Back to the Future

It’s all about the learning.


For some time now, I’ve been noticing a change in the way teams operate. When I was first learning my craft, the typical metaphor for a high performing team was often a sports team, or a symphony orchestra, if I was in a place where drawing parallels to sports was unwelcome or misunderstood. These metaphors are less and less applicable in many of today’s dynamic organizational environments.

These days, it is far more likely that a team in an organization has a membership that changes regularly; many of these members will serve on multiple teams; and time zones, national borders, and organizational boundaries will be part of the landscape. Amy Edmonson talks about teaming as a dynamic activity rather than about a team as a bounded, static entity.

In this context, teamwork is a mindset and collection of practices more than a set of design and structural elements. We have to figure out how to coordinate and collaborate without the benefit of stable team structures.

There is a word for this: learning.

We’ve been talking about learning organizations for almost 25 years (The Fifth Discipline came out in 1990). What’s so different now?

Cynically, not much is different. Being successful in organizations still means assembling people in groups, pointing them in the same direction, and creating the conditions that will make it possible for them to do what they need to do. Teams and teamwork have been at the core of how we organize ourselves for a very long time.

What is new, I think, is that we are getting better at understanding and then describing how sustainable success is the result of figuring out how to unleash the best of what makes us human: Like the courage that comes from trust and respect, an ability to embrace complexity, and genuine curiosity. These characteristics are starting to replace the fear, need for control, and unrelenting drive for efficiency that continue to dominate organizational life.

Learning and efficiency both demand discipline, thinking about systems and systemic impact, and attention to detail. Where they diverge, importantly, is in learning’s focus on helping a process to evolve rather than simply carrying it out. Work becomes about learning faster, not just doing faster, than the competition.