How Fluid Teams Create Good Business

Mission control
Source: Mission control

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected and the rate of change accelerates, new organizational models are fundamental to an organization’s ability to remain competitive and relevant. When organizations empower fluid and open teams with distributed accountability and decision-making, the effect is twofold: They infuse passion and purpose among their workforce and they set themselves up to solve problems nimbly and quickly. In an earlier post (Your Team Never Mattered So Much), we talked about the Team of Teams approach and its four design principles as one such model of organizing.

These four design principles are the result of a synthesis of a number of large-scale change activities in the for-profit and not-for-profit spaces. They include:

  • Cross-functional/cross-silo participation
  • Fluid, diffused roles and responsibilities
  • Everyone empowered to lead
  • Sharing a common vision beyond any individual team member’s success

Let’s take a look at how two organizations have put these design principles into action.

For Community Solutions, elements of the Team-of-Teams approach are ever-present through the execution of their 100,000 Homes campaign to permanently house 100,000 of the most chronic and vulnerable homeless in just four years. Such an ambitious goal required a more fluid and agile team operation. The team was constantly shifting depending on the nature of the problem at hand; roles and responsibilities were reorganized every six months to meet the goals of the next six-month period. The team embraced the idea that the next great idea could come from anywhere, which at certain points meant that a 24-year-old was leading a national team. The end result was a mutually accountable team, one in which all members felt responsible for the team’s ultimate success.

Such experimentation and fluidity worked. The campaign successfully placed 105,800 chronic and vulnerable homeless people from over 186 communities into permanent housing. The cost estimates associated with this wholesale systemic shift have been estimated at over $1 billion dollars per year.

Ashoka is another organization experimenting with a Team-of-Teams approach to solve a complex challenge in our education system: How can we ensure that every child is mastering the skills of a global citizen — mainly empathy, teamwork, leadership and critical problem-solving? Ashoka set out to build a network of elementary, middle and high schools around the world that serve as models for cultivating these critical skills from a young age.

Initially, Ashoka relied on a traditional way of working; a team of Ashoka staff directly provided skill trainings and programming to teachers and their students. However, this service delivery approach was time and resource intensive, and it could not achieve the density of engagement needed. Ashoka then tested a more flexible team-of-teams structure that reflected the local school context. Today, any “Changemaker School” team is comprised of at least one administrator, one parent, one teacher, and is evolving to include a student on the team. Furthermore, the school teams (spanning 190 schools across 26 countries) share a broader vision of transformation in education, beyond the goals for their own individual school’s success.

In both of these examples, the nature of the team-of-teams approach reflects, and respects, the fluidity, complexity, and immediacy of the underlying complex social problem. A number of organizations are exploring similar non-traditional team structures: ones with very little hierarchy and with decentralized decision-making. Companies like Zappos, Valve and the 12 organizations studied in detail by Frédéric Laloux are good examples. Many of these organizational models contain elements of ‘self-organization’. For a self-organizing team to work, what is the right balance between passion and skills among the team members?