The Unique Challenges of Cross-Boundary Collaboration

Managers increasingly work with teams across geographic distance, or with varying disciplinary expertise, or that involve complicated hierarchies of power. Leading this kind of “extreme teaming” requires management skills that don’t always come naturally — such as humility.

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Technology has made business more globally connected than ever before, allowing organizations to join forces across professions, geographies, and industries. This is especially true for innovation projects, where diverse experts bring their specialized knowledge into play.

But there’s a hitch: These kinds of team projects have built-in hurdles because of differing communication styles, cultures, and professional norms.

Amy Edmondson says many managers are not equipped with the skills to capture the full value of these multifaceted collaborations. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School and coauthor, with Jean-François Harvey, assistant professor at HEC Montréal, of Extreme Teaming: Lessons in Complex, Cross-Sector Leadership (Emerald Publishing Ltd., 2017). Learning how to navigate these new challenges is crucial, Edmondson says. She predicts that a more active concept of “teaming” will gradually replace the notion of teams, with increasing numbers of fluid, temporary assignments that cross multiple boundaries.

MIT Sloan Management Review spoke with Edmondson about these complex collaborations and the skills needed to manage them. Freelance journalist Frieda Klotz conducted the interview, and what follows is an edited and condensed version of their conversation.

MIT Sloan Management Review: Can you please define “extreme teaming” and explain how it’s different from what most of us think of as teams?

Edmondson: A team is a bounded, interdependent group of people responsible for a shared outcome. However, with 24/7 global operations, complicated shift patterns, and changing tasks and work needs, more workplaces today require people to collaborate to get things done outside of the context of a formal team.

I have been using the term “teaming” for a while to capture the fact that more people are finding themselves having to collaborate across boundaries without the luxury of a stable team structure. Many of those boundaries are across distance, but many are also across disciplinary expertise or hierarchies of power and status. Extreme teaming is a term that Jean-François Harvey, my coauthor, who teaches at HEC Montréal, and I came up with. It captures not just teaming across functions or time zones for people working in the same company, but teaming that extends across organizational boundaries and sometimes even industry boundaries, since many innovation challenges call upon people to work with people from other organizations.

This form of teaming was interesting to me because I’m a social psychologist at heart — my training is in organizational behavior and social psychology. When I think about human beings and the interpersonal dynamics between people, and then about these new opportunities to team across sectors, I say, “Wow, that’s not going to be easy. That’s going to take some new skills, some new mindsets, and some new thinking.”

Why do so many teams fall into this category of extreme teaming, in your view?

Edmondson: Beyond the increasingly globalized workplaces, there’s a recognition that we’re not always going to rely on vertical integration to solve all of our challenges. It sometimes just makes sense to team up with another organization to get something done.

For example, you might be a hospital working with a software company to design a new system for monitoring patient safety, but you don’t hire all those people, you just work with them. That makes good sense. At the same time, it takes a while for people to get up to speed and learn one another’s professional languages. Sometimes they don’t have that time because people are [constantly] shifting in and out of the group.

You mention in your book that experts are increasingly specialized. Presumably that plays a part in extreme teaming?

Edmondson: Right, that’s an important part. With the knowledge explosion, we get more and more specialization, which also implies narrower and narrower specialization. Most of the innovation challenges we’re talking about in the book are not solved within a single narrow area of expertise but require people to work across expertise boundaries. That can be hard because we don’t always understand one another’s expertise or even one another’s outlook.

Can you give us an example of extreme teaming in action?

Edmondson: The Chilean mine rescue — [the operation] to evacuate 33 people who became trapped underground in 2010 — led to a huge, 69-day, cross-sector collaboration involving the mining industry, experts from other industries, and [experts] from the military and government sectors. NASA was involved, the logistics company UPS donated air transport of specialized equipment. Many groups came together and teamed up about as well as you can imagine, under pressure and in a crisis situation.

Some people say the fact that it was a crisis made teamwork easier. That may be true, yet there are many times when we see crises in which people don’t come together extraordinarily well. I would attribute what happened in Chile to leadership — leadership at multiple levels, including underground, at the top of the country, and at the top of the rescue operation, which was an innovation project in the truest sense. There was no solution at the outset. By teaming up across national and expertise boundaries, the group collaboratively developed novel solutions.

