Why We Need Adaptive Teaming Skills

Flexibility is great. Flexibility is hard. It's time to skill up.

I know a lot of people are pondering their next career move right now, and they have much to ponder.

AI. Contract vs entrepreneur vs employee. WFH, the café, or the office? Stick with what you know, create new offerings, or learn something entirely new? And perhaps, all of the above?

We have lots of options, and we expect to use them. Employers are getting the memo.

"If you're in the game of long-term employee retention, you're gonna have to figure out flexibility at some point."

Flexibility is wonderful.

Flexibility means that it's feasible for you to craft a life that includes volunteer work, hobbies, family time, and more in conjunction with your career. Flexibility means you can try on new professions and invent new roles.

Flexibility means that the other people you're working with expect to craft rich multi-faceted lives of their own, too.

Flexibility increases instability.

People who have lots of options are more likely to exercise those options. It's no longer safe to assume that your team will be available to collaborate during "office hours," or that the team composition will remain stable for the duration of your current project. Speaking personally, I want my team members to collaborate in predictable ways when I'm deep in the work, and it's hugely frustrating to have a project blocked because someone decided to get all flexible at the last minute.

Flexibility must be paired with strength.

Clarity, alignment, reliability, and trust make strong teams. As Dave shared in the previous article, our experiment running 26 workshops showed that creativity is rare. It also showed us that when you are clear about what you are trying to achieve and how you'll collaborate to achieve it, every team gets a result. People could be happy, sad, interested, frustrated, shy, non-native English speakers, online, in-person, strangers, friends... it didn't matter. Our experiment showed that when HOW to work was clear, everyone succeeded. 

In the experiment, we didn’t even need to build trust. Most people can work with someone they’re not fond of for 60 minutes. Real jobs aren’t as well defined as our experiment task was, though, so teams must create that strength together.

Flexibility increases communication overhead and delays productive collaboration. 

But when everything is flexible, you can't assume how you'll work. You have to talk about it with the team. You have to decide together:
When will we meet? Where? Oh, you're new! What can you do? What time is it now for you?

Communication overhead does not create value. Frequent blocking-and-tackling talk about when, where, and how to work is wasteful, leaving us with a choice.

How do you handle the communication overhead associated with rapidly changing teams and flexible work? Do you:

  1. Take the productivity hit. Embrace the waste! 🗑️🤗 

  2. Remove options. Leaders mandating a return to the office want this. ❌

  3. Collaborate less. Fewer people in the mix means fewer people to coordinate. 📉 

  4. Minimize the overhead by getting much better and faster at coordinating our collaboration. 🤝 

Here's our take on these options.

  1. Bleck. No! All flexibility and no strength leaves teams prone to injury. Choosing to embrace wasteful communication is akin to choosing bureaucratic delay as a way of life.
    Let's commit to becoming valuable duct tape rather than red tape people.

  2. That horse is out of the barn(1). All strength and no flexibility doesn’t work either. Recent surveys show that return-to-office mandates fail to yield productivity improvements and upset employees.
    Nick Bloom suggested that we should now see back-to-the-office mandates as a leader’s way of demonstrating to the stock market that they're "taking control" when earnings drop, and a signal to sell.

  3. This is happening! We can collaborate less with other people because collaborating with our new AI team members is hella convenient. (Thanks for the proofreading, ChatGPT!)

  4. This needs work. Let's get started!

Duct tape people get it done! (Thanks, Midjourney!)

Building Adaptive Teaming Efficiency for Knowledge Workers

We first heard the term Adaptive Teaming from Jared Spatero, Corporate VP at Microsoft in 2021. He defines it as:

We’re seeing [emerging workplace trends] manifest in the ways we work, including the idea of “adaptive teaming.” This concept describes a new way of tackling projects by bringing together fluid groups of people from various backgrounds and disciplines, typically a mix of flex workers and full-time employees along with external experts.

And now, we add AI team members to the mix! 👩🏿‍🔬👨🏽‍💻👩🏼‍🎨👨🏻‍🏫🧑🏾‍🚀👩‍💼🧑‍🔧👷🏽‍♀️🤖

Today, with organizational structures in flux and more people either job hopping or working as contractors, there are fewer "stable" teams out there. You can't count on three to six months to establish trust or form and storm. So it's not just surge capacity projects that call for adaptive teaming skills. Most teams need to become more happily fluid.

Mr. Spatero also shares our concerns.

[Adaptive teaming] requires the ability to identify talent, build relationships and establish processes quickly. Essentially, there are some significant start-up costs.

We do have practices for building relationships and establishing processes, but they rest on models that were developed in the before time. Lencioni's Five Behaviors, for example, came out in 2002 and Tuckman's classic Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing stages were first published in 1965.

In this article, Mr. Spatero goes on to cite an example of successful adaptive teaming in a healthcare and first responder setting. While inspirational, I've learned from the wonderful work of the Mission Critical Team Institute that the mission-critical world is not at all like your typical marketing department. I've also learned that, while we can take inspiration from mission-critical team stories, knowledge workers don't have the background training or clear external signals (i.e., people don't die when we're inefficient) that are required for us to adopt their methods verbatim.

Adaptive business teams look and work differently than mission critical teams, so their solutions are not our solutions. The question is: what might our solutions be?

Adapting Collaboration Together

Over the next few months, this newsletter is going to focus on strategies for quickly and effectively ramping up collaborative teams.

Our goal is to identify the best ways of getting AI-enabled, flexible working teams performing well together, and to prototype new approaches where the existing models fall short.

On the podcast, you'll hear from experts focused on team chartering, future-fitting employee handbooks, and more.

Are you an adaptive teaming expert? Do you know a method we should check out or someone we should call? Let us know by replying to this email or dropping us a comment.

But first, we'll start with you, and me, and all of us who will need to form new collaborative teams soon. As you prepare to create new working agreements with others:

  • What will you ask for?

  • What matters most to you?

  • Where can you be flexible?

And a new question that hadn't occurred to me until I began prototyping my Professional Portfolio: What are you most likely to actually do?

When I used reports and AI to inspect my prototype, I found that the answer to this question wasn't what I expected. I'll share more next time so you can try it for yourself and see if your answer surprises you too!

Looking forward to building this out with you,
Elise & Dave

1. While looking up the origins of "The horse is out of the barn" (here), I stumbled across this index of Malaphors. It's fun - I read it front to cover! ;)

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