The problem: Stable teams that plan first and execute later are increasingly infeasible in the twenty-first century workforce. Coordination and collaboration are essential, but they happen in fluid arrangements, rather than in static teams.
Surviving—and thriving—in today's economic climate requires a seismic shift in how we think about and use teamwork.
As a means for getting the work done, we've got to focus on the interpersonal processes and dynamics that occur among people working together for shorter durations.
This means that people have to get good at "teaming"—reaching out, getting up to speed, establishing quickly who they are and what they bring, and trying to make progress without a blueprint. The skill set involves interpersonal awareness, skillful inquiry, and an ability to teach others what you know.
Teaming is very different from the idea of building a high-performance team to fit a known task. It is dynamic; learning and execution occur simultaneously. Teaming is the engine of organizational learning.
Managers need to shift from holding a static view of teamwork to this dynamic one.
The solution, is a teaming process that includes a deep recognition among individual players of the interdependency of their roles. This recognition leads naturally to early and consistent communication among formerly separate parties throughout their joint work. Once the task is completed, more communication—this time in the form of reflection and feedback—must take place.
Conversations can be brief—but they need to happen. And the impetus for having those conversations must come from the top. As a leader of a siloed, specialized workforce, your job is to see the bigger picture and create the culture whereby skills and knowledge of the workforce are expressed.
There's a growing recognition across all sectors about the importance of speaking up. The financial crisis can be tracked back to no small degree to people's reluctance to speak up with concerns about models and products that were likely to fail. It's up to leaders to foster the climate of psychological safety required to overcome that reluctance.
But getting employees to speak up is no easy task. The reality of hierarchical social systems is that people hold deeply ingrained, taken-for-granted beliefs that it's dangerous to speak up or disagree with those in power.
And management can be part of the problem without even knowing it.
People in positions of relative power often inadvertently reinforce the very messages that are already deeply ingrained in our mental models. Combating this takes conscious effort, including sending the message out that it is OK to fail.
Very few people set out to fail, to make mistakes. And in a dynamic, unpredictable, and often ambiguous world, failures will happen. Managers must accept their employees' failures as well as their own. The most counterproductive thing a manager can do is to come down hard in a punitive manner on a well-intentioned failure.
But not coming down hard doesn't mean coming down soft. Psychological safety is not about being nice; it's not about letting people off easy and being comfortable. It's about the courage to be direct and holding high expectations of each other, understanding that uncertainty and risk are part of the work, as is the occasional failure. A leader's challenge is to set a climate where psychological safety, accountability, and pressure to do the best possible work exist together.
We're in a new world, and our old management models don't fit as well as we would like. Those organizations that aren't harvesting and using the knowledge and ideas and questions of their members are not going to remain viable compared to competitors that do.