What skills do people need to work in this way? Are they largely communication skills?

Edmondson: Communication skills cover a lot of territory, actually. So, yes, in a deep way — communication skills, including empathy and curiosity, are crucial. Leaders can be skilled at articulating their thoughts or skilled at listening, but neither is enough.

Leaders must also have a high level of self-awareness to keep reminding themselves of the things that they are missing, because each of us is under the illusion that we see “reality,” or that our perspective is a good map of reality.

So, there’s humility involved, then?

Edmondson: Yes. Curiosity, empathy, and humility are three qualities that I often come back to. Not a false humility, but a genuine, situational humility — “We’ve never been in this situation before, so I’m confident that I don’t know everything. I have to remind myself to be fully aware of that.”

What’s the role of technology in all this?

Edmondson: Teaming would not be possible without technology. Imagine if you recognized your need to work with someone in another organization or location or part of the world but had no access to information technology. You simply wouldn’t be able to do it without the technology to facilitate it. Technology is often imperfect and frustrating, but it’s vital and it starts the ball rolling.

In your book, you say that teams are “the performance units par excellence for innovation.” Can you talk about the sorts of innovation that extreme teaming helps bring about?

Edmondson: The majority of innovation projects can be carried out within the four walls of the organization. But for instance, for projects where government permitting is involved, an organization needs to work with city hall, but of course that doesn’t mean employing city hall. The kinds of projects that are inherently multisectoral bring up additional challenges like professional culture clashes and a need to navigate different, taken-for-granted time frames and professional norms.

What particular industries lend themselves to this sort of teamwork?

Edmondson: I have done a lot of research in the context of health care delivery. The challenges that health care faces are immense. There’s a fundamental shift under way from fee-for-service medicine to being paid for value, which means a fundamental shift toward focusing on health rather than just on sick care — which, of course, clinicians will continue to care about.

The shift requires health care practitioners to think about ways to help people stay healthy, which is outside what they have focused on in the past. In the future, simply providing more care will not guarantee more income, and finding ways to provide value in the form of the health of a given population will be vital to the success of the health care industry. In many cases, this will mean that health care providers will be teaming up with people in communities with different skills and responsibilities. This might mean partnering with community organizations, with schools, and with companies to promote a culture of health in ways they’ve never had to do before.

Any industry confronting large trends with implications for how work is done is an industry that’s ripe for new thinking and for these sorts of cross-sector collaborations.

You write that “most managers remain ill-equipped to effectively lead extreme teaming endeavors because these collaborations pose different challenges than those managers typically face when leading teams inside their organizations.” How can managers be more successful?

Edmondson: When I say that managers are ill-equipped, I mean that most managers have been either explicitly or implicitly trained to think in terms of accomplishing fixed goals, tasks, and deliverables in a predictable world. We all know we’re not in that kind of world — and yet the fundamental mindset and skills of management work best for fixed, understandable, reasonably predictable deliverables.

We can all learn to be curious, empathetic, humble, and deeply interested in someone else’s perspective. But it’s not a given. It requires an adjustment to say, “I don’t have the answers” or “Management is about generating reasonable hypotheses from what we know at any given point in time.” In that sense, management is a lot like science. [As with] science, you can view all actions as tests of those hypotheses and as opportunities for collecting data. You’ll figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what to do differently the next time.

Is less top-down management required?

Edmondson: I think so. It almost no longer makes sense to think that I, as the manager, could be best positioned to fully evaluate someone else as the subordinate. They see things I miss, I see things they miss, so it’s got to become more of a conversation. Managers are more like coaches. Oftentimes managers have a slightly better perspective because of where they sit, but they don’t have omniscience. Few managers should see themselves anymore as the boss in the traditional sense or as the person more likely to be right compared to a subordinate.

That’s interesting. I’m sure some managers would find it difficult.

Edmondson: Yes. And yet we all have to become coaches and direction-setters — but ones who are completely open to a range of possibilities.

An adapted version of this article appears in the Summer 2018 print edition.

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