What Is Teaming?

The Need for Teaming

Amy Edmonson, Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, coined the phrase in her book ‘Teaming: How Organisations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy.’ She describes it as a verb referring simply to ‘teamwork on the fly.’

We usually think of a team as a stable entity. For example, a business unit in which team members have been together for some time. They may be happily ensconced at either Stage 3 or 4 in Tuckman’s Stages of Team Development model. They are norming and performing their way towards their business goals.

Not all teams are stable entities though. Recall the rescue of the Wild Boars football team from the Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai in 2018. This was a unique situation and there was no script or playbook for the rescuers to follow.

A team of experts was quickly pulled together. It consisted of Thai Government officials, Navy SEALs, foreign cave diving specialists, drilling engineers and islanders from South Thailand who were experts in collecting bird nests from cave environments. I’m not sure what the technical term is for bird nest collectors.

Not only did these individuals bring a wide range of skills, they also brought differing ideas, viewpoints, priorities and personalities. They had never met before and were faced with a crisis that had never been seen before.

Just think how hard it is for a work committee in your office to make a simple decision about what brand of coffee to buy for the rec room. Now, imagine what the cave rescuers were dealing with in this extreme pressure environment.

Yet, somehow, they pulled it off and safely rescued all 12 boys and their coach in what was a truly outstanding demonstration of skill and teamwork.

This rescue was teaming in action.

A New Leadership Approach

In many industries, Taylorism still dominates even today. KPIs are monitored, systems tweaked to make them ever more efficient and repetitive. Predictability is still king. This is fine in certain types of industry. Indeed, it’s required. Manufacturing, for example. These companies are ‘organising to execute,’ according to Edmonson.

But this approach is wholly inadequate for much of today’s tertiary and knowledge-based economy. The globalisation of modern business requires innovation and flexibility. Ford and Taylor would struggle in today’s world. Rather than ‘organising to execute,’ teaming requires leaders to ‘organise to learn.’

Edmonson explains that organising to learn is a leadership style that looks to enhance collaboration and learning by doing. Experimentation, questioning the status quo and sharing feedback are all crucial to the teaming process. In this system, things are not set in stone and leaders should seek out alternative perspectives.

As business becomes even more complex and globalisation requires solutions yesterday, the ability to pivot is what sets companies apart.

It Doesn’t Come Naturally

The principles of teaming apply to both ad hoc teams as well as traditional, stable teams – but it doesn’t come naturally. It’s a new way of working and requires modern leaders to change their style, moving away from the command-and-control approach that has been engrained in many leaders’ minds. I am still surprised at how common micromanagement is in today’s workplaces. We can and must do better.

Modern Business Requires Modern Solutions

The modern business world is vastly different from the world of just twenty or thirty years ago. The rise of freelancing and the hyperspecialisation of roles means that team members may change on a weekly basis. The speed and complexity of global business and communication in the 21st century may require project teams to come together rapidly and deal with an unfolding international PR crisis.

Traditional leadership styles do not allow for the high level of innovation and rapid decision-making that is required these days.

It is clear then that teaming, as a verb, should be added to every leader’s vocabulary.