For over a century, we’ve focused too much on relentless execution and depended too much on fear to get things done. That era is over. Underlying the notion of a simple, controllable production system was the notion of a simple, controllable employee. In the factory model of management, it was easy to monitor workers and measure their output. But work today increasingly requires the applications of specialized skills and knowledge. Workers are expected to identify issues, analyze problems, and create new solutions. This shift has changed the dynamic of the workplace and the relationship between those in charge and those doing the work. The most successful leaders in the future will be those who have the ability to develop the talents of others.
In my new book, I define Teaming as a way of working that brings people together to generate new ideas, find answers and solve problems. I show how teams organize to learn as opposed to organize to execute; and show how the operational approach of execution-as-learning folds continuous learning into the day-by-day work process.
At its best, teaming clarifies and magnifies human capacity. But teaming is challenging and often counterintuitive. It conflicts with many of our natural and socially developed behaviors. Cultivating the conditions in which people can speak up, learn from each other, and experiment safely expands what can be created and what can be accomplished.
In my book, I show how teaming worked to support the survival of Chilean miners, as well as how teaming broke down and failed to save the astronauts on the Columbia mission. I explain how many activities in the modern organization – including the care of a hospitalized ten-year old – depend on effective teaming across professional boundaries. Today execution-as-learning is more than a new way to operate and a new way to compete. It’s a new way to survive in complex endeavors. You don’t need more examples of organizations today that face challenges, flounder, fail, or just make people unhappy, to understand the imperative for change. Some of the practices I propose in my book are difficult or unnatural to put into practice. Human beings may be hard-wired for power struggles, greed, and workplace conflicts, but we also derive enormous pleasure from creating, sharing, and implementing new ideas with other people.
Just as management in organizations of the past gave rise to an execution-as-efficiency mindset, the knowledge economy in which today’s organizations compete gives rise to expertise silos that inhibit the teaming needed to solve challenging global-scale problems. It is becoming increasingly clear that teaming in the future will require crossing boundaries that are organizational as well as disciplinary. Few of today’s most pressing social problems can be solved within the four walls of any organization, no matter how enlightened or extraordinary. Climate change, education, transportation, urbanization, and energy use are just some of the areas in which innovative solutions are needed to ensure a safe, healthy, viable future for people and organizations around the world.
Today execution-as-learning is more than a new way to operate and a new way to compete. It’s a new way to survive in complex endeavors.
Old models of competition increasingly don’t serve these purposes. Businesses, as my Harvard colleague Marco Iansiti understood a while ago, thrive when they are part of healthy ecosystems. Dominating and weakening one’s competitors or suppliers is no longer a winning strategy. Technology giants like Microsoft and Google have been thriving in this new game. Now it’s time for older industries to take ecosystems, and the cross-industry teaming they involve, seriously. Organizations within, say, the automotive industry are less likely to collaborate to find solutions to global issues like fuel efficiency and carbon emissions if they carry the execution-as-efficiency mindset into the future. When today’s efficiencies matter more than tomorrow’s sustainability, teaming and innovation both lose.
When organizations operate with an execution-as-learning mindset, sharing across boundaries is natural. Toyota has long sought to teach its suppliers and even its competitors how to implement its remarkable execution-as-learning mindset and production system. Intermountain Healthcare works tirelessly to teach other hospitals how to implement its unique form of “improvement science” into the fabric of their operations, too. The wildly successful innovation consultancy, IDEO, happily assists other companies in transforming their cultures to support innovation. When execution and learning become intertwined, the focus appears to shift naturally to increasing the size (and quality) of the pie, away from fighting over pieces and scraps. Generating ideas to solve problems is the currency of the future; teaming is the way to develop, implement, and improve those ideas.
With the rise of knowledge-based organizations in the information age, unhealthy competition can make people reluctant to share ideas or best practices with colleagues in other groups or organizations. This blocks teaming. But without teaming, new ideas cannot flourish in organizations. Teaming across distance, knowledge, and status boundaries is increasingly vital, as old models (economic, political, organizational), old technologies, and old mindsets prove cumbersome in the face of new challenges.
Increasingly, businesses and nations confront problems that dwarf even the largest challenges I discuss in my book—problems such as building sustainable cities, developing new energy sources, and evolving new behaviors in everyday life to better conserve dwindling resources. Transforming health care delivery systems, creating radically new business models, designing innovative ecosystems for collaboration, and learning new ways to live together in sustainable communities in the future are just some of the collaborative challenges we face. Few of these can be addressed by single organizations or even by single sectors (business or government)—let alone by individuals—working alone. Progress will require teaming across disciplines, companies, sectors, and nations. There is no doubt that new endeavors in these arenas will produce failures along the way. Let’s learn from them.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, from Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy by Amy C. Edmondson. Copyright (c) 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.