What HBR learned about managing cross-industry teams from successful co-innovation projects

BY Fernando L. Mompó on 06 / 01 / 2017

A few months ago, a Harvard Business Review issue presented as its main theme a series of articles about Managing Teams. Considering how Collaboration and Co-innovation have become hot topics in business management, it was not surprising that the main article was about how to successfully manage cross-industry teams.  As stated in the article and we have often experienced in Co-Society, projects developed by cross-industry teams confront special challenges due to the cultural clash arising from the usually different intellectual worlds, diverse behavioral norms and values, and even distinct vocabulary of participants coming from a variety of professions and sectors.

The article is written by Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership Management at Harvard Business School and coauthor of Building the Future: Big Teaming for Audacious Innovation (Barrett-Koehler, 2016). As it usually happens in many of the articles published in Business Harvard Review, key ideas and conclusions are not just merely opinions but the result of a research. In this case, Edmonson and some colleagues conducted a study based on more than a dozen cross-industry innovation projects, some of them an astonishing success, others a complete fail. The goal of the study was to understand the role played by the team leaders in all co-innovation projects, and detect which actions and leadership treats if any clearly told apart the successful teams from the ones that were not.

This research concluded that all successful co-innovation projects shared four key leadership practices:

  • Fostering an adaptable vision
  • Enabling psychological safety
  • Facilitating the sharing of expertise
  • Promoting execution-as-learning

Reshaping goals as you go it’s ok

According to Edmondson’s conclusions, the vision for a cross-industry team’s project must be purposely designed to evolve. This is one of the key particular traits to take into consideration in co-innovation projects as it is completely contrary to the common traditional management wisdom that demands firm visions in order to keep people inspired and engaged. For Edmondson, this does not apply to projects where due to a particular complexity, dynamics and uncertainty, it is necessary for leaders to manage the tension between clarity of purpose and potentially shifting goals. This is so because in a cross-industry project, new possibilities are more likely to come into focus as different expertise is integrated, and team’s capabilities are less clear at the start than when all members of a team belong to the same organization or industry. The article recommends leaders managing this kind of teams to inform participants in advance about the possibility of reshaping goals while insisting on the unshifting nature of the values and importance underlying the effort. Leaders need also to fully explain the rationale for change and be sure this is acknowledged by everyone as positive.

Preventing anxiety about interacting with the others

Creating a climate that invites people to speak up is a key practice for any teamwork. But promoting this kind of Psychological safety is particularly important for cross-industry innovation teams. If people is often afraid of exposing a hypothetical self-aknowledged ignorance in front of others, this fear is much more paralyzing when the others are experts form a different domain. Bias and stereotypes about others are much more likely to be applied to people different from us, making  interactions and sharing of ideas with them much more difficult .  Leaders should put special attention to guard against team members anxiety about committing social blunders or exposing ignorance. For this to be achieved, Edmondson recommends to emphasize the teams’ diverse expertise and professional backgrounds as a rich resource and a key element for the project success. Besides explicitly cast this diversity as a source of solutions rather that of conflict, leaders are also recommended to encourage social bonding and knowledge of the cross-industry team members previously to start working together.

Invest time in getting to know each other

Professionals from different industries and organizations are not going to share their knowledge naturally or easily. Frameworks and understandings coming from a particular field often seem so obvious to experts on their own discipline that they just do not think necessary explaining their reasoning. Distinct professional values are also source of misunderstanding and conflict. For instance, some industries seem to prioritize speed to market while others pay more attention to reliability; some professions show special risk-averse behavior as others tend to set unrealistic time frames. Instead of just  getting down to work, managers successfully leading cross-industry teams invested time at the beginning of their projects in creating a shared understanding and exposing distinct professional values.

No blueprints to follow

A blueprint approach to team management in which tasks and interdependencies among members are well specified is highly recommended for any kind of projects. Again, this seems not to be the case when applied to cross-industry co-innovation projects, where it is just more difficult having a blueprint to follow. That’s why, when dealing with cross-industry teams, successful leaders tend to show and transfer to team members an execution-as-learning  mindset and a higher appreciation for experimentation.

Wicked-Problem Solvers. Lessons from successful cross-industry teams


No comments


This site may use some "cookies" to improve your experience when navigating. Before continuing to navigate on our web page, we recommend you read the Policy on Cookies.