Mobilizing 'Big Teams' For The World's Biggest Challenges

Mobilizing 'Big Teams' For The World's Biggest Challenges

September 2016

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Saul Perlmutter, the Nobel-prize-winning astrophysicist spends most days thinking about supernovas and the expanding universe. Yet, at his recent college reunion, as his classmate Amy Edmondson told me, “he shared that he’s now worried by a more earthly, life-changing set of questions: ‘How will we—as a civilization—collectively pursue the world’s biggest problems? How can we understand how people of all different backgrounds and knowledge will work together and innovate to find solutions?’”

How indeed? Harvard Business professor Edmondson was stunned to hear the astrophysicist’s comments—because she’s been pondering very similar questions for many years. Her new book, Building the Future: Big Teaming for Audacious Innovation (co-authored with journalist Susan Salter Reynolds) offers Edmondson’s latest thinking on the topic, and a promising framework to guide leaders aspiring to this “Perlmutter challenge.”

Leadership for Cross-Industry Collaboration

It’s a timely contribution. The world is in desperate need of more leaders who can mobilize cross-industry, multi-knowledge collaboration. And making it happen doesn’t come easily to most people—so Edmondson and Salter’s perspectives on  what they call “big teaming” are welcome.

Think about today’s headlines. So many problems, so little large-scale collaboration—among the many who must contribute to find a solution. Innovation lags because all the different stakeholders for any big issue inevitably have trouble working together. Where are the leaders of the “big teams” needed for progress?

Addressing climate change? It’s going to take scientists, politicians, environmentalists and citizens problem-solving together in new and better ways. What kind of leaders can provide the vision and operational integration for that? Fixing broken health care systems? Won’t happen without doctors, researchers, insurance companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers and more—somehow co-creating new solutions. But under what kind of leader’s guiding hand?  Or think about beating back global terrorism. More cross-border, cross-functional innovation needed: bringing together international intelligence agencies, national police forces, religious practitioners, community leaders, citizen watch groups. Who can forge that meta-collaboration?

What kind of leaders can aggregate and coordinate the right talent, and bring human solutions to massive scale—form the really “big teams” to save us from the ravages of mankind itself?

A New Leadership Model?

Building the Future is Edmondson’s newest attempt to articulate a leadership model for such challenges. In the book she and her co-author back into the topic through the lens of a particular set of civilization-shaping issues: the development of future cities amidst rapid environmental change, growing populations, and increasing urban dysfunction. Her “lens on the lens”–which focuses on  leadership per se– is a deep case study of an entrepreneur and his urban development enterprise, an ambitious and often chaotic start-up called Living PlanIT. Building the Future is the prescriptive outcome of Edmondson and Salter shadowing the company, and its visionary founder (Steve Lewis) for some six years.

Their investigation pursues three concentric topics in parallel: how can cities of the future become more livable, sustainable, and innovative? What’s the nature of leadership to effect such a transformation? And finally, more generally, what are the lessons from–and for– any leader trying to catalyze the necessary “big teams”– entire systems of large scale “audacious innovation” in any realm?

Smart Cities And Beyond

As the authors write, Living PlanIT’s initial vision was “to build a brand-new sustainable high-tech city from scratch [in Portugal], to lead the way to building more such cities around the world.” Lewis and his company believe that urban innovation for the future springs from “smart city” technology—interconnected systems (“Internet-of-things”) that continually collect, analyze and harness big data across all dimensions of daily life.

The smart city theory is that, with the right platform and architecture, innovative solutions can be developed dynamically for urban dweller needs: cleaner, cheaper and more sustainable environments; buildings that self-manage recycled heating, cooling and resources; renewed public and private spaces that foster better human interactions; modulated traffic flows to minimize delays and optimize energy consumption; housing plans that self-regulate for changes in population and lifestyles; etc.

But, as the book chronicles, for all the worship of technology, Lewis and Living PlanIT often struggle with “people issues.”  The bold-thinking entrepreneurs discover that big  dreams and interconnected  data do not in themselves forge collaboration among all industry professionals needed for urban innovation—real estate developers, architects, construction leaders, engineers, transportation consultants, government policy makers, and many others.

Thanks to Salter’s journalistic flair, a major thread of the book is a lively, if not always surprising, narrative of the up-and-down journey of Lewis and company in pursuit their ever-evolving vision. (Like many start-ups, Living PlanIT  has progressively scaled its ambitions down, becoming more of a data platform company for the smart city projects of others.)

Big Teaming Leadership Lessons

The storytelling provides the case detail for the more compelling dimension of the book:  Edmonson’s synthesis of five leadership “lessons learned” during the Living PlanIT journey, as it struggled to create large, cross-domain teams for “audacious innovation.” Predictably, some of these lessons are informed by Ms. Edmondson’s previous organizational research, as well as familiar management advice—start with big vision, leverage specialized expertise, learn and adapt via small steps and concrete actions along the way, etc.

