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The Changing Face of Team Work in the Knowledge Economy
Organisations that ignore or undervalue the skill of teamwork do so at their peril. Never before has teamwork been so necessary for companies in reaching their goals. Teamwork is also essential to the enjoyment of working together with others. Jobs are 50% more collaborative now than they were 20 years ago. The collaborative nature of work will continue to rise along with the change in the way teams work together.
What is driving this change? What do teams and their leaders need to consider to capitalise on this trend?
The State of Play
The world is changing at a breakneck pace. The human experience of how we live and work together is unrecognisable from what it was fifty and even twenty years ago, and the pace of change is only getting quicker. Various factors are driving this change, and it has direct impacts on teams in the workplace.
Coupled with this exponential, disruptive change in how we work together, is the fact that too many organisations and leaders are missing a crucial point: That the ability to work in teams is a skill. A skill that, like leadership or sales, can be understood, learned and developed. And not only this, it is a skill that, if learned and practised correctly, has the potential to move the needles on the dials of their business further and quicker than most other skills you can learn.
Organisations are becoming increasingly dependent on teamwork and the values that are associated with it, such as trust, effective communication and collaboration. Despite this, teamwork remains undervalued, misrepresented, or ignored by many.
Several influencing factors have changed the way human beings interact, live and work together over the last 50 years, which have in turn had significant implications on the way we work together in teams. The experiences of a work team often closely mirror how the world’s biggest team – humanity itself – is structured and evolving. For example, we are now seeing increasing numbers of female prime ministers or government ministers, when this would have been unthinkable in the mid 20th century. Similarly, this trend is happening in the business world, where the number of female CEOs is increasing. What are some of the factors that are changing the human experience, and therefore teams’ experience at work?
It wasn’t long ago - 150 years - that the world’s biggest superpower, the United States, fought a civil war over the issue of slavery. Women were not allowed to vote in many countries deep into the twentieth or even the twenty-first century (2015 in Saudi Arabia’s case). The Civil Rights and LGBT rights movements have made huge leaps forward in the latter part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.
What we see, therefore, is far greater equality among people. In the past, we would expect teams to be hierarchical, lead by men in management positions instructing workers what to do. Now we see multicultural, multiracial teams, lead increasingly by women, which are far more egalitarian in their outlook and expectation.
We have witnessed a technology revolution that is moving at an exponential pace, disrupting not only how we work but how we live. The Internet, smartphones, social media, AI and other technologies have come on leaps and bounds. On the horizon are driverless cars, robotics and even cloned human beings and genetic modification. All of this is having a dramatic effect on society.
It is a privilege and advantage to be able to access information instantly and speak with someone regardless of distance and time. However, it challenges fundamental societal norms like the rules and manner in which we communicate with each other.
“The ability to react quickly and adapt is critical, and is becoming even more so as technology and disruptive forces increase the pace of change”. Walter Isaacson, foreword to Stanley McChrystal ‘Team of Teams’
Globalisation, Agility and Flexibility
Technological advancement has also meant that the business world has increasingly gone global, and organisations are far more agile. The term ‘VUCA’ describes the world in which we work in 2018 – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. Companies are reorganising to cope in this world, which is, in turn, having a significant impact on the way people work together in teams.
The Millennial Workforce
Millennials will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025. Unsurprisingly, research shows that millennials think very differently to older generations, have different motives, and expectations. Some argue that Millenials are not suited to teamwork.
The technology revolution is giving us an incredible capability to connect, communicate and share information. It has, however, given rise to a generation gap where many question the social skills and teamwork capabilities of those who have grown up with technology from a young age.
Humans are social beings. The power and importance of face to face communication are undeniable. Despite this, enabled by technology, the way teams work is changing, and many argue that Millenials are well equipped to embrace this new way of working together as a team.
The Teamwork Paradox>
The paradox is this. Teamwork is considered necessary, and the opportunities to work together are great. However, many organisations continue to use teamwork skills from the past that do not apply to the current world of work.
