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April 9, 2012

Teaming: How to learn and execute across boundaries 

“On August 5, 2010, more than half a million tons of rock suddenly caved in, completely blocking the entrance to the San Jose copper mine in Chile. Mining accidents are unfortunately common. But this one was unprecedented for several reasons: the distance of the miners from the Earth’s surface, the sheer number of miners trapped, and the hardness of the rock, to name a few. Thirty-three men were buried alive 2,000 feet under rock harder than granite.”

So begins a riveting chapter in a new book by Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson called Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in a Knowledge Economy. Citing dozens of case examples and decades of rigorous research, Edmondson directs our attention away from individual leaders and onto teaming. Today’s world, she argues, is far too complex for any one leader alone to grasp, and teaming is the most powerful vehicle for both learning and execution in organizations.

The mining accident in Chile shows you why. Within 70 days all 33 miners were rescued. That any miners were saved was a miracle: initial estimates of finding anyone alive were put at 10 percent. But as Edmondson shows, this miracle is no mystery. It was the result of bringing together a diverse team of people across cultural, professional, and geographic boundaries and enabling them to learn and execute quickly across boundaries.

“What happened during those 70 days,” Edmondson writes, “was an extraordinary teaming effort involving hundreds of individuals spanning physical (those 2,000 feet of rock), organizational, cultural, geographic, and professional boundaries. “

Most of us think in terms of teams-as-a-noun. Edmondson thinks of teaming-as-a-verb: acting in ways that help us rapidly collaborate, adjust, learn, and execute across boundaries. As such, it is essential to any organization that must “build learning into day-to-day work to meet ever-shifting needs and promote success over the long term.”

I have known Amy’s work for years, and like so many others, have learned so much from her way of seeing and describing the learning demands today’s organizations face, as well as her accessible advice on how to meet those demands. She captures all of that in her new book.

Anyone who must team up to get things done—and that’s almost all of us—will find Teaming an invaluable guide to a poorly understood territory.

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