Saad Raja

Saad Raja – Why are we so fixated on the idea of permanent teams?

The idea of ‘the team’ is a hugely powerful one: most businesses, including all of the ones I’ve led, without exception, are formed of teams of some sort or another. The team structure, the hierarchy it provides and clear lines of responsibility it creates are an essential part of making our businesses effective.

And I’m not going to argue against that here. While there are arguments to be had about whether a flat structure is better, or a strict hierarchy, or even no leaders at all, the general consensus is that we still need teams of some sort in order for our businesses to function. The big question for me, instead, is this – do we really need to have permanent teams?

Working freely

I’ve been thinking about this for a number of reasons. One is based on personal experience. I think back – and I’m sure you can too – to those times when you’ve worked on a particular challenge, and a team has been thrown together quickly to deal with the situation. You’re under pressure, time is short, and you’ve never worked together before. In my experience, that kind of environment can often produce the very best results.

People are working out of their comfort zones, and are having to quickly forge fresh relationships with new people in order to solve the problem in front of them. I’ve found that this is where people start to get really creative. Because they’re not working with the people they usually work with, they bring none of the baggage that might have built up over the years of being on the same team. That this ‘baggage’ accumulates is completely natural, but it can – and often does – interfere with the problem-solving process.

Colleagues might get frustrated with someone who they have worked with for years and who ‘always’ works too slowly, or they may feel dominated by someone else who is better at expressing their ideas in meetings. None of this is a factor when teams are quickly thrown together to deal with a special challenge, and I’ve seen firsthand how this freedom can really produce some fantastic results.

Meeting the challenge

There’s a great example of this kind of teamwork, not in a business situation, but in something far more critical. I’d really recommend you take a look at the TED talk given by Amy Edmondson who tells a very compelling story about the Chilean mining disaster in 2010 that left 33 men trapped half a mile underground. Of course it’s a gripping and inspiring story in itself – all the men were rescued after 70 days – but Edmondson has some fascinating insights into how the rescue team, which was thrown together very quickly in response to the accident, worked to save the men.

She underlines the difference between the traditional team – think of a sports team for example – and what she calls ‘teaming’, a more informal kind of teamwork that she says is much more reflective of how many of us have to work today. Stable teams are a luxury in modern business, she says, with its complex challenges that need people from all sorts of different backgrounds and disciplines to work together. And the Chilean mining disaster was a similar example of people from different sectors, companies and countries coming together to solve an apparently unsolvable problem.

Enduring qualities

There is so much that we can learn from that incredible story of survival and ingenuity, but I think some of the qualities shown by that team really stand out, and can help us all to think less rigidly about the way we work in teams in our own business. These include their humility in the face of the challenge, their curiosity about what skills other people can bring, and their willingness to take risks and to learn quickly what works and what doesn’t.

These qualities are ones that can lift us above the petty concerns of formal team structures and can help us to focus on the most important thing of all – solving the challenge itself.

Saad Raja