Heading to a Neuroleadership Summit in New York (for the second year in a row) felt a little hard to justify. But there is nothing quite like it for experiencing the zeitgeist of a fairly progressive segment of corporate America. With Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson’s book “Teaming” promptly sold out, and standing room only at the “Neuroscience of Effective Teams” even David Rock expressed surprise at the level of interest in team.
This preoccupation with how to grow high functioning collaborative teams makes perfect sense in the context of the “New World of Work” described in the opening Keynote. The acceleration of change that technology has precipitated, makes collaboration essential and nothing predictable.
The key ideas that I took from the conference are that to achieve, and survive, this kind of collaboration our teams need to be really striving for two things:
1. Psychological safety, and
2. Purpose, structure and clarity.
The constant change and frequent transformation, that we all now experience as individuals and organisations, means that everything is an experiment. We have to get used to ‘execution as learning’. The difficulty is that we are hardwired and socialised to want to get it right. That’s not how experiments work.
Our success is no longer about being right as an individual but being right as a team. When google did a deep study into what makes some teams outperform others, it concluded the answer was psychological safety – that is, confidence that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. Team members need this to contribute their full potential and be transparent about their individual successes and failures – not for evaluation but to catch failures fast as a team and learn from the failures as an individual.
For more on psychological safety, take a look at Amy Edmonson’s Ted talk.
Purpose, structure & clarity
Being able to deeply trust your team mates is a necessary ingredient for high performance in this new world, but it is not itself sufficient. It can’t be a free for all. Teams, whether they are permanent or formed ‘on the fly’ need to be very purpose driven and have very clear structure. They need succinct answers to the questions: What are we here to do? What are our priorities? What are we going to collaborate on? How are we going to do this? What should I get on and do by myself?
The session which I found the most interesting of the summit, addressed this tough issue of getting collaboration right. Researcher and consultant Rob Cross spoke of his research using software to map the communication networks that exist within organisations. This work provides insights into the growing threat of ‘collaborative overload’. He finds that often organisations’ ‘rising stars’ in particular get bogged down and/or burnt out because they have over time become the ‘go to guy’ for everything. They can also cause very material organisational bottle necks and productivity losses. Many of these responsibilities should be or have been taken away from them, but longstanding habits mean they are still involved. Cross prescribes a very disciplined approach to clearly define what people are responsible for and limiting collaboration to this. Also real discipline about how people collaborate – such as halving the duration of most meetings.
I urge you to have a look at the great clip “How successful leaders reduce collaborative overload” on his website. It’s the second one down on the page.
It is becoming increasingly clear that great teams offer organisations a significant competitive advantage. Also, that great teams need to put time and effort in to how they operate. But the combination of neurological and social research that is happening in this space is giving us invaluable insight into exactly how we should expend this time and effort to get the most bang for our buck.