How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete

February 4, 2021

This book is one of the classics of team literature. There’s a lot in it, so we’ve decided to focus on six major insights.

1. Why teaming should be considered as a verb

Teaming is based on encouraging key behaviours: speaking up, collaboration, experimentation and reflection.

“Teaming is a dynamic activity, not a bounded, static entity. It is largely determined by the mindset and practices of teamwork, not by the design and structures of effective teams”.

If we needed to consider the implication of a fast paced world on working in teams you’d be hard pushed to find a better synthesis that this. According to Edmondson, by its nature teaming is a learning process. Critical to teaming is the action of reflection to develop a “teaming mindset

2. Teaming is a fundamental driver of organisation learning

In the book Edmondson quotes Peter Senge,

“The organisations that will truly excel in the future will be the organizations that discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization”.

Edmondson herself describes the need for leaders to encourage asking questions and speaking up and introducing continuous learning into the modern day work process through effective teaming.

3. Context is king, not all teams are the same

Organisation learning will vary from team to team. Edmondson offers a framework to understand where teams (or organisations) sit, it divides organisation operations into three types: routine, complex and innovation, teams in each area will have different learning goals.

4. Recognising social and cognitive barriers to teaming.

“There are always tensions that come up. Part of working in a team is dealing with tensions. If there’s no tension, then you’re not serious about what you’re doing”. Artistic Direct for Jazz — Lincoln Centre.

Some of the obstacles to effective teamwork include: staying silent (hierarchy reduces communication), naive realism (unshakable conviction that you are privy to a knowable objective reality) and fundamental attribution error (failure to recognise situational causes of events — leading to blame culture).

Particularly interesting was the framing of “hot and cool topics” that might arise in a team — often caused by values based differences. There’s practical advice on how leaders can learn to cool conflict through:

  • Identifying the nature of the conflict,
  • modelling good behaviour,
  • identifying shared goals,
  • encouraging difficult conversations.

There’s also recognition of the ongoing need for team members to cross boundaries. The three most common boundaries are: distance (different location), knowledge (difference in expertise) and status (hierarchy).

5. Failure is sometimes but not always a good thing.

“When bringing people together with different perspectives and skills, failure is inevitable because of both technical and interpersonal challenges”.

The causes of failure vary across the process spectrum. Preventable failures, complex failures and intelligent failures should be treated differently.

6. Psychological safety

Amy is perhaps best known for raising the importance of psychological safety in teaming. This describes individuals’ perceptions of taking interpersonal risks in a work environment. People feel they might be seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative or disruptive. But self expression is essential to teaming and has many benefits including: speaking up, clarity of thought, productive conflict, managing risk, promoting innovation and increasing personal accountability.

Our Musings

Even from this brief summary you can see the breadth and depth of the book. It includes many insights that have directly influenced the work we do at Saberr. The first, and at its core, is the aim for Saberr’s CoachBot is to trigger a “teaming mindset”. If we can help do this we’ve achieved our first goal. CoachBot is designed with this in mind, to be simple, intuitive and embed behaviours like reflection in regular practice.

Second, we recognise Edmondson’s characterisation of some of the barriers to teaming. Many “hot topics” present when values differences are present and not understood. We use data collected using Saberr Base to help teams have conversations that develop trust through personal disclosure and encourage a deep understanding of team mates to develop psychological safety in a team.

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