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How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy

Amy C. Edmondson

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eBook - ePub


How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy

Amy C. Edmondson

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About This Book

New breakthrough thinking in organizational learning, leadership, and change

Continuous improvement, understanding complex systems, and promoting innovation are all part of the landscape of learning challenges today's companies face. Amy Edmondson shows that organizations thrive, or fail to thrive, based on how well the small groups within those organizations work. In most organizations, the work that produces value for customers is carried out by teams, and increasingly, by flexible team-like entities. The pace of change and the fluidity of most work structures means that it's not really about creating effective teams anymore, but instead about leading effective teaming.

Teaming shows that organizations learn when the flexible, fluid collaborations they encompass are able to learn. The problem is teams, and other dynamic groups, don't learn naturally. Edmondson outlines the factors that prevent them from doing so, such as interpersonal fear, irrational beliefs about failure, groupthink, problematic power dynamics, and information hoarding. With Teaming, leaders can shape these factors by encouraging reflection, creating psychological safety, and overcoming defensive interpersonal dynamics that inhibit the sharing of ideas. Further, they can use practical management strategies to help organizations realize the benefits inherent in both success and failure.

  • Presents a clear explanation of practical management concepts for increasing learning capability for business results
  • Introduces a framework that clarifies how learning processes must be altered for different kinds of work
  • Explains how Collaborative Learning works, and gives tips for how to do it well
  • Includes case-study research on Intermountain healthcare, Prudential, GM, Toyota, IDEO, the IRS, and both Cincinnati and Minneapolis Children's Hospitals, among others

Based on years of research, this book shows how leaders can make organizational learning happen by building teams that learn.

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Part One: Teaming
Chapter One
A New Way of Working
Say the word team and the first image that comes to mind is probably a sports team: football players huddled in the mud, basketball players swarming in a full-court press, or baseball players turning a game-saving double play. In sports, great teams consist of individuals who have learned to trust one another. Over time, they have discovered each other’s strengths and weaknesses, enabling them to play as a coordinated whole. Similarly, musicians form bands, chamber groups, and orchestras that rely on interdependent talents. A symphony falls apart unless the string section coordinates with the woodwinds, brass, and percussionists. Even when a soloist is featured on stage, the orchestral score has a part for every musician. A successful performance is one in which the musicians complement one another and play in harmony. Like all good teams, they display synergy. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The players understand that they succeed or fail together—they win or lose as a team.
In today’s complex and volatile business environment, corporations and organizations also win or lose by creating wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts. Intense competition, rampant unpredictability, and a constant need for innovation are giving rise to even greater interdependence and thus demand even greater levels of collaboration and communication than ever before. Teaming is essential to an organization’s ability to respond to opportunities and to improve internal processes. This chapter aims to deepen your understanding of why teaming and the behaviors it requires are so crucial for organizational success in today’s environment. To help illuminate the teaming process and its benefits, this chapter defines teaming, places it within a historical context, and presents a new framework for understanding organizational learning and process knowledge, and explains why these are important concepts for today’s leaders.

Teaming Is A Verb

Sports teams and musical groups are both bounded, static collections of individuals. Like most work teams in the past, they are physically located in the same place while practicing or performing together. Members of these teams learn how to interact. They’ve developed trust and know each other’s roles. Advocating stable boundaries, well-designed tasks, and thoughtfully composed membership, many seminal theories of organizational effectiveness explained how to design and manage just these types of static performance teams.1
Harvard psychologist Richard Hackman, a preeminent scholar of team effectiveness, established the power of team structures in enabling team performance. According to this influential perspective, well-designed teams are those with clear goals, well-thought-out tasks that are conducive to teamwork, team members with the right skills and experiences for the task, adequate resources, and access to coaching and support. Get the design right, the theory says, and the performance will take care of itself. This model focused on the team as an entity, looking largely within the well-defined bounds of a team to explain its performance. Other research, notably conducted by MIT professor Deborah Ancona, showed that how much a team’s members interact with people outside the team boundaries was also an important factor in team performance.2 Both perspectives worked well in guiding the design and management of effective teams, at least in contexts where managers had the lead time and the run time to invest in composing stable, well-designed teams.
In these prior treatments, team is a noun. A team is an established, fixed group of people cooperating in pursuit of a common goal. But what if a team disbands almost as quickly as it was assembled? For example, what if you work in an emergency services facility where the staffing changes every shift, and the team changes completely for every case or client? What if you’re a member of a temporary project team formed to solve a unique production problem? Or you’re part of a group of managers with a mix of individual and shared responsibilities? How do you create synergy when you lack the advantages offered by the frequent drilling and practice sessions of static performance teams like those in sports and music?
The answer lies in teaming.
Teaming is a verb. It is a dynamic activity, not a bounded, static entity. It is largely determined by the mindset and practices of teamwork, not by the design and structures of effective teams. Teaming is teamwork on the fly. It involves coordinating and collaborating without the benefit of stable team structures, because many operations, such as hospitals, power plants, and military installations, require a level of staffing flexibility that makes stable team composition rare.3 In a growing number of organizations, the constantly shifting nature of work means that many teams disband almost as soon as they’ve formed. You could be working on one team right now, but in a few days, or even a few minutes, you may be on another team.
Fast-moving work environments need people who know how to team, people who have the skills and the flexibility to act in moments of potential collaboration when and where they appear. They must have the ability to move on, ready for the next such moments. Teaming still relies on old-fashioned teamwork skills such as recognizing and clarifying interdependence, establishing trust, and figuring out how to coordinate. But there usually isn’t time to build a foundation of familiarity through the careful sharing of personal history and prior experience, nor is there time for developing shared experiences through practice working together. Instead, people need to develop and use new capabilities for sharing crucial knowledge quickly. They must learn to ask questions clearly and frequently. They must make the small adjustments through which different skills and knowledge are woven together into timely products and services.
Why should managers care about teaming? The answer is simple. Teaming is the engine of organizational learning.4 By now, everyone knows that organizations need to learn—to thrive in a world of continuous change. But how organizations learn is not as well understood. As discussed later in this chapter, organizations are complex entities; many are globally distributed, most encompass multiple areas of expertise, and nearly all engage in a variety of activities. What does it mean for such a complex entity to “learn”? An organization cannot engage in a learning process in any meaningful sense—not in the way an individual can. Yet, when individuals learn, this does not always create change in the ways the organization delivers products and services to customers. This is a conundrum that has long fascinated academics.
This book offers a practical answer to the question of how organizational learning really happens: through teaming. Products and services are provided to customers by interdependent people and processes. Crucial learning activities must take place, within those smaller, focused units of action, for organizations to improve and innovate. In spite of the obvious need for change, most large enterprises are still managed according to a powerful mindset I call “organizing to execute.”5

