Teamwork is the way we work in organizations. In our highly dynamic work environments, people are challenged to collaborate, almost daily, in service of efficiency, quality and innovation goals. Often, these challenges require coworkers from different units and with diverse skills, to quickly group and flexibly regroup as projects unfold. Unfortunately, most organizations are not designed for fluid, cross-boundary collaboration. To the contrary, the legacy of the formal hierarchy, with tightly defined job boundaries, serves to thwart, rather than promote teamwork across boundaries.
Below, I employ Kellogg, Orlikowski, and Yates’s (2006) trading zone analogy as a way to explore teamwork in fast paced, highly dynamic environments. Through their case study of teamwork in an internet marketing firm, we will see that practices promoting cohesion and stability amongst team members, are replaced by practices promoting interactivity and exchange. The lesson is that, as the formal hierarchy is supplanted by more flexible, networked structures, our prescriptions for teamwork must evolve to suit.
Anchored in Weber’s bureaucracy and Taylor’s principles of scientific management, most organizations are designed to emulate a simple machine. Machines are built for standardization, consistency and clock-like precision. As coworkers attempt to confront challenges at the intersection of their jobs, tightly defined procedures and decision rules, built to preserve the status quo, get in the way (Goldhaber, 2000; Morgan, 2006). Examples of failed attempts at cross-border collaboration abound. One needs to look no further than one’s morning newspaper for an accounting of the many systemic challenges confronting our education, healthcare and judicial systems, amongst others.
Against this backdrop, a new, and much more flexible and fluid approach to teamwork and workplace design is required. Instead of viewing the organization as a gigantic machine, how might we envision a workplace that seamlessly facilitates a dynamic network of interconnectedness? In answer to the call, Kellogg and colleagues (2006), offer the analogy of the trading zone.
The trading zone, they suggest, offers a view of the organization, and the people within it, as a complex, ever-evolving web of interactions. Just like traders connect to exchange goods, employees connect to exchange needs, ideas, and solutions. Interestingly, the notion of exchange does not imply permanent relationships or outcomes. What is important however, is the opportunity for coworkers to connect around shared interests, in a shared space, governed by a set of interaction processes. Through the lens of the trading zone, our understanding of teamwork shifts from designing stable, discrete, goal oriented units, to enabling an emergent, flexible exchange amongst interested colleagues.
The Trading Zone in Action
To arrive at their analogy, the authors conducted an in-depth field study of the coordination practices amongst members of a highly dynamic internet marketing firm. The firm was comprised of four distinct units—client services, project management, creative, and technology—the members of which formed temporary, self-organizing project teams. Given the intense time pressures and near perfect quality expectations, the work required the members to co-create in parallel, with changes in one area, for example client services, necessarily impacting creative services and so forth.
A number of practices were identified as helping members co-create products and services that met the evolving expectations of their clients. They are: 1) the use of collaborative online tools, 2) the use of common frameworks, 3) the use of plausible scenarios to compensate for imperfect information, and 4) the use of knowledge storage practices. All practices enabled members to experiment, in a trial and error fashion, to build and revise prototypical products as they learned their way forward.
Collaborative online tools enabled members to display their work in real time, making it visible and accessible to all members. In essence the collaborative online workspaces enabled members to work in parallel—a necessity due to time constraints—while at the same time making their work schedules, commitments, timelines, progress, and issues visible to others. Importantly, display practices created a timely, evolving archive of ‘what’s going on’ so that members remained ‘in the know’ and responsive to emerging issues.
Common frameworks and protocols guided members to complete and express their work in a form that was easily understood by all. The templates enabled members to begin work and play their part, with minimal upfront discussion. Given the protocols, members understood what needed to be done, by whom, in what sequence and how.
Plausible scenario building enabled members to begin work in the absence of full information and adapt as issues were clarified. Instead of waiting for perfect information, members created scenarios that provided just enough direction for members to define their assignments and proceed. Because the work was highly visible, each member was able to edit and revise the group’s work, as the details became known.
Knowledge storage practices enabled members to codify, reuse and combine existing knowledge—for example codes and presentations—in current projects, so that they did not have to reinvent anew. Members working with tight time frames were able to select know-how from a vast reservoir of past projects, repurpose it in existing projects, and display it online for all to build from.
Interestingly, to collaborate, members did not need to spend a lot of time and energy upfront, defining joint norms and building relationships. Together, these organizational practices enabled the project teams to form quickly and begin working on common client goals almost instantaneously. Further, the practices enabled members to work in parallel, and keep projects moving, even though they had partial information about the evolving needs of their customers. As a result, the community remained in ‘dynamic alignment’ as they learned their way forward.
What about conflict, politics and human dynamics you ask? Indeed, the authors found that the diverse values, interests and norms of members, along with occasional jurisdictional issues, caused tensions. Moreover, the fast pace and need to be constantly available created performance pressures. Yet, they reasoned, it was the common sense of urgency that created a sufficient force to keep the members moving forward in unison.
Is the trading zone analogy apt for all teams, in all contexts? Perhaps not. The internet marketing firm that Kellogg and colleagues (2006) studied needed to be designed for speed, in service of customized products. Relationships amongst members were secondary to speedy product development. Accordingly, the prescription of standard practices to enable fast and flexible experimentation fit.
To the contrary, your organizational challenges may require a stronger focus on relationship building, in order to first understand the common challenges before finding a way to confront them. What we can say is this. Today’s teams are no longer served by rigid structures and processes that assume predictable work and stable relationships. To meet our complex challenges, especially the ones at the intersection of multiple boundaries, organizations will be well served by adopting and experimenting with new, more organic and ecological analogies for teamwork and workplace design. Given the complexity of our challenges, teams need tools, workspaces and approaches that dissolve the boundaries and enable the requisite innovation, learning, speed, and flexibility.
About the Author
Brenda is an instructor on a number of the Queen’s IRC programs including Building Smart Teams, Organization Development Foundations, Organizational Design and HR Decision Making. A frequent presenter, Brenda has been a keynote speaker for the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Conference Board of Canada, the Human Resources Planners Association of Ontario and the Canadian Institute for Health Research.Brenda Barker Scott has extensive experience in all aspects of organizational development acquired over a twenty-year career in teaching and consulting. When working with leadership teams she combines strong theoretical knowledge with practical methodologies to ensure that the right people are engaged in the right conversations to design robust and workable solutions.
Brenda is co-author of Building Smart Teams: A Roadmap to High Performance. She is a graduate of Queen’s University and lives in Kingston with her husband and two sons.
Goldhaber, D. E. (2000). Theories of human development, integrative perspectives. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.
Kellogg, K., Orlikowski, W., & Yates, J. (Jan-Feb 2006). Life in the trading zone: structuring coordination across boundaries in post-bureaucratic organizations. Organization Science (17) p. 22 – 44.
Morgan, G. (2006). Images of organization (updated edition). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.