Teaming for Today’s Complex Challenges

Teaming for Today's Complex Challenges
Organization Development

People working collectively make organizations hum. No matter the task – a radical productivity improvement, a breakthrough innovation, the development of an exceptional customer service culture – people must join together and invest their heads, hearts, and wills to get the job done. When people, with various and relevant skills and perspectives, join around challenges that matter, their collective efforts produce innovations that get implemented.

At its core, facilitating teamwork is about creating space for people to collectively design and execute smart and doable strategies. Reacting to technological and social trends, savvy leaders are placing greater emphasis on learning, knowledge sharing, and collaboration in an effort to develop, access, and integrate the talents of their colleagues.

Today’s teams are challenged with high-stakes issues. Gone are the days when teams could be formed to implement pre-set solutions ordained from above, or when formal and stable teams could operate on the basis of consensus and cohesion. As author Thomas Friedman, writing of the dynamics of an increasingly “flat” world, pointed out, “the next layers of value creation… are becoming so complex that no single firm or department is going to be able to master them alone.” (2005)

Teams are confronted with ambiguous, hard-to-define challenges, involving multiple sets of stakeholders with competing interests, biases, and ways of working. These initiatives require members to learn from each other and from outside experts, to apply and leverage knowledge in new ways, and to go through iterations of collecting and analyzing data before a solution emerges.

I refer to such scenarios as “jamais vu” challenges, because team members have never been there or done that. They are complex in both the tasks to be carried out and the relationships to be developed. These differ from “déjà vu” been there, done that challenges, in which the team members in defined relationships have direct knowledge to apply. Jamais vu challenges abound: healthcare reform, environmental management, global warming, and mergers and acquisitions are all systemic dilemmas that require team members to facilitate complex relationships while forging a new path.

Jamais vu initiatives require a new model of teamwork and collaboration. These collaborations involve members from multiple disciplines, sites, and levels, with diverse backgrounds and expertise. Such teams often work at an accelerated pace, and members must forge relationships to gain perspective and commitment from external experts and stakeholders.

While decisive action – often stemming from the perspective of a single leader or expert – was the focus for traditional teams, discovery, learning, innovation, and distributed action-taking are the fuel for jamais vu teams. In this context, effective teamwork has shifted from a cohesion-based model to a learning-based model to enable streamlined formation, focused discovery, and option generation, experimentation, and energized action-taking.

How do leaders go about organizing for jamais vu challenges? In our book, Building Smart Teams, Carol Beatty and I report on the findings of Carol’s research which narrows the success factors of high performing teams to three critical sets of process and skills. These processes and skills provide a foundation for today’s learning based collaborative climate.

Team Management Practices enable people to define their task and connect to one another

While teams have traditionally focused on their own insular work and processes, today’s teams must take a whole-systems perspective and engage system players in the learning journey. Accordingly, they are more focused on getting a holistic understanding of the challenge, securing required resources and expertise, and defining the process members will follow. Today’s teams are often disbanded as soon as the task is completed. So the focus is on enabling the right people to engage and connect to core tasks as the team’s work unfolds.

Key steps to team formation include:

  • getting a full understanding of the challenge from all relevant points of view, with key success factors;
  • carefully and deliberately defining who needs to lead the initiative and who else needs to be on the team given their expertise, role, or perspective;
  • identifying other stakeholders who need to be engaged for their input, expertise, or feedback;
  • defining the process for fruitfully engaging in this work, including the right tools and technologies; and
  • defining a few key protocols for communicating, decision making and holding each other to account. I refer to this phase of the team’s core work as the define stage.

A robust problem solving process enables team members to work in dynamic alignment

While traditional teams relied on a leader for direction and alignment, today’s teams need to be supported by a robust process as they tackle complex, multi-pronged issues that do not fit within the jurisdiction of a single leader. The process becomes the glue that aligns people around core tasks, and that defines who will be involved and how along the way, including when to consult external experts and other stakeholders.

A good process enables members to share their expertise, fulfill their roles, and remain in alignment as the work unfolds. It also allows for the requisite group learning and resourcefulness. In my work, I employ a four-stage process that enables members to engage in activities that move from:

Defining the task: Setting the focus, scope, and boundaries of the initiative, as well as the engagement strategy of who to involve and how to link key stakeholders to the challenge and each other. Discovery: Collecting and analyzing data to uncover the core issues that need to be addressed and the options for renewal. Designing Strategies: Developing, testing, and refining options into prototypes and straw model solutions. Doing: Codifying recommendations for action, seeking approvals, and communicating plans and involvement strategies for implementation.

Each stage builds from and becomes a platform for each subsequent stage, so that members learn their way forward. Decision makers do not decide on a solution until they have first generated and tested options. Similarly, options are generated from the insights that were generated during discovery. The questions for discovery and the sources for answering them were generated from the way the initiative was ultimately defined.

Communications and conflict handling skills provide an orientation for learning and innovation

Two related orientations are important for effective teamwork and collaboration in jamais vu-land: communications patience and conflict handling skills. Patient communicators are naturally open and curious. Rather than prematurely judging and dismissing data that conflict with their own, they work hard to accept and incorporate relevant views, knowledge, and talents. Patient communicators are adept at sharing their insights and opinions. They are masterful at employing analogies and stories to convey their knowledge in a form that others can relate to.

In turn, members appreciate that conflicting ideas and ways of working are par for the course and do not judge or dismiss members who think or work in ways different than their own. When potentially thorny issues arise, such as a missed deadline, members surface the issues and deal with them. When the team is stuck, members slow down and embark on a strategy to resolve the impasse rather than plowing ahead.


Faced with high stakes and ambiguous challenges, today’s team leaders can employ new methodologies to enable members to develop a holistic view of their task, involve the right people, and engage in a process that facilitates learning, innovation and aligned action. Armed with new insights about leading teams in jamias vu-land, leaders can create the space for enabling and energizing members to deliver solutions that fit the challenge.

About the Author

Brenda Barker Scott, Queen's IRC Facilitator




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 an instructor on a number of the Queen’s IRC programs including Building Smart Teams, Organization Development Foundations, and Organizational Design. 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 is co-author of Building Smart Teams: A Roadmap to High Performance.

Further Reading

Beatty, C., & Barker Scott, B. (2004) Building Smart Teams: A Roadmap to High Performance, Sage Publications.

Friedman, T, (2005). The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


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