Amy Edmondson has dedicated her energies over the past 25 years to the study of teams in organizations. What prompted this direction in her life was her study of hospital mistakes made in patient care, especially with the distribution of medication. Long story short, her findings sharpened teams to be in tune with the reality of their empathetic responsibilities.

Fast forward to her innovative insights into today’s needs for agile teams in emergent critical situations, Edmondson has proposed a new process of teams she terms “teaming”. In her 2012 seminal book, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy[1], she compresses her theory:

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.

Referencing critical events like the 2010 Chilean mine collapse, we capture Edmondson’s spontaneous teaming concept resolving otherwise impossible catastrophes. In her December 2013 Harvard Business Review article The Three Pillars of Teaming Culture,  Amy Edmondson opens with the clarifying statement:

Building the right culture in an era of fast-paced teaming, when people work on a shifting mix of partners, might sound challenging – if not impossible. But in my experience, in the most innovative companies, teaming is the culture.

“Teaming” is where people come together quickly (and often temporarily) to solve new, urgent or unusual problems. More and more of us have to work this way today – we don’t have the luxury to have stable teams… Even hospitals have stable teams that often have to coordinate “teaming” to deal with unique or different cases… It’s not easy this way but it can be done. We have to invite people who have talents we did not was there… (YouTube – June 14, 2018).

Edmondson lists three pillars of teaming in her HBR article as curiosity, passion, and empathy. These qualities facilitate a teaming culture that functions with transparent trust and undergirded with a candid psychological safety. Curiosity is essential to honest learning that is humble in the reality of an event. It’s hard to learn when you already know! Humility allows for not knowing, as Abraham Lincoln phrased it: “I don’t like that man very much; I need to get to know him better.” Curiosity is the capacity to learn from others on a team, a willingness to ask the right questions and listen for unexpected insights. “It drives people to find out what others know.”

Passion is the fuel of life! It drives the quality of work to high performance and pride of achievement, undaunted by failures that are considered learning elements of what doesn’t work to move on to what works. Passion is seeing beyond limits to what is possible.

And finally, empathy, which bonds the members of the team together in an attentive awareness of one another’s perspectives and openness to potential resolutions. Empathy attunes each member to understand the mindsets and thought processes of colleagues without biases or prejudice. This allows the team to develop its best choices for successful results.

Any Edmondson’s teaming culture moves the traditional, stable team to a level of agility and flexibility that can adapt to the unforeseen turn of circumstances which could change an apparent standard procedure into an emergency mode of response. When dealing with human events, caution is that sense of being alert to quick change without warning. Every human situation is unique, probably never repeatable in a foreseeable future. For Edmondson, the ideal team is an ever-changing group, developing in response to new challenges, completing them efficiently and then swapping members to take on the next problem.

The way forward, Edmondson claims, is to establish this form of Teaming as the norm. If employees expect to be working in constantly-changing groupings on different projects, they will keep pace and respond positively. She writes: “In the most innovative companies, Teaming is the culture.” (Edmondson, 2013 – Three Pillars)[2].

[1] Edmondson, Amy (2012). Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy; John Wiley & Sons, San Francisco, CA.

[2] Edmondson, Amy (2013). The Three Pillars of Teaming Culture; Harvard Business Review, December 2013