How to Turn a Group of Strangers into a Team: Amy Edmondson (Transcript)

Amy Edmondson

Following is the full transcript of author Amy Edmondson’s TED Talk: How to Turn a Group of Strangers into a Team.


Listen to the MP3 Audio: How to turn a group of strangers into a team by Amy Edmondson at TED Talk



So it’s August 5, 2010. A massive collapse at the San José Copper Mine in Northern Chile has left 33 men trapped half a mile – that’s two Empire State Buildings – below some of the hardest rock in the world. They will find their way to a small refuge designed for this purpose, where they will find intense heat, filth and about enough food for two men for 10 days.

Above ground, it doesn’t take long for the experts to figure out that there is no solution. No drilling technology in the industry is capable of getting through rock that hard and that deep fast enough to save their lives. It’s not exactly clear where the refuge is. It’s not even clear if the miners are alive. And it’s not even clear who’s in charge.

Yet, within 70 days, all 33 of these men will be brought to the surface alive. This remarkable story is a case study in the power of teaming.

So what’s “Teaming”? Teaming is teamwork on the fly. It’s coordinating and collaborating with people across boundaries of all kinds — expertise, distance, time zone, you name it — to get work done.

Think of your favorite sports team, OK, because this is different. Sports teams work together: that magic, those game-saving plays. Now, they win — sports teams win because they practice. But you can only practice if you have the same members over time. And so you can think of teaming.

Sports teams embody the definition of a team, the formal definition. It’s a stable, bounded, reasonably small group of people who are interdependent in achieving a shared outcome. You can think of teaming as a kind of pickup game in the park, in contrast to the formal, well-practiced team. Now, which one is going to win in a playoff? The answer is obvious.

So why do I study teaming? It’s because it’s the way more and more of us have to work today. With 24/7 global fast-paced operations, crazy shifting schedules and ever-narrower expertise, more and more of us have to work with different people all the time to get our work done. We don’t have the luxury of stable teams.

Now, when you can have that luxury, by all means do it. But increasingly for a lot of the work we do today, we don’t have that option. One place where this is true is hospitals. This is where I’ve done a lot of my research over the years. So it turns out hospitals — they have to be open 24/7. And patients — well, they’re all different. They’re all different in complicated and unique ways.

So the average hospitalized patient is seen by 60 or so different caregivers throughout his stay. They come from different shifts, different specialties, different areas of expertise, and they may not even know each other’s name. But they have to coordinate in order for the patient to get great care. And when they don’t, the results can be tragic.

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Of course, in teaming, the stakes aren’t always life and death. Consider what it takes to create an animated film, an award-winning animated film. I had the good fortune to go to Disney Animation and study over 900 scientists, artists, storytellers, computer scientists as they teamed up in constantly changing configurations to create amazing outcomes like “Frozen.” They just work together, and never the same group twice, not knowing what’s going to happen next.

Now, taking care of patients in the emergency room and designing an animated film are obviously very different work. Yet underneath the differences, they have a lot in common. You have to get different expertise at different times, you don’t have fixed roles, you don’t have fixed deliverables, you’re going to be doing a lot of things that have never been done before, and you can’t do it in a stable team.

Now, this way of working isn’t easy, but as I said, it’s more and more the way many of us have to work, so we have to understand it. And I would argue that it’s especially needed for work that’s complex and unpredictable and for solving big problems.

Paul Polman, the Unilever CEO, put this really well when he said, “The issues we face today are so big and so challenging, it becomes quite clear we can’t do it alone, and so there is a certain humility in knowing you have to invite people in.”

Issues like food or water scarcity cannot be done by individuals, even by single companies, even by single sectors. So we’re reaching out to team across big teaming, grand-scale teaming.

Take the quest for smart cities. Maybe you’ve seen some of the rhetoric: mixed-use designs, zero net energy buildings, smart mobility, green, livable, wonderful cities. So we have the vocabulary, we have the visions, not to mention the need. We have the technology. Two megatrends — urbanization, we’re fast becoming a more urban planet, and climate change — have been increasingly pointing to cities as a crucial target for innovation.

And now around the world in various locations, people have been teaming up to design and try to create green, livable, smart cities. It’s a massive innovation challenge. To understand it better, I studied a start-up – a smart-city software start-up – as it teamed up with a real estate developer, some civil engineers, a mayor, an architect, some builders, some tech companies. Their goal was to build a demo smart city from scratch.

