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What It Takes to Create a Team in a Dynamic Work Environment

This article was based on the TED Salon: Brightline Initiative Talk, “How to Turn a Group of Strangers into a Team,” by Amy Edmondson: 


What Is Teaming?

Teaming is teamwork on the fly. It’s coordinating and collaborating with people across different boundaries to get work done.

In sports, you have teams, but teaming is different. A sports team works together with the same members over time. It’s a stable, bounded, reasonably small group of people who are interdependent in achieving a shared outcome.  Teaming is more like a pickup game in the park, in contrast to the formal, well-practiced team.


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Teaming is becoming more prevalent in today’s working environment. With global, fast-paced operations, shifting schedules, and ever-narrower expertise, employees have to work with different people all the time.


Teaming in the Workplace

One place where this is true is in hospitals. Hospitals have to be open twenty-four hours a day, and the patients are always different in complicated and unique ways. The average hospitalised patient is seen by upwards of 60 different caregivers throughout a stay. They come from different shifts, different specialities, different areas of expertise, and they may not even know each other’s names. However, they have to coordinate in order for the patient to get great care and when they don’t, the results can be tragic.


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In teaming, the stakes aren’t always life and death. Consider what it takes to create an animated film.  There are scientists, artists, storytellers, and computer scientists teamed up in constantly changing configurations to create amazing outcomes like “Frozen.” They work together, and never the same group twice, not knowing what’s going to happen next.

Now, taking care of patients in the emergency room and designing an animated film are obviously very different work. Yet underneath the differences, they have a lot in common. You have to get different expertise at different times, you don’t have fixed roles, you don’t have fixed deliverables, you’re going to be doing a lot of things that have never been done before, and you can’t do it in a stable team.


Solving Big Problems

This way of working isn’t easy, but it is becoming the norm, and we need to understand it. It’s especially necessary for work that’s complex and unpredictable and for solving big problems. Paul Polman, the Unilever CEO, put this really well when he said, “The issues we face today are so big and so challenging, it becomes quite clear we can’t do it alone, and so there is a certain humility in knowing you have to invite people in.”


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Overcoming Obstacles to Teaming

There is a problem that happens often in teaming, and that is a “professional culture clash.” Different people think differently. They have different values, different time frames, different jargon, and different languages and they don’t always see eye to eye. Professional culture clash can be a major barrier in teaming.

This professional culture clash can be overcome with leadership. When teaming works, leaders at all levels admit that they don’t have the answers. This is known as “situational humility.” It’s appropriate humility. This situational humility combined with curiosity creates a sense of psychological safety that allows people to take risks with strangers. It’s hard to ask for help and to offer an idea when you are among people you don’t know very well. You need psychological safety to do that. It’s hard to learn if you already know and unfortunately, we’re hardwired to think we know. We need to remind ourselves to be curious about what others bring. That curiosity can also spawn a kind of generosity of interpretation.

There’s another barrier, and that is competition. It’s hard to team if you see others as competitors. We have to overcome that one as well, and when we do, the results can be tremendous.


A Teaming Mindset

Abraham Lincoln said once, “I don’t like that man very much. I must get to know him better.” This is the mindset you need for effective teaming. In our silos, we can get things done, but when we step back, reach out, and reach across, miracles can happen. To get there, we need to be able to quickly find the unique talents, skills, and hopes of our neighbours, and in turn, convey to them what we bring.


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