Talking Agile HR - Teams & the Future of Work

Recently, I interviewed Tom Marsden, CEO at Saberr, who is on a mission to make HR more evidence-based. Saberr specialises in the use of data and technology to discover the inner secrets of teams and what makes people work well together.

With teams constituting a fundamental component of the future of work and how organisations are transforming, I took the opportunity to explore this topic further with Tom.


What’s so important about teams in the future of work?

As business becomes increasingly complex and global, the way we work is becoming more and more team based. Tom believes the team will be the fundamental unit of the modern organisation. Indeed, the renewed focus on teams can be viewed as a direct product of Agile, now influencing methods of working across all industries, which advocates teamwork as an effective way to drive innovation, spot problems and get things done.

As jobs become more automated, the ones that remain human will most likely involve the need for collaboration and a type of networked performance. Recently, the Harvard Business Review found that ‘‘the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more’’ over the last two decades, and in many companies, more than three-quarters of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues.

A nice example used by Tom is how Nobel Laureates were mostly individuals 30 years ago and are now primarily groups of people or teams.

What has Saberr discovered about the dynamics of teams and how a team becomes high performing?

Saberr studies the ingredients and dynamics of high performing teams. In particular, Saberr focuses on relationship dynamics and what a high performing team looks like. A key finding when moving the behavioural science into the predictive space, is that high performing teams require diversity, particularly diversity in thought, to solve complex problems and more importantly, a set of shared values.

A similar finding was made by Google through their Aristotle project, which involved several years of research into team dynamics. Google found that while high performing teams could constitute any mix of personalities and backgrounds, what was common was a collection of behavioural norms and a sense of psychological safety.

“The right norms, in other words, could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team, even if, individually, all the members were exceptionally bright.”  Charles Duhigg, What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team, NY Times Magazine

Once we discover the right team fit, what becomes important if we want to develop teams over time and build a network of teams?

There is relative consensus among researchers on what we can do to create good norms of behaviour in teams. The factors are not revolutionary and involve things like clear goals, defined roles and transparent decision making. What becomes interesting is if these factors are known, why do we so often fail to achieve this in the workplace. This conundrum leads Saberr to consider behavioural change as a vital component when building teams and is exploring ways to nudge teams towards the right behavioural patterns or good habits.

Is there a secret ingredient if we want to scale this concept up and build teams of teams across an organisation?  

Tom draws on social network analysis and talks about the theory of bonded teams. Central is the need to establish bridging relationships both out of the team and across the organisation. The data also shows that there are specific practices, as well as key people, who help build and harness these bridges.

Trust is a vital ingredient for teams to become truly self-organising, a factor that Saberr also finds holds the strongest correlation with team performance.

Can a team be truly self-organising?

Tom thinks it’s possible but rare. Indeed, while many organisations are trying to adopt this nirvana model, there is often a clash with existing organisational culture. Saberr views team structure along a spectrum, ranging from traditional hierarchy through to horizontal self-organising teams. Where a team sits along this spectrum depends a lot on context, as well as what works for the team members themselves and existing norms of behaviour. Saberr is now testing ways to predict where a team might sit along this spectrum.

Tom personally finds the self-organising team model both interesting and inspiring, as it forces leaders to think about how to delegate reasonability throughout their people. However, Tom cautions that the model will not work everywhere and not to rush into this new way of working. Based on my own Agile HR experiences, trust is a vital component if a team is to become truly self-organising. Interestingly, Saberr has also found that trust holds the strongest correlation with team performance. 

And finally, what is HR’s role in all of this?

Tom views HR as the facilitator, rather than a direct player, as we build teams and the modern organisation. Indeed, Saberr themselves design technology to enable the end user, or team directly, not HR. HR then plays the role of coach and helps the team explore how to work more effectively together, establish a shared purpose and build trust. Another key aspect is helping teams build bridges outwards, and enhance the team’s collective intelligence by bringing in data and ideas from external sources.

Yet, another reason why HR needs to get more evidence-based!

Agile HR London Meetup hosted by Saberr on 9th Feb

Come and join us on the 9th Feb in Shoreditch London for our first Agile HR Meetup of 2017. Of course, our topic is teams, a crucial aspect of Agile HR and the future of work.

See you there!

RSVP now

Natal DankAgile HRComment