Organizing to Execute

If you stood on a main street in Detroit around 1900, you would have seen electric trolleys sharing the streets with horse-drawn carriages. A mere decade later, cars had arrived in force. Though inefficient and unreliable, these increasingly popular cars brought with them the promise of a new, exciting world. For a short time, however, both literal horse and mechanical horsepower tried to share the streets, sometimes with devastating consequences. Many people found the collision of old and new worlds difficult, especially when those streets became even more crowded with young men from the countryside drawn to the city by the promise of manufacturing jobs.
In this transitional period, it was not obvious to the average worker how much the new industrial era would disrupt the social order by calling for new forms of obedience, unprecedented conformity to routine, and a new mindset that revered systems of control. Self-sufficient farmers and shopkeepers, who had for generations confronted vicissitudes of weather and illness and found ways to survive, would subtly but inexorably be transformed into order-followers collecting paychecks from impersonal enterprises.
Organizing to execute found its seminal momentum in Henry Ford’s invention of the assembly line: workers focused on fitting cog to component and component to cog. Emphasizing routine procedures, Ford’s approach made the working life of employees menial and tedious. Reliable and predictable, Ford’s assembly-line process was as much a novelty as its product. With the new century, age-old structures for self-reliance were being replaced with the small, repetitive steps that made mass production possible and brought about the modern world of products and services we know today. Ford’s success was contingent upon a high level of managerial control over employee practices known today as command-and-control management, or top-down management. The practice of top-down management is one component of a broader organizational methodology known as scientific management.

Scientific Management

Ford’s intellectual partner as a pioneer in mass production was management expert Frederick Winslow Taylor, who complemented Ford’s assembly line with his efficiency methods and scientific measurement. Taylor and his followers devised ways to transform unpredictable and expensive customized work into efficient, economical systems of mass production. Long product life cycles allowed ample payback for the time invested in designing near-foolproof execution systems like the machine-paced assembly line. Periods of stability could be counted on. Products, processes, and even customers were mercifully uniform, minimizing the need for real-time improvisation to respond to unexpected problems, technological changes, or customer needs. Promoting the use of empirical methods, Taylor advocated his model of management and production in two influential monographs, Shop Management and The Principles of Scientific Management. 6
As managers today well know, an advantage of these new small, repetitive tasks was their transparency. Small, repetitive tasks are easy to monitor. They make the performance of the individual worker easy to measure. The assumption that firm performance was the cumulative result of thousands and thousands of well-designed and well-executed individual tasks dominated managerial theory and matched the economic reality. Even today, when it comes to issues like efficiency and productivity, most managers and corporate leaders are driven by taken-for-granted beliefs that were first promulgated by Ford and Taylor. For example, many consider the ability to measure and reward the specific, differentiated performance of individuals crucial to good management—a belief that is inaccurate and unhelpful in certain settings.

Ford and Taylor’s Legacy

Devotion to efficiency and productivity resulted in two major workplace changes. First, it spurred a demand for professional managers who could oversee a vast complex of work activity. Second, it instilled a basic distrust of the worker. To ensure that workers did their jobs according to specified procedures, objective measurements of individual performance were relatively easy for managers to develop and implement. And, for the most part, workers who tried harder performed better. In mass-production settings like the one designed by Ford, opportunities for worker decision making or creativity were nonexistent. With this transparency, fear worked reasonably well to motivate employees. Whether through a fear of supervisor sanction or loss of material rewards, managers were able to coerce and intimidate workers to ensure high productivity. If there were costs to this approach for the enterprise or corporation, they were not in plain view.
The primary problem this legacy creates for managers today is that these systems produced an overreliance on fear in management practice. As Taylorism gained a foothold in factories across the country, the corporate mood became dour. Taylorism was ruthless. The individual’s worth was measured by his or her contribution to enterprise gains. A history of the United Auto Workers union described factory life in these early days as follows: “Every Ford worker is perfectly aware that he is under constant observation—that he will be admonished if he falls below the fast pace of the department.”7 Even in 1940, decades after the early days of the Ford miracle, a worker could be fired for smiling.8
For managers and owners, there were reasons to smile. The record time for assembling a car in 1908 was 12 hours and 28 minutes. After the process was Taylorized, the first moving assembly line in 1913 cut the time to 93 minutes. While it is true that workers felt fear during the day and resentment at night, it is equally true that Taylorism prepared the industrial world for new efficiencies and wealth ...

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