Helen Edwards, Editor K & IM Refer
The extraordinary rescue of 33 miners from a collapsed mine in the Atacama region of North Chile in 2010 after 70 days underground is a classic example of “the enormous potential of diverse experts coming together to innovate to overcome a nearly impossible challenge.” In their new book Extreme Teaming: Lessons in Complex, Cross-Sector Leadership, Amy C. Edmondson and Jean-Francois Harvey introduce the concept of “extreme teaming”. These are the processes by which modern teams, consisting of members from different organisations, occupations, industries and cultures, can actually succeed in working together on complex multi-faceted projects.
Extreme teams face a number of challenges. Unlike stable teams, which have been the focus of most academic study to date, cross-sector teams are made up of “shifting groups of people working collaboratively towards shared goals”. This means they have to learn to work together as they go along rather than capitalising on previous successes. Instead of sharing a common professional culture, members of extreme teams come from diverse backgrounds, often having to work with people they would not normally chose to interact with. Even within disciplines there is increasing specialisation, a result of the so-called “knowledge explosion” as expertise becomes ever deeper and narrower.
The common premise behind creating diverse teams is that such “teams expand their knowledge resources by bringing together diverse individuals, because each one offers a set of ideas and perspectives; bringing these inventories of expertise together makes them all available to the team’s work.” Unfortunately the research described by the authors shows that, in itself, this knowledge diversity does not necessarily lead to better results. Diverse knowledge is often underutilized. Instead teams face “the common knowledge effect – that is, the tendency of a teams possessing diverse information to inadvertently spend their time discussing information that is common to all members, rather than identifying and using members’ unique information.” This can be associated with lower rather than higher performance. The authors comment: “knowledge is socially embedded and context dependent, such that it can be difficult to transfer knowledge developed in a previous context and simply apply it to a new one.”
The central argument of the book is that it is the role of the leader to provide the “enabling conditions” so that knowledge can be effectively shared. This can be done by developing common ground and shared meaning. Knowledge representations such as objects, stories and metaphors can be very useful in establishing shared mental models. Specifically the authors describe the value of “boundary objects” to help members communicate with each other. These include drawings, diagrams, models and blueprints that help to crystalise the understanding of all team members. Boundary objects are also useful in managing the interfaces between the various experts: “the identification and orchestration of interfaces between project participants who did not know each other well and worked in different fields could easily make the difference as to whether development activities were transferred effectively from one group to another, or from one process stage to another.” Managing the knowledge boundaries present within a project also involves identifying when knowledge can simply be transferred without negotiation or translation and the “structural holes”, gaps where neither side had yet developed the necessary knowledge.
The leader also needs to foster diversity mindsets. The purpose of this is to “clarify diversity-related goals and procedures how to achieve these goals, the main goals being the elimination of intergroup bias and facilitation of team learning”. There is also a social dimension. A major challenge for the cross-functional team lies in the underlying beliefs people have about how work is done. The authors comment: “some of the most important taken-for –granted assumptions relate to timeframes, work, priorities and values.” They advise: “helping extreme teamers become boundary-crossing tourists, eager to learn from other professional cultures, is a necessary first step in innovating together.” There is more to extreme teaming than simply information sharing and avoiding conflict. Team members need to engage in “perspective taking” and realise that “the distinct perspectives of project participants to be a boon to be leveraged, not a difficulty to be managed.”
Extreme Teaming: Lessons in Complex, Cross-Sector Leadership
Amy C. Edmondson and Jean-Francois Harvey
Emerald Publishing, 2017.
K & IM Refer 34 (1), Spring 2018