February 2013

Teaming is a Verb

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

In her 2012 book, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy1, Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School contends that a new kind of teamwork, which she labels teaming, is essential for organizational success. The teams she describes are dynamic rather than static, in that they form when needed to solve a problem or reach a goal.

Dynamic teaming groups consist of the individuals who are necessary to address the problem at hand, which means they may form quickly and just as quickly disband when the problem is solved. Teaming, as Edmondson asserts, is “teamwork on the fly.”

Information developers have long struggled with teamwork. More likely to be introverts than extraverts, they avoid the dynamic interactions required to solve complex problems that happen in response to new content structures and new ways of delivering content to customers. Because writing is viewed as a solitary activity, writers resist teaming—all those meetings steal time from more solitary writing tasks.

The move to content management and complex reuse strategies, however, requires that information developers participate in teaming. Content that was once individually composed is now a product of contributions from many individuals. Books that were once managed entirely by a single writer are now produced collectively, with shared content and complex filtering that produces multiple deliverables from the same source. Individuals who could concentrate on one product and create content that focused on product features and functions must now work with interrelated products that support complex customer requirements and customers who increasingly demand solutions to their real problems and goals.

Teaming is a new workplace imperative. It is a means of organizational learning in which individuals come together to understand what needs to happen and decide what solutions will be best.

Information developers, who need to move from being individual contributors to effective team members, are challenged by a teaming environment. They need leadership and guidance in the new behaviors necessary for their organizations to move forward and manage content in new, challenging ways.

Organizing to Execute versus Organizing to Learn

Organizing to Execute has been the dominant industrial model since the advent of the assembly line. By applying a scientific method to work, organizations gained efficiency. Each worker was measured by individual performance with respect to a well-organized process. Workers were primarily motivated by fear of being punished if they did something wrong. New ideas, innovations, better ways of working are often viewed as threats to the organization.

Most information developers will recognize the pattern if they are in organizations where meeting the deadline is the most important and often the sole objective. All organizational structures are in place to ensure that this assembly-line goal is met. Like every assembly line, the primary stipulation is that the outcome meets the specifications. That generally has meant that information should be accurate, sometimes based on rather dubious methods of ensuring accuracy. More often, the stipulation has devolved to ensuring that the content has no obvious errors in spelling, grammar, or formatting.

A focus on the assembly line outcomes does not respond to the changing requirements of the customer or the business. The assembly line simply cranks out the same content that it has always produced. Clearly, the assembly and the focus on Organizing to Execute is no longer a viable way to work.

Organizing to Learn means acknowledging that the world has changed since the 1910s or the 1950s. Information developers need to respond quickly to changing requirements. They need to reach out to customers to discover what information will fully support their goals. They need to embrace new technologies quickly and effectively to eliminate any costly and time-consuming manual tasks. And they need to thrive in the face of changing global demands.

Teaming is the foundation of an environment that is organized to learn. Teaming fosters interdependencies among people with a variety of skills, knowledge, and experience. It is the opposite of the individual, independent focus of traditional information development.

Crucial Behaviors for Effective Teaming

What seem to make teaming difficult are the basic behaviors that help team members be successful. Many of these behaviors require a more extroverted personality, which is often at odds with the introverted style of many information developers. Managers often express their frustration at changing these basic behaviors among their staff.

The four basic behaviors for effective teaming are

  • Speaking up
  • Collaboration
  • Experimentation
  • Reflection

Speaking Up

If you have ever been in a team meeting with programmers or engineers, you know how difficult it can be to speak up. Speaking up means asking questions, getting good feedback, talking about problems, asking for help, making suggestions, and discussing problems, mistakes, and concerns. It means acting as a fully recognized team member whose ideas and comments are valued, not dismissed or ignored. And, speaking up requires self-confidence.

A manager once told me that she was working hard to foster “push back behavior” among her writers. She wanted them to see themselves as equal to the product developers, not subservient. She worked hard with her staff to build their confidence. Part of the challenge is eliminating the assumption that information developers are lower in the hierarchy than other technical experts. Information developers must bring knowledge, skill, and expertise to the team, representing effectively the usability and learning requirements of the product users.


Collaboration has been a focus of mine for several years. In 2006, I added collaboration as one of the ten key characteristics required of successful organization in the Information Process Maturity Model. As Edmondson affirms, “collaboration is a way of working with colleagues that is characterized by cooperation, mutual respect, and shared goals.” For teaming to be successful, information developers must behave and be accepted as fully responsible members of the team.

Consequently, corporate hierarchies can impede collaboration and affect the ability of individuals to “speak up.” In too many corporations, some people are viewed as second-class citizens, not to be taken seriously and whose views are not respected. In an atmosphere that supports teaming, no one should be considered less important to the conversation.

You can find many of our articles on collaboration on the CIDM website and the special feature on collaboration. See <>


My oldest son is a medical researcher. He runs complex experiments with his highly skilled team of PhDs. Those experiments are designed to help them understand Alzheimer’s Disease or neuropathic pain. Unfortunately, because they are experiments, the experiments have a habit of going wrong.

A teaming group that is trying to tackle a complex problem must experiment with new ideas, like completely changing the kind of content being developed and delivered to customers. New ideas about information design must be tested with other team members and potentially tested with customers themselves.

As a result, an organizational culture that respects experimentation and accepts the idea that many experiments will go wrong is more likely to make people secure about trying something new. If the organizational culture punishes failures, then people will no longer introduce new ideas.


Because experiments can fail, because teaming is a process of learning rather than following a known process, members of a teaming group need time to consider their results and turn mistakes into successes and successes into even better ideas. Edmondson tells us that “reflection-in-action … is the critical, real-time examination of a process so it can be adjusted based on new knowledge or, most often, in response to subtle feedback received from the work itself.”

Sometimes reflection is part of the ongoing teaming process and occurs frequently. Sometimes reflection occurs at the end of the process with a more formal review. In either case, having the time to go over what went well and what could have been better is invaluable to the teaming process.

Benefits of Teaming

What might you expect if you introduced serious teaming into your organization? Teaming might help you discover new ways of working that help staff members become more effective. You might discover how to transform your information into something that would meet and exceed customer expectations.

In most of our organizations, we are trying to manage change in a way that promotes new learning and new ways of helping people perform well. Teaming is a way of improving performance by getting people to work together closely with the sole purpose of learning to perform more effectively.

We also know that when people are engaged in interesting and meaningful activities, they feel that they are making progress. Making progress toward an important goal is one of the hallmarks of successful and engaged team members.CIDMIconNewsletter

1 John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ, 2012