Teams that Work on the Fly: An Oxymoron?

Many of the organizations I work with believe in the power of ‘the team.’ Yet, with the speed of change these days, leaders struggle to find enough time to build stable, effective teams.

The latest organizational strategy for addressing complex, wicked, or new problems has been dubbed ‘teaming.’* Create a virtual pickup team of internal and external experts, bring them together to address moving targets, flex the team membership as needs change, and disband the group when goals are achieved or a fresh opportunity arises. Think swarming tactics in the military—or flash mobs with a purpose.

Sounds great—in theory.

In practice, there’s a missing link here. And that missing link has to do with mastering relationships between people who are at different stage of development as human beings. Leaders need an awareness of how to use the dynamic interplay between themselves and team members to create the conditions for effective learning, collaboration and teamwork.

I’ve been studying the work being done in the area of the stages of human development for the last several years. As I incorporate my own learning and experiences in this area into my work with leaders and organizations, I’m seeing how understanding what distinguishes these stages can help leaders succeed at ‘teaming.’

A couple of stories to illustrate…

The High Achiever

Teams of experts are often led by ‘Achievers,’ individuals with a strong drive to move forward under a common purpose. Yet Achievers find it difficult to bring Experts together to coordinate their actions towards a specific outcome. There is a world of difference between what drives an Expert and what concerns an Achiever. Knowing what distinguishes these two different ways of experiencing work can help leaders and their teams begin to come together with laser-like focus.

At a global technology company I work with, for example, one Achiever leader couldn’t get her experts to coalesce as a group. The dynamic between this leader and her team had them all deadlocked in frustration. The organizational culture valued performance above all else: everyone lived under the threat of assessments and evaluations. Everyone operated as disparate individualists, each holding their ground in their own area of expertise, each covering their own butt (as they say). After three team problem-solving sessions, the team had a record of 0 for 3.

Once I gave the Experts the experience of a ‘quick win’ together in the classroom, they could see how reaching more towards one another and developing some effective behaviors for relating as a team, could actually work. This newfound way of relating to each other needed leadership support to stay alive. The leader’s Achiever tendency to focus on evaluating, assessing and judging wouldn’t help here. So I coached the leader to acknowledge her team members, leverage what had been started, and focus on building momentum.

An opening? Yes. The end of the story? Far from it.

The Catalyst

Awareness of our differences opens the door for teams to work. But awareness alone doesn’t create a culture in which people can effectively work and evolve and ‘team’ together. Enter the Catalyst leader.

At one of the multinationals I work with, one such leader saw me bring this understanding of the Expert/Achiever dynamic to developing a way for several workstreams to operate effectively together. Later, when two teams were being brought together under two leaders to work on specific real-life problems, he saw an opportunity for learning to take place across the entire group. He could see that the members of the whole combined team could develop themselves as Achievers—effectively making it possible for the entire group to operate at this level.

While coaching the two team leaders in getting comfortable with their roles and creating a structure for their combined group, I also worked with them on creating opportunities for the most vocal Experts in the group to be heard and recognized for their contributions.  Encouraged to contribute wherever a pull existed for their specific expertise, the Experts soon rose above their need to be acknowledged and began to work and think at the global level. No matter where they operate in the company now, they’ll be bringing this to the people they work with and the projects they undertake.

I don’t think ‘teaming’ will be going away anytime soon. Neither will our need as leaders to understand the complexities of this being human thing.

Leadership and the human stages of development: definitely an area worth exploring in more depth.

More later…

(Now where did that expert’s manual on ‘being human’ go…???)


* “Teamwork on the Fly” by Amy C. Edmondson, Harvard Business Review, November 2012 issue

© 2012 Lori Brewer Collins.



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