A New Way of Working
Success in today’s complex and volatile business environment requires flexibility, coordination, and collaboration. Teaming is a dynamic way of working that provides the necessary coordination and collaboration without the luxury (or rigidity) of stable team structures.
Teaming and its associated interpersonal behaviors support organizational learning, and require the right leadership mindset to optimize outcomes. This way of working allows employees to grow personally and professionally, whereas traditional top-down and assembly-line models treated workers like children who must be told what to do.
Organizing to learn represents this leadership mindset. Organizing to learn is a way of leading that encourages speaking up, asking questions, and sharing ideas so as to promote collective learning. Execution-as-learning is a way of operating that folds continuous learning into the day-by-day work process. Execution-as-learning usually happens in teams and is supported by the leadership practices of organizing to learn.
Teaming to Learn, Innovate, and Compete
Although teaming is imperative in today’s organizations, neither teams nor organizations naturally do it well. Successful teaming requires four behaviors: speaking up, collaboration, experimentation, and reflection. These behaviors are enacted in iterative cycles. Each new cycle is informed by the results of the previous cycle. Cycles continue until desired outcomes are achieved.
There are several benefits to teaming. These benefits fall into two categories: better organizational performance and more engaging and satisfying work environments. The collaborative behaviors required by teaming, however, create group tensions and conflict. Leaders who do not grasp the concept that conflict is desirable to teaming and who do not learn the skills necessary to confront conflict are destined to fail.
To moderate conflict, leaders should identify the nature of the conflict, model good communication, identify shared goals, and encourage difficult conversations. Due to the challenges of teaming, particular attention should be paid to the role of leadership. The mindset and practices of organizing to learn enable both teaming and learning.
Successfully implementing an organizing-to-learn mindset involves four actions: framing for learning, making it psychologically safe, learning to learn from failure, and spanning occupational and cultural boundaries.
The Power of Framing
Frames are interpretations that individuals rely on to sense and understand their environment. Most of the time, framing occurs automatically. Reframing is a powerful leadership tool for shifting behaviors and enrolling people in change. How people working in an organization, especially those in leadership positions, frame a project can determine the difference between success and failure.
Successfully framing a new initiative that calls for both teaming and learning is about roles and goals: the leader’s role, team members’ roles, and the teaming effort’s goal or purpose. In framing their role, leaders must explicitly communicate their interdependence and express both their own fallibility and the need for collaboration.
In defining team members’ roles, leaders need to emphasize that they have picked skilled people who are vital to the success of the project. To inspire and unite team members, leaders must communicate a clear and compelling purpose. Establishing a learning frame involves four iterative steps: enrollment, preparation, trial, and reflection.
To reinforce a learning frame: use verbal and visual discourse; explain desired interpersonal and collaborative behaviors in practical terms; initiate activities that facilitate new routines and help build confidence; and use artifacts to visually reinforce elements of the frame.
To achieve better teaming or learning results, experiment with the following individual tactics: tell yourself that the project presents an exciting opportunity; see yourself as critical to a successful outcome; tell yourself that others are important to a successful outcome; and communicate with others as if the preceding three points are true.
Making It Safe to Team
Psychological safety describes individuals’ perceptions regarding the consequences of interpersonal risks in their work environment. Four specific image risks that people face at work are being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In psychologically safe environments, characterized by both trust and respect, people believe that if they make a mistake or ask for help, others will not penalize them.
Because psychological safety encourages self-expression and productive discussion, it’s essential to teaming and organizational learning. Psychological safety is not about being nice or about lowering performance standards. Instead, psychological safety allows groups to set high goals and work toward them through collaboration and collective learning.
Research reveals seven specific benefits provided by psychological safety: it encourages speaking up, enables clarity of thought, supports productive conflict, mitigates failure, promotes innovation, moderates the relationship between goals and performance, and increases employee accountability.
Hierarchy and the fear it creates negatively affect psychological safety. Research shows that lower-status team members generally feel less safe than higher-status members. Leaders play crucial roles in promoting a psychologically safe organization. But psychological safety cannot be simply authorized or mandated. Instead, it requires specific leadership actions.
In attempting to establish an environment of psychological safety, the emphasis should be on the group’s tasks, how they’re changing, and what’s needed to do them well. This makes the need for psychological safety a conclusion that people can discover for themselves.
To cultivate a psychologically safe environment, leaders should be accessible and approachable, acknowledge the limits of current knowledge, be willing to display fallibility, invite participation, refrain from penalizing failure, use direct language, set boundaries, and hold people accountable.
Failing Better to Succeed Faster
When bringing together people with different perspectives and skills, failure is inevitable because of both technical and interpersonal challenges. Failures provide valuable information that allows organizations to be more productive, innovative, and successful. But due to strong psychological and social reactions to failing, most of us see failure as unacceptable.
Logically, we can see that many failures in organizations cannot be prevented, but emotionally, it’s hard to separate failure from blame. This leads to the types of punitive reactions that cause many failures to go unreported or misdiagnosed.
The causes of failure vary across the Process Knowledge Spectrum. In routine operations, failures are usually caused by small process deviations. Failures in complex operations are usually due to faulty processes or system breakdowns. In innovation operations, failures are usually due to uncertainty and experimentation.
Although there are an infinite number of things that can potentially go wrong in organizations, failures can be grouped into three broad categories: preventable failures, complex failures, and intelligent failures. Leaders looking to develop a learning approach to failure should adopt an inquiry orientation that reflects curiosity, patience, and a tolerance for ambiguity. Doing so makes it safe to talk about failures and reinforces norms of openness.
Failure detection, failure analysis, and purposeful experimentation are critical to learning from failures. To encourage failure detection, leaders need to embrace the messenger, gather data and solicit feedback, and reward failure detection. To support failure analysis, leaders should convene interdisciplinary groups and take a systematic approach to analyzing data.
To promote purposeful experimentation, leaders must reward both experimentation and failure, use terminology that counteracts psychological barriers to learning from failure, and design intelligent experiments that generate more smart failures.
Teaming Across Boundaries
People teaming in today’s workplaces are unlikely to be homogenous in beliefs, attitudes, or opinions. When not managed consciously and carefully, these differences can inhibit collaboration. The term boundaries refers to both visible and invisible divisions between people, including gender, occupation, or nationality. Boundaries exist based on the taken-for-granted assumptions and diverse mindsets that people hold in different groups.
Boundary spanning involves deliberate attempts to reach across the barriers that exist within and between groups of all kinds. Rapid developments in technology and the greater emphasis on globalization have greatly increased the significance of boundary spanning in today’s work environment.
The three most common boundaries confronted in teaming are: physical distance (differences in location), knowledge-based (differences in organization or expertise), and status (differences in hierarchical or professional status).
Establishing a superordinate goal, fostering curiosity, and providing process guidelines are important leadership actions for promoting good communication across boundaries. To overcome geographic boundaries, group members should make periodic visits to other sites, pay close attention to unique local knowledge, and contribute to knowledge repositories and exchanges.
To overcome knowledge boundaries created by organizational diversity, group members should share individual perspectives, emphasize the value brought by each organization, and establish a collective identity. To overcome knowledge boundaries created by occupational diversity, groups should share expertise-based knowledge, establish a collective identity, and use boundary objects, such as drawings, models, and prototypes. To overcome hierarchical boundaries and minimizing experienced status gaps, leaders should be inclusive and proactively engage group members in conversation.