The working world has experienced an unprecedented and rapid change in the last 50 years, and the workforce has not been able to keep up. Too few organisations are closing the gap between what is possible when it comes to working in teams and what they are doing. Some are getting it right. Forward-thinking companies like Google are researching what makes the difference between a high performing team and a performing team or worse – a failing team. A little while ago, Google undertook a research program which they named ‘Project Aristotle’ to identify what makes a high performing team, with interesting results.
They came to two key conclusions. The most critical element of a high performing team was creating an environment where everyone in the team is given a voice and gets to speak as much as everyone else on the team.
The second condition for creating a high performing team was a culture of psychological safety. An environment in which team members feel safe and able to speak up without fear of ridicule, judgement or attack from the other members of the team. And when people do speak, others actively listen to what they have to say.
Similar research by scientists at MIT that measured the frequency of talking and listening in teams backs up the Google findings. Professor Sandy Pentland and the MIT Media Lab team developed a device called a sociometric badge, which team members wear throughout their day. The device then measures things like how often they are interacting with the team, tone of voice, how often each team member is speaking and for how long – just about everything except the words people are saying.
Pentland’s team found “patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors – individual intelligence, personality, skill and the substance of discussions - combined”.
Undoing the Hard Wiring of Millennia
Teamwork is about how people behave. How people behave has much to do with inherited DNA and impulsive reactions to circumstances that come from thousands if not millions of years of the experiences of our forefathers. Human brains still react instantly and impulsively to incoming data using an outdated set of wiring, which was honed on the premise that threat was around every corner. These threats no longer exist, and yet people still react as if they do – the fight, flight or freeze mechanism kicks in, or the amygdala – the ancient ‘lizard’ part of the brain - takes over.
Modern teamwork requires people to control and suppress this impulsive behaviour. Controlling behaviour may not be easy but is an essential part of developing the correct characteristics and behaviour that is suited to a modern team existence.
“The complexity of today’s world, shaped by rapidly accelerating technological, economic and cultural trends, demands organizations of all kinds seek the synergistic potential of teams”.
Mario Moussa, Madeline Boyer, Derek Newberry ‘Committed Teams’
Teamwork in the Knowledge Economy: The Challenge
These unprecedented forces of change and disruption to the very fabric of how we work together presents teams with a challenge. How to adapt, learn, and change the way they work together to make the most of the opportunity that the modern agile world offers.
Google’s Project Aristotle and other research have shown that people are increasingly motivated by the desire to have meaning and make a positive impact on the world, and less so to make money. Furthermore, younger people are engaged with the thought of experiences more than they are interested in material goods. This fact does not negate materialistic drivers, there is, however, a trend away from individual KPIs towards gaining fulfilment from shared experience and achievements as a team.
Team leaders are challenged then by engaging a workforce of team members who think very differently and are motivated by different incentives. Leaders are guiding teams on an ever-shifting field of play with its differing demands and rules of engagement. For organisations, and the teams within them, to thrive, they have to learn the skills that modern teamwork requires.
Creating the Teamwork Advantage
There is an opportunity for forward-thinking organisations to seize the advantage by taking the skill of teamwork seriously. Some organisations have already radically restructured into more fluid, adaptable and responsive organisms, with flexible teams, and away from the hierarchical and static dinosaurs of the past, in response to the VUCA existence they find themselves in.
Some are going even further, taking the time and effort to equip their staff with the required knowledge, awareness and skills they need to survive and thrive. Others are re-equipping and retraining their teams so they can work successfully in the knowledge economy, replacing outdated behaviours, encouraging adaptive learning experiences and cementing a culture of modern teamwork into their organisational life.
Organisations need to be aware of how essential teamwork is and how different it is becoming. They must become fluid and agile to match the ever-changing modern environment. And, to unlock the tremendous potential for human progress that this brings, move towards a more team-centric model creating a trusting and all-inclusive environment resultant of high performing teams.