failure is not permanent. Failure can be overcome by pursuing a different direction or by changes in technology.


As with any organizational structure, good leadership is the key to success for teaming. It’s your responsibility, as teaming leader, to staff your team correctly so that all necessary skills and experience are in place and to choose team members who are comfortable and can contribute to a collaborative environment.

You must frame your goals carefully and communicate to the entire team. Each member’s goals should be compatible with the team’s goals and ultimately with your goals.

Let the members of the team you put together know about teaming. Assure them that all members of the team have serious ideas, and you expect them to promote those ideas. Encourage them to learn as a group and to learn from their failures.

Try It!

Can teaming work for publications departments? You probably are already using some aspects of teaming.

Although we are not strictly a publications organization, JoAnn and I have been moving to a team organization at Comtech for about five or six years to allow us to have more time for ourselves and to prepare our staff to be able to carry on with less direction from us and hopefully ultimately without us. It has been a successful and rewarding experience. We are a small organization and have only one permanent team so we are not strictly doing teaming, but many of the challenges and rewards are similar.

We are incorporating some of Edmondson’s ideas to staff and managing some of our consulting projects. At the beginning of projects for customers, such as conversions to DITA, we use teaming principles to put together and manage a team of customers and Comtech consultants for the execution of the project.

If you think some of Amy Edmondson’s ideas are worth a try or want to learn more about Teaming, I strongly recommend that you read her book. I found the book full of ideas but a little wordy at times. She does provide lots of tables and bullet points at the end of each chapter summarizing the chapter to help you remember the major points. It’s an easy read, and you can easily skip some sections if you are pressed for time.

Daphne Walmer and Ron Hickman are presenting a talk about Teaming at the Best Practices conference in September. If you’re planning to come to the Best Practices conference, don’t miss their session. CIDMIconNewsletter