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.

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