'Teaming' Promotes Innovation

By John Scorza Jun 29, 2015
Amy Edmondson

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 & Exposition.

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 following:

  • Frame the challenge.
  • Create psychological safety.
  • Promote intelligent failure.
  • Enable boundary-spanning.

The Challenge

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.

Psychological Safety

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 safe.”

Intelligent Failure

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:

  • The opportunity explored is significant.
  • The outcome must be informative.
  • The cost and scope are relatively small.
  • Key assumptions are explicitly articulated.
  • The plan tests assumptions.
  • The risks of failure are understood.


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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