OK. Five years into the project, not a whole lot had happened. Six years, still no ground broken. It seemed that teaming across industry boundaries was really, really hard.

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OK, so I had inadvertently — I think we had inadvertently discovered what I call “professional culture clash” with this project. You know, software engineers and real estate developers think differently — really differently: different values, different time frames — timeframes is a big one — and different jargon, different language. And so they don’t always see eye to eye. I think this is a bigger problem than most of us realize.

In fact, I think professional culture clash is a major barrier to building the future that we aspire to build. And so it becomes a problem that we have to understand, a problem that we have to figure out how to crack.

So how do you make sure teaming goes well, especially big teaming? This is the question I’ve been trying to solve for a number of years in many different workplaces with my research.

Now, to begin to get just a glimpse of the answer to this question, let’s go back to Chile. In Chile, we witnessed 10 weeks of teaming by hundreds of individuals from different professions, different companies, different sectors, even different nations. And as this process unfolded, they had lots of ideas, they tried many things, they experimented, they failed, they experienced devastating daily failure, but they picked up, persevered, and went on forward.

And really, what we witnessed there was that they were able to be humble in the face of the very real challenge ahead, curious — all of these diverse individuals, diverse expertise especially, nationality as well, were quite curious about what each other brings. And they were willing to take risks to learn fast — to learn fast what might work.

And ultimately, 17 days into this remarkable story, ideas came from everywhere. They came from André Sougarret, who is a brilliant mining engineer who was appointed by the government to lead the rescue. They came from NASA. They came from Chilean Special Forces. They came from volunteers around the world.

And while many of us, including myself, watched from afar, these folks made slow, painful progress through the rock. On the 17th day, they broke through to the refuge. It’s just a remarkable moment. And with just a very small incision, they were able to find it through a bunch of experimental techniques.

And then for the next 53 days, that narrow lifeline would be the path where food and medicine and communication would travel, while above ground, for 53 more days, they continued the teaming to find a way to create a much larger hole and also to design a capsule. This is the capsule. And then on the 69th day, over 22 painstaking hours, they managed to pull the miners out one by one.

So how did they overcome professional culture clash? I would say in a word, it’s leadership, but let me be more specific. When teaming works, you can be sure that some leaders, leaders at all levels, have been crystal clear that they don’t have the answers. Let’s call this “situational humility.” It’s appropriate humility. We don’t know how to do it. You can be sure, as I said before, people were very curious, and this situational humility combined with curiosity creates a sense of psychological safety that allows you take risks with strangers, because let’s face it: it’s hard to speak up, right? It’s hard to ask for help. It’s hard to offer an idea that might be a stupid idea if you don’t know people very well. You need psychological safety to do that.

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So they overcame what I like to call the basic human challenge: it’s hard to learn if you already know. And unfortunately, we’re hardwired to think we know. And so we’ve got to remind ourselves — and we can do it — to be curious; to be curious about what others bring. And that curiosity can also spawn a kind of generosity of interpretation.

But there’s another barrier, and you all know it. You wouldn’t be in this room if you didn’t know it. And to explain it, I’m going to quote from the movie “The Paper Chase.” This, by the way, is what Hollywood thinks a Harvard professor is supposed to look like. You be the judge. The professor in this famous scene, he’s welcoming the new 1L class, and he says, “Look to your left. Look to your right; one of you won’t be here next year.” What message did they hear? “It’s me or you.” For me to succeed, you must fail. Now, I don’t think too many organizations welcome newcomers that way anymore, but still, many times people arrive with that message of scarcity anyway. It’s me or you. It’s awfully hard to team if you inadvertently see others as competitors.

So we have to overcome that one as well, and when we do, the results can be awesome. Abraham Lincoln said once, “I don’t like that man very much, I must get to know him better.” Think about that — I don’t like him, that means I don’t know him well enough. It’s extraordinary.

So this is the mindset, I have to say, this is the mindset you need for effective teaming. In our silos, we can get things done. But when we step back and reach out and reach across, miracles can happen. Miners can be rescued, patients can be saved, beautiful films can be created.

To get there, I think there’s no better advice than this: look to your left, look to your right. How quickly can you find the unique talents, skills and hopes of your neighbor, and how quickly, in turn, can you convey what you bring? Because for us to team up to build the future we know we can create that none of us can do alone, that’s the mindset we need. Thank you.

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