Imagine that you are the head of research at a detergent company and are tasked with finding a formula that will remove the toughest red wine stain from clothing. How would you go about solving this challenge? Chances are that you might give the problem statement to a select group of scientists in your organization and give them a budget and a timeline to come up with a solution. As it turns out, that’s the industrial way of doing it, wherein the organization tries to solve challenges through thoughtfully composed in-house teams. In the digital age, however, problem-solving is everyone’s job and the approach is to collaborate with anyone who has the answer, through a process called “teaming".

Amy Edmondson, the author of Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate And Compete In The Knowledge Economy, defines “teaming" as teamwork on the fly.

Traditionally, corporate teams, sports teams, music bands, etc., have all operated as a static collection of individuals inside stable boundaries. These individuals develop trust over time, collaborate on well-designed tasks and understand each other’s roles well. But today, teams are becoming increasingly boundary-less and dynamic. The new reality in the digital age is that businesses operate in an environment where the problems are new, big, urgent or unprecedented. Unilever CEO Paul Polman says: “The issues we face are so big and the targets are so challenging that we cannot do it alone so there is a certain humility and a recognition that we need to invite other people in." This calls for people, from inside and outside the organization, to come together quickly without any formal supporting structures, coordinate across boundaries such as expertise, time zones and languages, take decisions and achieve results.

The extraordinary rescue of the 12 Thai football players and their coach who were trapped inside the Tham Luang cave for 17 days in June and July is a case in point. The rescue team had Thai Navy SEALs, Australian and British divers, and doctors from various countries. They teamed up on the fly, learned to collaborate seamlessly without any formal structures, found innovative solutions, and ultimately emerged victorious in their mission.

To be sure, teaming doesn’t just happen during accidents and matters of life and death. It can happen in a corporate setting too. With the gig economy on the rise in the digital age, organizations have to embrace teaming. Teaming can also happen internally in an organization. Publicis, the French multinational advertising and public relations company, recently unveiled Marcel, an Artificial Intelligence-driven platform that promises to bring all its 80,000 employees on a common platform to break all silos. On Marcel, employees can bid to take part in client projects, team up, get work done and disband themselves. This enables the organization to tap into their wide network of talent that exists across boundaries and serve the unique needs of its customers in innovative ways.

Daniel Coyle in his book, The Culture Code, says leaders need to instil the power of vulnerability in their teams. Everyone in the organization should feel psychologically safe to be able to say: “I don’t know the answer, let me seek help." Furthermore, leaders must remove barriers to effective collaboration inside and outside the organization. Most importantly, the “not invented here" mindset has to give way to “awesomely created elsewhere" mindset. Employees must be empowered to seek the best possible solutions, irrespective of where it was created. Finally, while in the industrial age we hoarded valuable resources to gain influence, in the digital age, the natural instinct is to share the resource widely to achieve the same result. Leaders must foster a culture of sharing ideas, products, methods and best practices to build a thriving community of problem-solvers that support the company.

When A.G. Lafley first became the CEO of Proctor & Gamble in 2000, he quickly understood that the “do-it-yourself" model of innovation had run its course for the large multinational. To turbocharge the innovation process, he embraced the open innovation model. He renamed the research and development (R&D) function as connect and develop (C&D). The idea was to connect with anyone outside the organization who had answers to the tough problems that the company was trying to solve. The goal of the re-christened team was that 50% of the innovation must come from them and the rest should come through them. Today, the company leverages 7,500 of its internal researchers and 1.5 million people outside to create innovative products.

To sum up, teaming is the new way of working in the digital age. Leaders must enable their teams to focus on openness, sharing and collaborating beyond boundaries. This could hold the key for meeting challenges, ranging from saving lives in crucial situations and getting out new ad campaigns in rapid fashion to maybe even removing red wine stains from our favourite clothing.

This article is part of a series on leadership in the digital era. Rajiv Jayaraman is the founder and CEO of KNOLSKAPE, an end-to-end learning and assessments platform.

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