My last blog entitled Extraordinary by design: Three developmental phases of highly functioning teams, introduced a framework for enabling high functioning team behaviors. click here The three-phased approach focuses on developing the attributes common to teams that consistently outperform their less capable counterparts. Moreover, the approach incorporates key learning from complexity’s influence on team dynamics. The emphasis on complexity here is deliberate, and I argue that its absence severely limits the value of more traditional models and frameworks. Why the focus on complexity? Simple, because embedded in the concept of complex systems is potential to unleash the capacity to adapt.

To understand how this happens let’s first understand what I mean by complexity. Complexity is often confused with complicated, but a complex system is very different from a complicated one. Systems, like teams that have complexity, are unique in two important ways: They possess rich networks of inter-connectivity and they contain a high degree of diversity. However, it’s not just the presence of these attributes that set complex systems apart; it’s what happens when they interact that makes them special. Complex systems are primed in such a way that deep learning results from its network interactions. These learning exchanges occur only through a mixture of the right level of diversity, tension, and interdependency. When it occurs it creates an emergent transforming process that changes the system in unique and unexpected ways. It is through this learning cycle that a system develops the capacity to adapt. This same behavior can also be observed in high performance teams. Like complex systems, great teams understand the dynamics surrounding interconnection, leveraging diverse thinking, and using tension to innovate. They seize opportunities that most teams shy away from and “lean” into the natural tension that complexity offers. They strive to expose their own team weaknesses and then they act to strengthen them. With each learning cycle, the team’s capacity to self-adjust, to take on tough challenges, and to leverage diversity to innovate increases. We call this process the 3 S’s: Seize opportunities, Strengthen weaknesses, and Self-adjust to adapt.

Sounds simple, right? Not so fast. For a team to develop this capacity three things need to happen: First, a team needs to position itself for rich exchanges to occur. This happens when there is diversity in the system and difference is amplified. It is not enough that diversity exists, teams that stand apart actively work to accentuate and build on all forms of difference. Second, the team needs to develop a high degree of tension awareness and learn how to embrace it in a way that creates learning moments. The simple truth is that high functioning teams see opportunities to foster positive debate and can step back and learn from it. They are not afraid of the tiger in the room. They chase it! These first two requirements are linked through interdependence. Learning is like the mortar that holds a brick wall together. High functioning teams are zealots about learning for one reason; they understand that only by committing to group learning does learning agility result. In this way, members of the team become dependent on each other for system learning and high performance.

My key point is this: The dynamics associated with complex systems are also characteristic of high-performance teams, and these dynamics can and should be the goal of teams and their leaders.

So why does complexity matter? The answer is simple: Teams that recognize, understand, embrace and leverage complex dynamics will position themselves to outperform teams that ignore, discount, or avoid these dynamics.

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