Creating instant teams

How do you take a group of strangers and bring them together quickly and effectively to solve big problems? Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School Professor of Leadership and Management, insists that the answer lies in the concept of ‘teaming’. But she points out that there are differences between today’s teams and teams of the past.

Yesterday’s teams:

  • ‘Team’ as a noun (a bounded, static entity)
  • Team has longevity and/or a track record together (time to develop trust)
  • Relatively formally coordinated
  • A luxurious ideal
  • Example: A basketball team that has consistently practiced together for a season or more

Today’s Teams:

  • ‘Teaming’ as a verb (a dynamic activity)
  • Team members may have never worked together before (no time to develop trust)
  • Less formally coordinated
  • A necessary reality
  • Example: A pick-up game of basketball in the park

The concept of ‘teaming’ refers to teamwork on the fly. It requires coordinating complicated interdependencies to get work done no matter the circumstances or obstacles, whether across different geographical locations, different time zones, organizational hierarchical boundaries, or even entire industries. Teaming is important because it’s becoming the reality for how many of us have to work in today’s globally competitive, hyper-fast world with individuals who have narrowing expertise in their discipline. Teaming requires a similar framework as traditional teamwork (i.e. establishing trust, determining how to coordinate, and clarifying interdependence within the team). However, fast-paced and ever-changing environments mean that there isn’t always an opportunity to build a ‘foundation of familiarity’ – including the development of shared experiences achieved through prior work together.

Hospitals are a good example of teaming in action because patient care teams change with each shift, each new diagnosis (requiring different specialists to coordinate), and each patient’s complex and unique situation. According to Edmondson’s research, the average hospital patient is seen by 60 different caregivers during their stay. She argues that teaming is especially useful in situations that are complex and unpredictable. And she’s found that the most innovative companies across all industries demonstrate this teaming culture. But what factors lead to a successful teaming experience?

Remain curious

Remaining curious refers to leadership’s interest in what each member can contribute to the team. Edmondson suggests asking team members to: “Look to your left. Look to your right. How quickly can you find the unique talents, skills and hopes of your neighbour and how quickly, in turn, can you convey what you bring?” Ultimately this means that leadership must be humble in the face of challenges. “When teaming works, you can be sure that some leaders, leaders at all levels, have been crystal clear that they don’t have the answers.” Edmondson refers to this as ‘situational humility’ – and when combined with curiosity, it creates a psychologically safe environment to take risks amidst a team of relative strangers. A willingness to take risks to learn quickly requires that everyone on the team assume the roles of teacher AND student in the exchange of information.

Demonstrate empathy

Demonstrating empathy is critical in teaming because leadership must demonstrate the value they see in others’ perspectives. Teaming becomes very difficult if team members see each other as competitors instead of collaborators. It’s natural for new team members to err on the side of self-protection, however this breeds a culture in direct contrast to teaming culture. This barrier mindset (“for me to succeed, you must fail”) is referred to as the ‘scarcity mentality.’ Alternatively, ‘abundance mentality’ is created when individuals have a deep inner sense of personal security and believe that there’s enough for everyone (and then some!). Scarcity mentality creates an environment where people become afraid to make mistakes, therefore teamwork and innovation suffer. However, if leadership fosters an abundance mentality within the team (by offering words of appreciation to all team members, flipping the perspective from ‘obstacles’ to ‘opportunities’ and modeling the mindset they wish to see in others), the result is team members who share in decision making, recognition and prestige. Ultimately, it opens the door to what’s possible as a team.

Although teaming may not be easy, it’ll continue to play an important role in the teams of tomorrow. At the end of the day, leadership simply means influence – the influence to bring teams together quickly and effectively to achieve something greater than any individual ever could.


Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.