group of starlings swarming in the air over a field
PHOTO: James Wainscoat

Teams at work are far from a new concept. According to an ADP Research Institute Report, 82% of us work on at least one team and 72% work on more than one team. Yet despite the widespread use of teams to conduct work, and the importance of teams for building employee engagement, the report states: “The challenge for almost all organizations today is that they are not set up to know very much about their teams. Most current HR systems are extensions of financial systems and only show their reporting structure via an organizational chart. Yet, most work happens in functional teams that can be fluid, depending on the project.”

Work team digitization however has been growing at a cracking pace. The recent stock market float of the popular Slack platform and Microsoft’s response that its Teams platform is now outpacing Slack with more than 13 million daily active users, shows there's no shortage of ‘digital assistants’ for team-based work. Slack's success has largely been built in the tech space, where agile teaming has become the norm for software development. Even development shops within large traditional organizations like banks, utilities and government departments have not been immune to the agile way of working for software development.

The onslaught of books, courses, methodologies and toolsets urging businesses to become more agile, team-based organizations can truly feel like an "invasion," especially for those organizations accustomed to a more methodical, process-centered way of working.

The Problem With 'Organizational Culture Change'

When being invaded, the natural reaction is “fight or flight.” It's unusual to willfully embrace the invaders and join their cause. So it's natural a majority of commentators respond by calling for large-scale cultural change. Harvard professor Amy Edmondson wrote about developing a “Teaming Culture” and “Building the right culture in an era of fast-paced teaming, when people work on a shifting mix of projects with a shifting mix of partners.” 

Agile teaming coach Doug Rose suggests that scaling agile from the software development department to the enterprise as a whole can only be achieved through an enterprise-wide cultural change.

Marcus Buckingham and Ashely Goodall in their popular "Nine Lies About Work" book take a contrarian view: “Teams make work real: they ground us in the day-to-day, both in terms of the content of our work and the colleagues with whom we do it. Culture doesn’t.” They suggest that focusing on culture just results in generalities and not the specifics of “what to do when” for team leaders to make things better.

There's something to be said for the Buckingham and Goodall approach. The mere mention of “Organizational Culture Change” is enough to dampen even the most evangelical teaming advocate, so focus on the specifics needed by team leads and the network of teams they work within.

Related Article: It's Time to Get Down and Dirty With Culture and Change

Collaboration Technology: A Help and a Hindrance?

Digital collaboration platforms are clearly designed to help teams work more effectively, but is this always the case? Professor Kai Reimer, who leads the Digital Disruption Research group at the University of Sydney recently addressed the audience at my firm SWOOP's chat event in Sydney, suggesting platforms like Microsoft Teams have provided too much choice, to the point that users become confused and potentially even less productive. Reimer has been researching enterprise social networks for over a decade now and sees the emergence of Microsoft Teams as a disrupter, but not necessarily in a positive way. He used the simple example of the plethora of ways you can share a file, which can easily lead to confusion and frustration.

The conversation which followed Reimer’s presentation was rich and enlightening. For some, Microsoft Teams is delivering on the promise and has been enthusiastically adopted. Others supported Reimer’s proposition and were still confused by the plethora of choice.

The main confusion occurs around the use of Yammer or Teams. In a previous article, I wrote about how existing ‘teams’ in Microsoft Teams were operating as up to four different group/team types: Single leader teams, Self-Directed teams, Communities and Forums; the latter two being more suited to Yammer. In a further analysis I examined some 700 Yammer groups across several organizations, looking for groups that might be better placed as teams. The following chart identifies the level of potential ‘wrong platform’ choices based on several months of activity:

yammer teams

The inference from this analysis is that groups and teams do not always know how they may evolve over time, despite potentially having a clear purpose on formation.

Alister Webb, author of the handbook "Designing Collaboration," made the strong point that rushing into a new toolset is bound to be problematic, and will often lead to the levels of confusion that Reimer was suggesting. However, by following a purposeful design process leading up to a new platform launch, many of these frustrations can be avoided.

Related Article: Microsoft Is Sending Collaboration Loopy

An Experimental Approach to Collaboration Platforms

A key to surviving the teams platform invasion appears to be being taking a purposeful, rather than ad hoc approach. Without wanting to kill off the enthusiasm for the new teaming platforms with overbearing adoption processes, organizations should treat their initial use of teaming platforms as experimental. As my analysis above showed, many teams/groups can evolve to be a different type of group/team than the original intention.

Experiences gained "in use" can be applied to better inform the collection of digital tools and the norms of usage they are best suited to. In this way, teams or groups can move forward with confidence, to achieve the high productivity outcomes the business seeks.