LEADING IS A VERB WITH DAVID SLOCUM

Nov 03, 2018

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“Teaming” is a powerful if, for some, unfamiliar word. According by Amy Edmondson, of Harvard Business School, in her 2012 book of that title, it refers to “actively building and developing teams even as a project is in process.” At the heart of that building and development is the ongoing learning and adaptation increasingly required to expand knowledge and compete in complex and changing markets. Edmondson writes that, in much prior management practice and research, “team is a noun. A team is an established, fixed group of people cooperating in pursuit of a common goal.” But more and more, in the knowledge economy, “teaming is a verb. It is a dynamic activity, not a bounded, static entity.”   

 

Last year, I had the privilege of hosting Professor Edmondson for an Executive MBA residency at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership.  Among her masterful contributions to the group’s project work was an unerring emphasis on trusting, supportive, and open interactions between those with disparate skills and ideas. Yet my own greatest takeaway, from observing her visit, was that performing such interactions, as a given set of behaviors, did not represent an end in itself. Instead, they represented an ongoing and evolving process of communication, learning, and adaptation to be embraced. In the current age of decentralization and networks, this recognition of trusting and open relationships and of the connections between more traditional objects of attention and activity becomes all the more vital.  

 

That distinction – say, between the nodes of corporate networks and the links between them – can nevertheless be elusive for those who otherwise concretely define and target process outcomes or aim to solve specific problems. In other words, the openness of teaming can seem to run counter to the focus and priority of many sharply-defined or tightly-managed group or project collaborations. As Edmondson makes clear, however, “the pace of change and the fluidity of most work structures mean that it's not really about creating effective teams anymore, but instead about leading effective teaming.” One solution she has proposed is the idea of “team scaffolds” based in minimal and changeable versions of four major factors (a group of roles, a clear goal, interdependent tasks, and stable, appropriate composition) familiar from managing more permanent teams.

 

If these ideas of “teaming” have developed as the basis of more flexible and fulfilling group interactions, the term also suggests a more general way of seeing other tenets of leadership. Too often, in popular usage as well as industry and academic analysis, there is a drive to define terms narrowly and to circumscribe meanings of key terminology.  While the clarity we pursue, often in a team’s or organization’s guiding values or behaviors, can be beneficial, it can also be limiting. Rather than enabling exploration and expression, the articulation of specific values or behaviors in a corporate setting can quickly be reduced to fixed benchmarks against which performance is measured and individuals succeed or fail.

 

The shift from noun to verb occurring with teaming also shines a helpful light on other central terms and topics of contemporary leadership. We do well to approach authenticity in this more active way – as an ongoing and disciplined process of “authentication” – rather than the aspiration to a static and often backward-looking vision of ourselves as categorically authentic or inauthentic leaders. Likewise, more and more, we look beyond set organizational designs or structures towards evolving dynamics of “organizing” (or, to use Priya Parker’s word from her excellent recent book, “gathering”). Even in the word “leadership” itself we can note the emphasis on relationships and interactions rather than the traditional attention to specific traits, behaviors, or other attributes of individual leaders.

 

We might extend this re-orientation to contrast the application and box-ticking of well-known skills or procedures with the development of capabilities to accommodate to changing situations and different clients through continuous sensing, learning, and adaptation.  Perhaps most familiarly, these are distinctive approaches to agile management that originated in software development and have been adopted across other industries. While “doing agile” typically refers to a problem-driven or project-focused adoption of given practices, “being agile” involves a progressive mindset that enables ongoing engagement, interactive empowerment, and iterative delivery. Of course, part of the work of leaders is to prioritize how they must both enable practices appropriate to given situations and cultivate more progressive mindsets.

 

The juxtaposition of doing and being is also the basis of certain spiritual and mindfulness practices, like meditation, which have increasingly been integrated into contemporary business and management. Forms of Buddhism, for instance, eschew doing and its perpetual striving toward concrete goals and a distinct future state. In contrast, the mode of being is about a direct and immediate experience of the present in which the mind and broader self can be more fully aware of moment-to-moment experience. Gaining fuller awareness of the discrepancy in individual leaders and groups between these modes and becoming more fully present in the moment (or “presencing,” to use an active word coined by MIT’s Otto Scharmer) is an aim of many of these practices.  

 

Meditation and mindfulness may seem distant from the everyday realities confronting most businesses. Yet, like being agile, they speak to the development of the dynamic adaptability characteristic of successful teaming and leading. That adaptability, to be more precise, is a matter not only of trusting interactions and flexible decision-making but of the underlying beliefs and attitudes that people have about learning and change. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck distinguished two types of these beliefs, what she called “mindsets.” In a fixed mindset, people believe that their character, intelligence, or talent are inherent and fixed traits and that their potential does not change. In a growth mindset, people believe that these same basic abilities are starting points for further development through curiosity, dedication, and effort.  

 

Fixed and growth mindsets correspond, respectively, to the differing interactions of stable and established teams and active and unbounded teaming. Growth mindsets and teaming are both marked by resilience, flexibility, fluidity, and a commitment to both individuals and groups as works in progress. For leaders, these parallels offer helpful insights on how to enable both personal and business transformation. The vulnerability of individuals and the psychological safety of groups, for example, are powerful bases for supporting continuous individual and social learning. In our increasingly dynamic enterprises and societies, leading and learning can become ongoing processes – and active verbs – that provide exciting opportunities for more rewarding and successful work and collaboration.

 

 

 

 

 


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