But two of the five lessons in the framework reflect some exciting and distinctive thinking for what leaders must do to create large, collaborative ecosystems of innovation.

The Nuances Of Big Teaming

The first — “foster big teaming”—underscores the nuance and difficulties of building collaboration from wholly different industries—each with their unique conceptual assumptions, working approaches, jargon, and specialized knowledge. The leadership challenge of forging cooperative production among people from, say, the construction, real estate, political, and technology sectors (all needed for an “audaciously different city of the future”) is a quantum leap beyond any internal collaboration most leaders face today, e.g. a CEO trying to get his marketing and sales units to find common ground for serving enterprise customers.

The book suggests that to build a collaborative culture across a multi-dimensional ecosystem, one of the most critical skills is empathy. Big-teaming leaders must develop an almost anthropological appreciation of what makes people in different industries tick—the language they use, assumptions about how they define success, the mindsets of how different practitioners learn and earn membership in a particular sub-community, etc.

Edmondson’s chapter detailing this “clash of cultures” sparkles with human stories that highlight vividly why empathy matters. We learn a lot, for example, when the authors contrast how technologists differ from construction partners about the process and horizon of “time to completion”; or how different practitioners in different sectors build professional legitimacy among their peers.

Influence And Innovation

A second notable advance is the book’s framework lesson about how future leaders must think and act to “balance influence and innovation.”

On the surface, that tension seems obvious—major transformation requires leaders who can externally sell its vision but also make progress at home, managing the step-by-step creation of something pragmatically new in support of the changed future.

The Advocacy Trap

But the authors argue persuasively the balancing act is actually a deep cognitive trap. Influence and innovation can be complementary–but for many visionary leaders they are diabolical enemies. Why? Because, as Edmonson and Salter observe throughout the case, the passion  of “selling a vision” actually makes a leader resistant to criticism, and less observant of other (helpful) ways of seeing the world. As Edmond later elaborated: “Pushing your bold ideas can, ironically, make you ‘anti-learning’—just when you need to be acquiring and adapting other perspectives around you.”

Looking Ahead

When I challenged Amy Edmonson about longer term implications of her findings, she offered a few additional insights:

1.Future big teaming will combine “closed” and “open” approaches.

Living PlanIT was conceived as a network organization, but (in the book’s telling) Lewis always seemed to have a clear sense of “them” vs “us” as the company developed its partnerships. Edmondson acknowledged that “this company was probably less of an open model than it should have been. They didn’t go far enough to tap ideas of broader networks and people in the cities themselves.”

“But there is a trade-off. Closed, and top-down approaches are easier for leaders to leverage particular expertise; also if work requires more ‘designed-ness’, a top-down approach may be better.”

“If a platform is really good– right governance, transparent decision-making, common language, etc. — open development can work. But it’s hard to achieve. Future big team innovation will likely combine open and closed. Leaders have to become ‘both/and in building and managing an ecosystem.’”

2. Any leader can develop big teaming skills.

When I asked Edmondson how leaders today might develop their own big teaming skills, she offered a practical list of strategies.

“Start by getting closer to people doing this kind of work—leaders with big, change-the-game aspirations– and look for opportunities to join their efforts. Seek high challenge, high uncertainty projects, and learn from them—knowing that some will not work out.”

“Also, spend time with specialized experts—we call them ‘mavericks’ in the book– who challenge the ordinary way of doing things. They’ll reshape your thinking too.”

“And in your ongoing development, strive to become a ‘T-shaped professional’: building a spike of expertise, complemented by ‘breadth across the top.’ In big teaming, this breadth across the top of the ‘T’ should now be in a diversity of different industries and knowledge domains.”

“For urban developers that might be ecology, infrastructure, design, materials, technology. As you move across fields, force yourself to learn new languages, new thought models, and appreciate the differences. Similarly, get to know cross-cultural ambassadors—connectors and interpreters among different work communities. Tomorrow’s leaders must have those skills too.”

3. Big Teaming leadership is a still evolving model.

Unlike most business books, Building the Future doesn’t offer prescriptions based on documented best practice. Instead, Edmondson and Salter watched and hypothesized in real time, analyzing a visionary leader who was sometimes succeeding, sometimes struggling. Even today, Living PlanIT remains an unfinished story.

Edmondson conceded that her “living case” approach was “an uncertain experiment,” an extrapolation from immediate experience, somewhat analogous to agile style development of software. But for a still largely unexplored leadership model, the experiment makes compelling reading.

Edmondson reflected that in the future more “compare and contrast” will be needed. “To more deeply understand this kind of emerging leadership, we’ll have to put more research eggs in more baskets, looking for patterns across several living examples in parallel.”

I for one hope Amy Edmondson does just that, and has plenty of other company in the quest. Leaders who can mobilize wide-ranging collaboration to build a better future for all are desperately needed. The challenge voiced by Saul Perlmutter should haunt every one of us.

 

This article was written by Brook Manville from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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