Beyond Teams: How To Collaborate Amidst Constant Change

The current mantra goes, empower your teams and everything will be alright. However. . .

Managers and leaders today would be ill-advised to limit themselves to this way of thinking.

Empowering teams has been key to increasing flexibility in organisations, but constant reorganisations and the raising complexity of work means teams tend to be increasingly short-lived and projects require input from external experts as much as internal ones. Moreover, a growing proportion of workers demand flexible engagement or operate exclusively as freelancers. To survive, organizations will have to learn how to engage and coordinate a more fluid workforce. An executive of a global healthcare organization puts it this way as quoted in the California Management Review:

“Increasingly, we don’t have teams here so much as groups that need to form, get their work done, and disband or move on to the other three teams they are on. This flies in the face of a lot of the advice on building team harmony, vision, and other things that we just don’t have time for. It’s like we call them teams but they aren’t really in the conventional sense of the word. . . we need new ways of working with these groups.”

In my work as an organisation designer, I have had the pleasure to research and collaborate with innovative organisations who embrace these trends and whose mindset and practices can serve as case studies moving forward. One such company is Startup Guide. They publish guides about the startup ecosystems in different cities, naturally leading them to engage with a large number of local partners and freelancers. In fact, the company’s workforce is 45% freelancers. As a rapidly growing company, coordination is a constant challenge, and the leadership was concerned with the alignment and commitment of their freelancers. Instead of investing in more oversight or contracting protections, the company decided to invest in the quality of its relationships. They invited the freelancers to join them on a three-day corporate retreat and participate as if they were full-time members of the organisation.

The words by the CEO at the end of the retreat encapsulate their approach. “When I was in university, they used to say we were a family, and I always felt uncomfortable with that. Families care for each other, and I never had that feeling. However, now I am tempted to use the word. We promise you that we won’t let you down but, when things get tough, we ask that you stand by us and don’t let us down either”.

The crowd replied with cheers and a few tears of emotion. Startup Guide has moved away from a paradigm based on static teams, and instead focuses on creating a broader community of collaborators that bridges outsiders and insiders. Their strategy relies on nurturing a common culture and sense of belonging, increasing trust and alignment, and thus making it easier for teams to quickly form and gel.

They are not alone in this approach

Cocoon, an innovation consultancy, has taken it even further. Since 2012, they have been operating with an alternative management system, which among other things, doesn’t have a recruitment process in the traditional sense.

Instead of creating job adverts, reviewing CVs, and carrying round after round of interviews, they allow anyone to join the organisation by participating in one of their governance meetings. The only requirements are reading a few documents explaining the management system and having a chat with one of the members where the new person can ask questions.

Anyone adding value in a governance activity will receive compensation. However, the sums are not particularly large. To earn a proper salary, new-joiners need to gain the trust of other members and get invited to take part in the individual client projects. This process gives everyone involved an opportunity to gradually meet one another and decide how deeply they wish to collaborate.

At Cocoon, membership to the organisation is not binary but rather a pipeline going from strangers to core members. This setup allows them to leverage a wide range of expertise and have the flexibility to organise around projects.

For their approach to work, Cocoon leverages collaboration infrastructure that equips members to navigate a networked organisation. It includes a sophisticated information system with transparent data, including the projects members are working on, the payouts given to every member, a calendar of open-door meetings, and a decision-making toolbox. Their organisation design is that of a platform, with different tools and services available on demand to the community of collaborators.

Culturewise, there are also significant differences

In the team-focused paradigm, members may not see themselves as linked with the organisation-wide intent or supported by its infrastructure, creating barriers to inter-team collaboration. When the teams and team members change regularly, relationships become purely transactional and turnover increases, while cooperation and innovation suffer.

Instead, companies organised as community platforms use teams, but the primary affiliation of members is to colleagues at large, the firm’s mission, and client service. To encourage such a culture, they actively work on their company values and behaviours and design their budgeting practices, communication infrastructure, and reward systems accordingly.

An exciting company in this regard is Satalia, an artificial intelligence solution provider. To decide salaries, they collect data from emails, calendars, and chat platforms, among other sources, and create a map of interactions between the members of the organisation. Each employee decides his/her salary for the next cycle and then receives feedback from the colleagues with whom he/she interacted. The feedback is weighted according to the intensity of each interaction and then presented to each employee before further rounds of adjustment. Their system purposefully ignores membership to individual teams in favour of enterprise-wide interactions and contributions.

These companies and their systems can give us an idea of what is to come; however, we do not need to start with such a radical approach. Every company can take steps to improve enterprise-wide collaboration and engagement, thus improving the quality of work in fluid teams and its ability to respond to rapid changes in the market.

A good place to start. . .

Is by defining and embedding a company culture and vision. When we ask employees, we find most often that companies lack a consensus on what they stand for, what values they uphold, and what purpose they pursue. The culture was defined top-down in some document, and then quickly forgotten. Taking a bottom-up approach and periodically reviewing a company’s culture and vision ensures buy-in and brings clarity, two essentials requirements of high performance.

Then, to sustain that clarity and buy-in, the different systems of an organisation need to be designed accordingly to the stated culture and intent of the company. For example, instead of setting team-level goals from above, they should be a collaborative discussed and evaluated against the values, mission, and vision. When done well, the time invested in these discussions is recovered many times over thanks to increased alignment and engagement.

However, these efforts will do little for inter-team collaboration if employees find it hard to understand what is going on in other parts of the organisation. Creating a map of the company that goes beyond the traditional organisation chart can do wonders in this respect. A living document that showcases the operating model as well as decision-making authority, allows full-time employees and part-time collaborators to navigate the networks and collaborate across silos.

Shifting away from a team-focused approach and into one based on community platforms is no easy feat. However, executed well, the steps above are an important move forward. They will not only create an environment that is more conducive to innovation and collaboration, but also one that is more welcoming for those with an entrepreneurial mindset. Going beyond teams is accepting change as a partner rather than an enemy.

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