We Need Participation, but it is Wild and Wooly
Awhile back I wrote a blog about the importance of participation in organizational work. I concluded with this paragraph:
“It turns out that we will gain more and better ideas through gathering the varied experiences and perspectives of as many people as we can and creating a space for their interactions that is a little wild and wooly, but also respectful. Etienne Wenger, the creator of the term ‘communities of practice,’ describes how organizational members with a shared sense of purpose create communities that focus on their shared practice and take group responsibility to ‘steward’ their knowledge toward higher levels of the practices of that organization. They also apprentice newer members into the community and support their development and participation. This is participation at its most organic, and potentially most powerful. Beyond ‘buy-in’ and ‘ownership,’ beyond ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up,’ even beyond ‘authorship’ true participation implies a distributed yet collective sense of agency. That agency can be powerful, efficient, effective, and even transformational.”
Effective Teamwork is at the Heart of Participation
There is something to be excavated here that is the bedrock underlying the question this blog addresses: but why teamwork? Some phrases stand out: a little wild and wooly, but respectful; the gathering of varied experiences and perspectives; a shared sense of purpose and shared practices; the stewarding of knowledge and skill; agency, power, efficiency, and transformation. These are the conditions and dynamics of powerful and innovative work. So what I want to explore today is the idea that effective teamwork is at its heart a necessary process to arrive at a place where all that those phrases conjure up for us can happen in a healthy and productive way.
If your image of effective teamwork is to be able to control a calm and non-conflictual space where people come together to work on a collectively well defined problem, or toward some clear and measurable outcome, in a deliberate and rational way, you may be disappointed or shocked by the actual teamwork experiences you have: it is often beyond control and far from rational. But why do we need that kind of messiness that is beyond our control? Because most problems we face are not merely technical in nature, and often neither the nature of the problem nor the nature of the solution is clear. What we really want is to guide or nurture a space where transformational work with complex problems can happen, and that requires diverse ideas and dissonance among them, conflict and the discomfort of new learning emerging, the exploration of wild places, diving into unfamiliar, even scary waters. Otherwise, what we get is no better than what we started with, mediocre at best, the same old, same old.
You need wildly divergent thinking and experiences in order to converge on new ideas or new products. The paradox is, wildness and freedom in the content of your work require structure and deliberateness in the process of your work; otherwise, what you get is wildly dysfunctional or even dangerous, and often completely unproductive. So. To do out of the box thinking requires a box to contain that work. We create deliberately structured processes to free us to do unstructured thinking, and those structured processes are the stuff of effective teamwork. But that requires letting go of the notion that you can control any of this; you and your teammates can only guide and nurture these processes.
So What Contains the Wildness?
We might categorize the “containers” for effective teamwork as conditions, knowledge, skills, habits of mind, processes, and tools. These containers do not represent a perfect system or technical fix; you can’t just adopt them wholesale. They offer guidance for your team to help you make meaning together of your work. Your collective job is to support the emergence of these containers in your practice of being a team working together. It’s hard work. Practice makes practice.
Here’s a few examples from some of my research and writing on teamwork:
Some Conditions, Knowledge, & Skills:
“The members of an effective team must be:
“The support for an effective team’s work must be:
“The work of an effective team must:
Some Habits of Mind:
“Effective leadership teams have beliefs, and norms of interaction, that support all their members being team players. An example of such a norm is, ‘Members of effective teams listen actively by digging for meaning and uncovering assumptions and inferences.’”
“Effective teams have and use shared norms, structures, procedures, and team skills for their work (that is, they have created a team culture), and have developed roles that take advantage of their different individual skills, expertise, and experience to accomplish shared work.”
“Individual members take responsibility for their own learning and involvement, even though there may be a process observer and facilitator. All members are responsible for all roles, even when roles are assigned.”
“Effective teams have clear structures and procedures for accomplishing their work. Those may include assigned roles such as facilitator, recorder, timekeeper, reflector, process observer, etc. They also include such things as a regular time to meet, and a set membership.”
“They have clear communication procedures for use in their team work, and are clear about when each is appropriate. ‘For instance, when setting an agenda, they do not talk about possible solutions to problems that are as yet poorly defined.’ They practice active listening. They balance advocacy with inquiry (Argyris et al., 1985). They are concise and concrete in their advocacy, bringing concrete data, evidence, to bear on their proposals. They make their statements open to critique by others. They make their reasoning explicit. They balance speaking with listening, and everyone can speak and is heard. They take turns, or keep a running tally of who is waiting to speak. They don’t ask leading questions that are really disguised advocacy. They ask open ended questions, for information or clarification, or to advance the thinking of the group. They act as critical friends, not criticizers.”
“They have clear decision-making procedures. They are aware of and use consensus procedures when appropriate; they know when to shift from one decision strategy to another. They can decide when not to decide, and when to revisit a decision. They are aware when decisions are not appropriate, and when discussion and meaning-making are more important. They know when to fish, cut bait, or swim to shore.”
They have clear conflict management and negotiation procedures.
Conditions can be developed. Knowledge, skills, and habits of mind can be cultivated and learned. The internet is full of resources for the processes and tools your team will need. The practice that it takes to make it all work together, you will have to do yourselves.
But Why Teamwork Again?
Remember the quote I started with? “It turns out that we will gain more and better ideas through gathering the varied experiences and perspectives of as many people as we can and creating a space for their interactions that is a little wild and wooly, but also respectful.” Teamwork is essential for creating that space, and effective teamwork is what makes it really hum. A team skilled at building the right process container for their teamwork can unleash the most diversity of ideas into a wild and wooly wilderness of creative work, resulting in innovative solutions to those “wicked problems” we know lie beyond the stretch of our current realm of knowledge. Go hunting!