Uncharted territory

How to lead ‘extreme’ teams

In today’s world, many leaders need to address complex, multi-boundary challenges at scale. To meet this need, you’ll have to develop your leadership mindset and skills, especially your ability to lead ‘extreme’ teams into uncharted territory (as the image suggests).

Much of the content of this month’s article was inspired by the book: Extreme Teaming: Lessons in complex cross-sector leadership by Amy C Edmondson and Jean-Francois Harvey.

What’s an ‘extreme’ team?

For years, teams were generally stable, and were typically formed of people who worked in the same function, of whom all were working in the same organisation.

The world in which we operate has become more complex and interdependent (there’s more on this in next month’s article). VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) doesn’t go far enough to describe how our world has evolved in the last few years.

Teamwork, likewise, has had to evolve to cope with this environment. Instead of emphasising the structure of teams, it’s now more about team processes:

  • Teams are often tasked with tackling complex multi-functional problems
  • They can’t rely on past experience and knowledge because they’re working in an unknown and unknowable space
  • Teams come together and disband much more quickly (they are fluid)
  • There may be collaboration between functions, companies, countries, and industries
  • They need to adapt and iterate as they go

The Extreme Teaming book talks about four leadership functions that make an extreme team successful. They are intended to help you overcome the interpersonal and technical barriers to success.

Here they are, at a glance:

Focused on emotions
and relationships
Focused on knowledge
and skills
Funnel energy
Build an engaging vision Empower agile execution
Remove barriers
Cultivate psychological safety Develop shared mental models

A core focus of agile leadership is about motivating people and facilitating, and less about your own technical expertise and authority. As the leader of an extreme team, you need this ability to motivate and facilitate, with the intellectual and emotional intelligence to tackle both interpersonal and technical challenges.

“The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
Attributed to Aristotle

We’ll look at each of the four functions in turn, with my added commentary.

1. Build an engaging vision

In their research, the authors found that leaders at the beginning of a project should “emphasise one set of ideals, principles and beliefs related to why the newly formed team should pursue the aims that brought them together in the first place”.

They suggest two leadership practices that sit under that:

  • Making values explicit
  • Articulating a challenging target

By doing this, you help everyone – particularly those with different views – to focus their energy onto the big picture view of why the team is there, why they should accomplish this work. It also motivates them when they inevitably hit an area of conflict, as they can rally under this common goal.

It’s invaluable to link the project vision to the personal values and aspirations of the team members – for their wellbeing and to maximise the chances of success. It’s even better if you can encourage team members to see their work as:

  • Unique
  • Unusual
  • Fun

That’s one of the things we did on a large-scale NHS change project (our work won an award, I’m proud to say!).

We taught 200 top leaders a model for large-scale change in an organisation where knowledge is king. We motivated them to try new methods by encouraging them to adopt a mindset of being ‘pioneers’. It encouraged them to feel they could step outside their area of knowledge which they’d trained for and where they were valued, in order to try a new way of doing things. It made them engage with the project and their stakeholders.

You can read more about the project and its six stages, here: Large-scale change

This step will come as no surprise to you if you’re a regular reader. I often remind leaders to ‘start with the end in mind’ and to set an inspiring vision.

For more on this, please see my article Setting your company vision

2. Cultivate psychological safety

Amy C Edmondson, one of the authors, has written a lot on this subject. Her angle is that extreme teams comprise people with diverse expertise, so there is a high likelihood that individual members will see things differently and conflict will arise.

Modelling a learning environment will help teams successfully navigate this conflict and hold the tension whilst a path through is found. This learning environment enables people to ‘stand in each other’s shoes’, share knowledge, experiment with new ideas, seek feedback, and talk about mistakes.

This is vital in developing original insights and adjusting the course of the project as more information is learned. Can you imagine the opposite – holding back information, covering one’s back, presenting a positive picture that bears little resemblance to reality, individuals having their own agendas (we’ve all worked in teams like that!).

Practices to model:

  • Display authentic care. Leaders need to make themselves visible because they are the people who set and sustain the tone. Having high visibility displays that care and enables you to monitor how team members are coping with the situation
  • Framing cross-boundary work as a resource. Show that different perspectives are an advantage to be used, not a difficulty to be managed.

For more information on psychological safety, here’s my article on the subject: Psychological safety and team effectiveness

3. Develop shared mental models

To come up with shared mental models about how to view the project scope, leaders should identify and manage all the various interfaces, by:

  • Highlighting and working through different interpretations and different individual interests
  • Sharing information
  • Ensuring shared meaning is created

The two practices recommended in the book are:

  • Diagnose interfaces for knowledge sharing. That is, identify points where the project requires attention, and facilitate discussion and coordination across these boundaries. This might mean physically getting people together
  • Leverage boundary objects. Enable efficient communication and cross-boundary collaboration to ensure the transfer, translation and transformation across boundaries

4. Empower agile execution

Make sure teams are flexible enough to adjust, as more is learned throughout the execution of the project.

Apply these leadership practices:

  • Provide room to manoeuvre. Give team members the physical and intellectual space to explore and make progress
  • Enable expert decision-clusters. Delegate decision-making to the lowest possible level of people who have adequate expertise. This supports effective decision-making and removes bottlenecks.

Related reading

As well as the links above, you might find my other articles useful. These include:

Next month

Operating in a complex and interdependent world.