Take some time to gander at the nightly sports scene on television these days and you’ll find plenty of teamwork taking place. Both the NHL and NBA playoffs are charging fast, professional baseball has shaken off its April rust, and, before you know it, the dog days of August will arrive and football teams will start up their annual preseason training camps.
There are also plenty of teams in business as well. Organizations traditionally break individual business units into teams — or departments — and often much of the heavy work is accomplished in a team-oriented environment.
Yet as organizational design has propelled toward a more horizontal construct — where collaboration often occurs across the functional units of a business —a different brand of teamwork is taking place.
In her new book, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, Harvard Business School professor Amy C. Edmondson describes “teaming.” Never mind the usual project teams employees are used to working with — those that tend to last for an elongated period of time, perhaps three to six months.
Teaming, Edmondson said, is more about working together on short projects — say a week, maybe less — and learning to function effectively with people from different business units who perhaps come from different backgrounds, both professionally and personally.
“We see the need for people to get together quickly in team-like arrangements, get things done and disband,” said Edmondson, whose research and teaching is focused on leadership and management.
Other teaming specialists seem to agree.
“When you have cross-functional teams, many of these people are not used to working together outside of their discipline,” said Glenn Parker, a team building consultant and the author of Team Players And Teamwork. “So the ability to work with people who are different quickly, have a different work style, experience, goals … as a result, we need a lot of the same kind of [teaming] skills.”
As the need for teaming grows, it becomes partly the responsibility of the learning leader to take the reins and ensure that leaders are equipped to team.
In her book, Edmondson described this process as framing — or “interpretations that individuals rely on to sense and understand their environment.” Most of the time, framing occurs automatically, Edmondson wrote, but some of the time it becomes a powerful leadership tool for “shifting behaviors and enrolling people to change.”
“It’s the activity of connecting coordination and collaboration,” Edmondson said. “Those seem pretty simple, yet my research and others’ would suggest they don’t always happen.”
First and foremost, a learning leader — or any leader looking to frame a productive teaming environment — should articulate a clear and compelling goal and routine for the team, Edmondson said. Define each member’s roles and emphasize that they were picked for a reason. Also, make sure that the environment that team is working in is safe — so “people are willing to take risks of novelty,” Edmondson said.
More broadly, Edmondson said learning leaders should instigate and support team-based learning activates throughout the organization.
“If you’re a CLO, the first thing you might do is pull [in] your senior colleagues to think about the learning needs,” she said. “We should get together and brainstorm and think; it should be clear to people that we’re doing that; and that should both model and help create the condition so the people from the front line should be able to do the same thing.”
Teaming also requires certain leadership skills, which can be passed along through an organization’s normal learning or leadership development activities.
Parker said short-term teams require people who are flexible and willing to think outside the box. Cross-functional teams will often come together with different approaches to solving certain business problems, he said, so flexibility is especially important.
Being conscious of culture is also important. With the growth in globalization and need to work across countries and continents — often in virtual environments — being culturally conscious is vital. Communication is a big part of that.
“When I work in an international environment,” Parker said, “I’m quite careful as to how I communicate. I’m brief, direct and to the point.”
Edmondson agrees that learning leaders should spend some time training, or refreshing, on some basic conversational skills, such as how to have productive conversations, manage conflict and solve problems.
“These are the skills through which we learn to listen to each other in such a way as we could get each other’s insights and offer our own and integrate them effectively,” Edmondson said.
Among the most important teaming skills to be learned, however, are what Edmondson called boundary-spanning skills. Learning leaders should encourage leaders to get to know the jargon and language of other functions and business units, so when teaming does suddenly need to occur, individuals are better prepared to function quickly and efficiently.
Parker added another vital skill in quick teaming: trust. “Swift trust turns it on its head and says, I’m going to begin with an idea that I can do that — that I trust you and all of the other people that I’m teaming with right here,” he said.
Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer. He can be reached at fkalman@CLOmedia.com.