Why and how the most valuable organizational learning occurs: through teams
Amy Edmondson characterizes “teaming” as “teamwork on the fly.” It could also be termed “informal collaboration on steroids.” Whatever, the fact remains that human beings have been exchanging information at least since the discovery of caves as shelters. Edmondson observes, “Though teaming refers to a dynamic activity rather than to a traditional, bounded group structure, many of its purposes and benefits are grounded in basic principles of teams and teamwork. Among the benefits of teams is their ability to integrate diverse expertise as needed to accomplish many important tasks.” In what Peter Senge once characterizes as the “total learning organization,” everyone is both a teacher and a student, depending on the given information exchange. The extent to which teaming is spontaneous is determined by the extent to which it is allowed to be. Of course, the same is true of innovative thinking.
Edmonson explains how to achieve major strategic objectives, such as these discussed in the first chapter:
o Formulating a new way of thinking about new ways to team (viewed as a verb)
o Organizing to execute
o Learning to team and teaming to learn
o Establishing the process knowledge spectrum
o Formulating new ways of thinking about new ways to lead
Edmonson’s approach in each of the eight chapters is to identify, briefly, the “what” of some dimension or component of teaming and then devote most of her (and her reader’s) attention to “how” to make it happen. She also makes skillful use of two reader-friendly devices at the conclusion of each chapter: “Leadership Summary” and “Lessons and Actions.” They serve two separate but immensely important purposes: they highlight key points and essential execution issues, and, they facilitate, indeed expedite frequent review later.
I also appreciate the fact that Edmondson inserts several dozen Tables (e.g. 6.1: “Common Boundaries That Impede Teaming and Organizational Learning,” on Page 202) and Exhibits (e.g. 4.2: “The Benefits of Psychological Safety,” Page 126) that provide essential supplementary information. Moreover, she makes excellent use of checklists of key points or sequences of action steps, also inserted throughout her lively and eloquent narrative. The ones that caught my eye include:
o Obstacles to effective teaming (Pages 61-66)
o Steps for developing and reinforcing a learning frame (Pages 104-107)
o Developing a learning approach to failure (Pages 168-170)
o Using the process knowledge spectrum (Pages 229-234)
A brief commentary such as this can only begin to suggest the scope and depth of Edmondson’s rigorous and substantive examination of how organizations, learn, innovate, and compete in the knowledge economy. As I worked my way through the book, I was reminded of relevant passages in two other books I have read recently. First, from Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, co-authored with Brooke Manville. They offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.”
And now, a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not `[begin italics] Should [end italics] we make mistakes?’ but rather `[begin italics] Which [end italics] mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'”
As Amy Edmondson, explains so convincingly, teaming can maximize the quality, impact, and value of both organizational judgment and purposeful mistakes. Bravo!