I think one of the best recent books on social capital related topics is Extreme Teaming by Amy Edmondson, who I note in The Social Organization has previously introduced the ideas of teaming and psychological safety.
Teaming is about the idea that people join and form teams increasingly frequently, and therefore the team (the noun) starts to become less important than the ability to team (the verb).
Psychological Safety is the trust people have that others in their team (and I would argue, other types of group) have to have that others have their back, ie that they will be supported when they take a risk.
The idea of Extreme Teaming in the new book extends the idea to complex, cross sector and cross organisation situations. This builds on Edmondson’s earlier book on Big Teaming which dealt with a slightly simpler, if still complex, environment of cross discipline, but still intra organisational teaming.
I particularly like Edmondson’s articulation of the well known idea that teaming is required because of the demands to match increasing specialisation with increasingly complex challenges. “The so called knowledge explosion leads to narrower and deeper areas of specialisation. Fields this span subfields.” “On the other hand concurrent with the rise of narrow and deep expertise, the problems facing organisations and society have not of course narrowed accordingly. Instead they are increasingly complex and multifaceted. Addressing them requires multi-disciplinary approaches.” “This, to solve complex problems and innovate in ways that reflect the increasing rate of change, today’s organisations must take advantage of deep specialised knowledge and manage knowledge integration across these domains of expertise at the same time. These two opposing challenges create the need for organisations to master extreme teaming.”
Edmondson also notes GE’s claim that “today’s problems are too big for them to solve alone and that to do so they need to collaborate like they never have before.”
I also like the case studies in the book. However the important thing for me isn’t that these examples are cross organisational as well as cross discipline, it’s that they’re so complex that they can’t be dealt with in a normal team.
Some of the example (projects Fiona and Sofia) are therefore fairly traditional, a bit like the smart cities case study in Edmondson’s earlier book, or Paul Sparrow’s examples of collaborative HR. I’ve already suggested that teams, communities and networks actually need more than psychological safety and it’s interesting that it’s Project Fiona which is used to demonstrate the need for psychological safety, not one of projects Bianca or Willa which are much more complex.
This It is this complexity which I think means that human ingenuity rather than management of the project becomes the most important factor. People rather than tasks.
Edmondson also reviews the response to the Chilean mine disaster: “An extraordinary cross-industry teaming effort by hundreds of individuals spanning physical, organisational, cultural, geographic, and professional boundaries. Engineers, geologists, drilling specialists, and more came together from different organisations, sectors and nations to work on the immensely challenging technical problem of locating, reaching and extracting the trapped miners.”
Responding to this challenge included a relatively clear objective but little clarity in how the objective could be achieved. It involved three parallel ‘teaming efforts’, with different clusters of experts coming up with complementary pieces of the solution and roles emerging and shifting as the teaming went on. “Leaders of different subgrouping met routinely every morning and called for additional quick meetings on an as-needed basis.”
Edmondson may call these examples of extreme teaming but they don’t display many of the traditional traits of teams. Eg comparing the Chilean mine challenge vs Hackman’s conditions for a team:
I guess these differences are why Edmondson calls the examples extreme rather than just big. But for me, they’re just not teaming at all. They’re networking.
In fact they are examples of what, in The Social Organization, I call Performance Networking. They’re the use of networks, not just in the informal, tactical, communication oriented way these have traditionally been associated with, but to achieve really important contributions. Formal, strategic, performance oriented networks. Flash networks not flash teams.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise. Edmondson suggests that teams are the performance unit per excellence for innovation. But I think it’s generally understood that this isn’t teams, it’s networks. Or it depends on what the innovation demand is about. Executing innovative ideas tends to be best performed by teams, but creating the innovative breakthrough is best achieved through networks. So performance networks beat teams when the creation is the critical requirement vs just the execution.
Finally, I also like the explanations on the problems, functions and benefits of extreme teaming / performance networking.
The problems focus on communication failures at the boundaries between professions, organisations and industries (or across the network): “As individuals bring diverse expertise, skills, perspectives, and goals together in unique configurations to accomplish challenging goals, they must overcome subtle and not-so-subtle challenges of communicating across boundaries. Some boundaries are obvious - being in different countries with different time zones, for example. Others are subtle, such as when two engineers working for the same company in different facilities unknowingly bring different taken-for-granted assumptions about how to carry out this or that technical procedure to collaboration.” (ie a lack of shared norms as in traditional high performing teams.)
This is compounded by interpersonal challenges around people’s emotions and relationships, ensuring others are seen as in the same ‘in group’ and developing relational co-ordination.
The four functions Edmondson suggests are building an engaging vision, cultivating psychological safety (I’d suggest psychological curiosity is what really powers performance networks), developing shared mental models and empowering agile execution .
Shared mental models, which includes diagnosing interfaces for knowledge sharing and leveraging boundary objects is demonstrated very well through Project Willa, a collaborative effort involving more than 80 individuals from four organisations, 20 disciplines and 4 countries. “Immense diversity of technical expertise had to be accommodated by collaborators who shared neither mother tongue nor time zone.”
The benefits of the approach include helping tap the potential provided by group diversity. This takes place through group learning behaviours / processes which include “asking questions, seeking feedback, experimenting, reflecting on results, and discussing errors or unexpected outcomes of actions.”