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Amy Edmondson, Novartis professor of leadership and management at
Harvard Business School, gives a Masters Series presentation June 29 at
the SHRM 2015 Annual Conference & Exposition
LAS VEGAS—How do today’s top organizations learn, innovate and
compete? Increasingly, it happens through “teaming”—a new form of
teamwork that involves rapid collaboration by team members across
boundaries without the luxury of stable team structures, said Amy
Edmondson, Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard
Business School, during a Masters Series presentation June 29, 2015, at
the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2015 Annual Conference
For better or for worse, teaming is here to stay. But it isn’t easy,
Edmondson said. That’s because it depends on acts that don’t come
naturally to people. Because the teaming mindset isn’t second nature, it
must be driven by an organization’s leaders. “Leaders must get in there
and make it happen,” she said. HR’s role is to help leaders do the
In an innovative organization, the leader needs to frame the work
ahead accurately for the team, Edmondson said. Where does the work fall
on the spectrum? On one end is routine work. In the middle is complex,
uncertain work. And on the other end of the spectrum is novel,
innovative work. What type of work is the team undertaking? As part of
this process, leaders should emphasize why the group’s work matters and
why each person’s role is important. “This is what gets people out of
bed in the morning,” Edmondson said.
An organization learns by asking questions and challenging the status
quo, Edmondson said. So job No. 1 is to make it safe for people to
speak up, and make speaking up an expected aspect of their work. “It’s
essential to teaming,” she said.
But in a hierarchical organization, people at lower levels often are
intimidated and reluctant to speak up. They feel psychologically unsafe.
So innovative organizations need to invite dissent, Edmondson said.
“It’s crucial for senior leaders—and leaders all the way down—to make it
Things will go wrong, so fail well, she advised: “Celebrate the
failure.” In that vein, innovative organizations promote intelligent
failure—undesired results that come about because of thoughtful forays
into new territory. When a failure occurs, you must understand the
results as an initial step toward salvaging the failure, she said.
Edmondson identified several elements of an effective intelligent failure model:
Innovative organizations enable boundary-spanning. Successful teaming
requires team members to overcome boundaries such as geographical
distances, status and hierarchy barriers, and the diverse knowledge and
expertise of team members. To overcome these, HR should encourage
leaders to identify which barriers are the most disruptive to the team
and call attention to boundary-spanning successes when they occur.
“Teaming and innovation thrives when we reach across diverse”
boundaries, Edmondson said.
John Scorza is associate editor of HR Magazine.
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