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Are teams passé?

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Remember a few years back, when teams were all the rage? The future, we were told, belonged to teams of smart, creative people who could come together in almost magical ways to get the job done. Well, a few years later, “the team” has been chucked atop a heap of other once-fashionable business concepts. Why? Because teams evolved from a workplace environment that no longer exists.

So says Glenda Eoyang, who along with Royce Holladay, is the author of Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization. According to Eoyang, a pioneer in the field of human systems dynamics, “In the past we played finite games, where boundaries, goals, rules and winning could be constant and reliable. Back then it made sense that teams had lists of members, regular times to meet, specific goals, schedules, plans and predictable products. Today, this kind of stability is rare.”

As Eoyang explains, today’s organizations are engaged in infinite games involving many different simultaneous tasks, diverse resources and skills and global as well as virtual connections. And the rules of these never-ending games are constantly changing. This new reality requires new relationships and structures able to accomplish goals in the midst of constant chaos.

How does a business survive this environment of constant flux? With a model based on three questions asked over and over again — or what Eoyang calls “adaptive action.” With adaptive action, groups come together for brief periods of time to serve mutual interests. They begin with the first question, which is “What?” and centers on coordinated data collection. Next comes “So what?”; which involves understanding those data points. The final question, “Now what?,” takes into account the action required for the group’s success.

Eoyang offers the example of a hospital which was looking to expand. Over time, the number of people involved with the project grew until it became unwieldy. The solution was to:

  • Update the project plan online whenever there was a change.
  • Publish detailed agendas well in advance of meetings.
  • Expect only those directly involved to attend meetings.
  • Communicate to all the players via an electronic bulletin board.

This method cut down the number of meetings and released superfluous players from having to attend.

Adaptive action, says Eoyang, “adds synergy to current work without significantly expanding demands.” The teams of yesterday learned to “manage diversity,” but the new model accesses unique skills and components as they are needed, employs them efficiently, then releases them for use elsewhere. And because the new, adaptive group is more nimble and is capable of quick course changes, it can more easily avoid some of the pitfalls of yesterdays’ team.

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