What Military Service and NASA Can Teach About the Value of Teams Over Tech
Technology is important, of course, but it can't -- and shouldn't -- replace a well-optimized team.
In theory, teamwork and technology should go hand in hand. And they usually do -- to an extent. But just because each plays a big hand in determining a company's success does not mean one should depend on the other. Technology, by design, is meant to improve efficiencies and the overall customer experience, but it cannot replace the purpose of a lean and competent team.
For example, UCHealth, a hospital and clinic not-for-profit, is moving its innovation team into the same building as health professionals and technology experts at the Catalyst Health-Tech Innovation company, in Denver.
The goal of the collaboration is to combine team members' knowledge and expertise --by having them work together in the same space -- to facilitate breakthroughs that discipline by UCHealth's team alone could not have achieved.
"Healthcare is not going to be reimagined just through established healthcare organizations or startups," Catalyst HTI co-founder Mark Biselli told Modern Healthcare. "We have to do it together."
Of course, technology will play an important role in that collaboration. But the team executing the strategy is key. And this is something I myself learned as part of my military training. In that context, I learned that though technology is undoubtedly a great enabler, it is the way in which cross-functional teams combine their skills and expertise toward a single desired outcome that ultimately breeds success.
The first thing to do: Hand things off to high-performing teams.
Certainly, organizations need the right tools to produce groundbreaking products. No one can build a smartphone with some rocks and a hamster on a wheel. The problem, though, is that it is easy to take the "tools" sentiment too literally or to assume that a 50-50 partnership exists between teams and technology.
A high-performing team will always be more valuable than a piece of tech because that team will ultimately dictate how to identify and introduce technology, then accelerate its use. Though different people bring different areas of expertise to the team, everyone is working toward one common goal.
Instead of putting the onus on technology to get you across your own finish line, empower a high-performing team to get you there. Here's how:
1. Play to individuals' strengths.
A Refresh Leadership study found that 48 percent of employees polled thought their skills were underutilized at work. Given the often ambiguous challenges facing today's organizations, a cross-functional team is the optimal structure. Rather than simply build a talented team or plug deficiencies with tech solutions, construct a cohesive unit where all members can contribute their individual strengths and talent to the overall mission.
This type of cross-functional specialization certainly is not unique to business. Composers don't create enduring symphonies by copying and pasting in the same melody for each instrument. Though that may make the tuba alone sound a bit dull, it's the synthesis of the other instruments that will create the harmonies and make a symphony a masterwork.
From my experience in the military, I can attest that the strike force is the pinnacle of the cross-functional team construct. Assaulters, snipers, mortars, machine-gunners, fire supporters, pilots, interpreters and other experts each specialize in very specific areas of responsibility. But it is only by combining these specialties that many of the world's most capable teams are born.
The lesson: Like a world-renowned composer or decorated strike-force commander, put your emphasis on leveraging your team's individual strengths -- in the interest of shared achievement.
2. Don't hesitate to add on to your high-performing team.
Everyone knows that the purpose of a team is to accomplish what the individual cannot. Unfortunately, too many business leaders let their pride prevent them from embracing this adage. Worse, they may simply plug every capability gap with a new piece of tech. That shouldn't happen.
They should instead remember the individual strength each team member possesses, then empower those individuals to complete the tasks that will reach that ultimate goal.
Routinely assess what your team does -- and does not -- do well. Look at the progress of any project and determine whether the team has the skills and resources it needs in order to get the job done. If someone needs to acquire another skill to carry out a task, help that person learn it. If you need another team member to fill a gap, bring that person on.
An example: NASA looked outside its walls to help its astronauts deal with solar-particle storms. For 30 years, NASA had struggled to crack the code on predicting these occurrences, so it opened up the problem to external experts.
A former telecommunications engineer spearheaded the breakthrough by correctly simplifying the problem to a magnetic coupling issue involving Earth and the sun, a conclusion he reached using his own knowledge.
The lesson: Keeping its sights on the ultimate objective, NASA looked outside the organization to find a solution. So, follow its model: Utilize the capabilities of your team, but don't be afraid to engage outside stakeholders or subject-matter experts to get the results you need.
3. Collaborate with candor.
In Gallup's 2017 State of the American Workforce study, two-thirds of respondents said they experienced -- for one reason or another -- some level of disengagement at work. Building a unified team does not stop with adjusting the division of labor; it demands a culture of collaboration. Use every available opportunity to create an environment where trust, empowerment and candor are present.
Adam Waid, a former director of marketing at Salesforce, recalled, in a company blog, a time when a previous team was clearly functioning suboptimally. The manager sent an anonymous survey to the team asking about ways in which team dynamics and efficiencies might be improved. After compiling the results, he brought the entire team in for a candid discussion.
The revelations were less than earth-shattering and predominantly involved issues related to hurt feelings, bumpy structural changes and lack of appreciation, but the impact was profound. Waid remembers his manager walking away from the session amazed by how critical the candid discussion had proved in helping the team build trust and improve communication. Old-fashioned human interaction -- not tech -- helped open that door to improved team dynamics.
The lesson: Waid's experience proves that though technology is a valuable resource that teams can use, it cannot -- and should not -- replace a well-optimized team. Imagine that Waid's manager or the executives at NASA -- or even my military leaders -- had used only technological solutions to innovate. Each may have made some incremental movement, but it's unclear whether they would have made substantial movements, maintained cultures of innovation or established teams capable of perpetual problem-solving and organizational innovation. But who knows for sure?
Until machines can fully replace human consciousness, we will all have to complete the team goals needed to elevate our companies the hard way, and by the hard way, I mean the right way. Build or partner with a high-performing cross-functional team and empower it to accelerate tech across your enterprise, not the other way around.
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