Teeming with Teams

This is the fourth part of a 12-part series featuring snippets from our new book, Team by Team. The only team building book ever written by the actual team. You can buy the ebook here.

Articles in this series:

  1. Selfishness: The Key to Teamwork
  2. Failing Forwards
  3. Stretch vs Support 


Fluidity in a role and its impact on agility and performance

How does a team truly embrace the rate of change we are now seeing in today’s world? After all, with fierce competition and fast-changing markets, a failure to respond quickly could be terminal. The best organisations are building teams that do things differently. Where there once was structure and speciality, we now have diffused roles and responsibilities. Where we once had hierarchy, we now have teams where everyone is empowered to lead. As the pace of life has changed, so has the modern team.

“Where we once had hierarchy, we now have teams where everyone is empowered to lead.”

Efficient and empowered employees

In 2013, Zappos decided to switch to self-organised teams in an effort to reignite some of its start-up vigour, despite being, at the time, an organisation of around 1,500 people. Having noticed that increases in organisational size normally led to inefficiencies in individual productivity levels, they decided to copy the structure of something that actually increased its efficiency as it grew in size: A city.

Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser reveals an interesting statistic: whenever a city doubles in size, the productivity of each resident increases by 15%.

So Zappos decided to structure themselves more like a city than a traditional company. Decision-making was distributed amongst teams that were self-organised into “circles” rather than the traditional management hierarchy.

In this model, roles are defined within each circle and individuals can take on multiple roles. Instead of a traditional management hierarchy for authorising every decision, teams closest to the work make the calls. And, at Zappos, things started to get done again.

One example of Zappos’s restructuring is how they empowered their customer service representatives to make decisions on refunds and customer gifts, without them having to consult a manager. The employee, as the person closest to the situation, is trusted to know what the best call is.

Of course, there are some guidelines on the type of decisions that cannot be made at a local level, but these are minimal. The level of empowerment and the improved response times this enables has helped Zappos to grow and stay agile while doing so.


Tackling complexity with adaptation

Another great asset of self-organising – and, therefore, self-defining – teams is that they can adapt to best react to each new situation they are in. This is particularly valuable when it comes to complex challenges. Ashoka is an organisation whose teams adapt their roles according to the needs of each challenge. Their aim is to help every child become a change-maker, specialising in the development of empathy, teamwork, leadership and critical problem- solving in school children. They help students to create positive global change.

Ashoka work in both the US and UK education systems. To begin with, they relied on traditional ways of working, with a team of specialist Ashoka staff working directly with teachers and students to teach them the skills. However, over time, they realised that the scale of the challenge and the amount of resources required were limiting their progress. A new approach was required.

They decided to embrace what they call a “Team of Teams” approach that reflects the context of each of the local schools they work with. Rather than control the delivery and teaching process, they have decided to let the schools lead it.

Teams of change-makers have been created in each school, consisting of one administrator, one parent, one teacher and one student. There is no hierarchy telling the schools how to go about things, just a common goal, diverse views and access to the tools to make things happen. In addition to this, each school team has been encouraged to envision a broader vision for change with 190 other schools in order to look far beyond their own school’s needs.

And, so, with the adoption of a more empowering, less-structured approach to teams, the complex has become simpler. Amidst changes of scale, speed and context, the future of teams must be one of empowerment: trusting local-level decisions and facilitating adaptation to change.iw

Download Team by Team on Amazon Kindle here.