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Teamwork is important, or so say folks at the top

There was a lot of talk about teaming at the Gartner CIO Leadership Forum in Scottsdale, Ariz. Two keynotes addressed why teamwork is important — but not just any old teamwork. Technology, business conditions, the economy, the weather — shoot, the whole world — is changing so fast that what’s needed is teamwork on the fly.

One keynote was a riveting tale from sailboat racing adventurer Pete Goss about his hair-raising escapades on the high seas, some of them solo, some with a crew but all of them made possible by — you guessed it — the awesomeness of his teams.

The other keynote was delivered by Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School, a riveting speaker and coiner of the term, teaming. (In fact, it’s the title of her forthcoming book, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy.) Edmondson’s team-building strategies are based on her far-flung research into endeavors where team work appeared critical to success — actually a matter of life or death in some cases, as in the Chilean mining disaster.

And, because keynotes are supposed to be inspirational — food for thought, if you will, before the wait team assigned to the event serves the actual food — both speakers offered something for CIOs to chew on. Here are some of their observations on why team work is important, on the quality of leadership required to bring teamwork to the fore and — in the view of your humble blogger — the troubling paradox of leaders talking about teamwork.

“Bad News Meetings” part of team-building strategies

For adventurer Peter Goss, successful teams are defined by people who are prepared “to make their own luck,” meaning luck has little to do with the team’s success. In his racing experience, “70% of the result is put in place before the race begins.” The aim is not to take risks but embrace risk by learning as much as possible about what you are going to do. Knowledge dispels fear.

To obtain the knowledge required to be successful, however, trust is essential. Goss introduced something he called bad news meetings. “Don’t have them, unless you are committed to solving the problem,” he told the audience. And, bad news meetings won’t work unless predicated on “totally honest and open communication.” His were usually limited to four or five people, half of whom came to vent. “Which was good, because it diffused the pressure cooker they felt they were in. The others raised legitimate problems to solve.”

Another adage: your job as leader is to train and delegate until you are no longer needed. That frees you up to take the next strategic step, Goss said. But, “people rise to responsibility only if you give it to them.” He trained and delegated with this proviso: if something seems to be going wrong, he had to hear about it early, “before it became visible.” His teams rolled with the punches the seas doled because they were prepared and empowered.

For all the open and honest communication teamside, Goss said there will be things the leader cannot share with the team. Leaders need to find a mentor outside the group to consult,” he advised, preferably one with similar experience to theirs.

Teaming with power

Edmondson also stressed open communication and trust, arguing against an enduring tenet of business management: pitting one worker bee against another. Encouraging workers to regard each other as competitors rather than collaborators is untenable in a knowledge economy, according to Edmondson. As work becomes specialized and thus more difficult for people outside a given field to comprehend, the importance of teamwork grows. Today, business success requires teaming within and between multiple teams. Successful teams are neither totally top-down nor totally bottom-up but a top-led, bottom up operation. And “psychological safety” — the feeling you won’t be dissed for speaking up — can be the difference between success and tragedy. (Google Rodney Rocha if you doubt how important psychological safety can be.)

For example, getting the miners out required self-organization by the miners below ground; technical ingenuity above ground; and the backing of senior executives unconnected to the mining operation, namely Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and his dashing Mining Minister Laurence Golborne. Both were warned against associating themselves with an event that could only end in failure. Edmondson argued that a similar teaming structure was critical to the building of the National Aquatic Center in Beijing, popularly known as the Water Cube, as well as in a woman-led patient safety initiative at Children’s Hospital and Clinics of Minnesota. Teams that do the impossible, she finds, exhibit four characteristics:

  • Real-time innovation
  • Persistence despite failure
  • Process discipline
  • Leadership that supported, took charge when needed and empowered

Keynotes are funny things. By definition they both inspire and inevitably make you feel bad about yourself. Peter Goss is humble in manner. Seeing footage of him as younger man in high spirits even as he is operating on himself on the open seas was fun. The disarming Amy Edmondson, super-confident and attractive, strides the stage, anticipating objections before the audience even knows it has them.

But hearing these two superstars talk about the importance of teamwork when ego got them where they are today — that was a little rich.

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