5 principles of leading teams in the digital age

The world of work is changing at a dizzying pace. Successful teamwork today demands new approaches, attitudes and skills to handle change and respond quickly. Here’s where you start.

A well-oiled machine. Have you heard this expression? It’s sometimes used as a metaphor to describe a highly effective team. Easy enough to imagine, right? All those mechanical parts smoothly grinding away, wheels spinning, cranks turning, steam firing out the top. Efficient! Productive!

The problem is that as a metaphor for great teamwork, it’s dangerously out of date. A left-over from the industrial era with an embedded logic that desperately needs updating. As David Gray points out in his book, The Connected Company, a machine is very productive and efficient when it comes to doing the same thing, in the same way, under the same circumstances, over and over. But, a machine is not at all good at adapting itself, responding to change or learning new things.

In our age of networks, universal connectivity and exponential technology, we need a new logic. One that helps us build teams and teams of teams that are equipped to handle change, complexity and uncertainty – and indeed thrive in that context. Teams (and their leaders) need the attitudes and skills to be extremely adaptive.

So how should we update our logic for teamwork in the digital age? Dave Gray suggests the metaphor of a living organism. He writes: “An organism strives over time to realize its goals in the world. As conditions in the environment change, an organism responds by adjusting its behaviour to improve its performance. In other words, it learns.”

A living, breathing, growing thing that responds to its environment and learns over time. That’s a team for today’s world.

Create a safe space where people can thrive

People are at their best when they feel secure, trusting and free to express themselves. Google and others have discovered that psychological safety is one of the most powerful enablers of effective teams. Focus on creating an environment where openness is a strong and stated norm, where people are encouraged to express their authentic selves, and where feedback is generous and regular.

Don't expect a straight line

Linear predictable processes are for machines. When working with complex challenges, we must expect our projects and processes to be nonlinear and adaptive. Maybe the budget changed. A new disruptor entered the market. Our users moved on to something new. Focus on normalizing unpredictable change and practicing the ability to rapidly learn and adjust. Train your responsiveness like a muscle and reflect often with your team to learn from every challenge.

Focus on progress over perfection

Most of us are conditioned through years of schooling and professional life to work-work-work, then deliver a finished result that we’re proud of. But in today’s accelerated world, this way of working is a pitfall. By the time we deliver, we’ve often missed the opportunity or even produced the wrong thing. We need to do, build and test earlier, to learn.

Strive for next-level collaboration

What does really really good collaboration look like? Next-level collaboration happens when a diverse team is able to do and create things that are seemingly beyond the sum of its parts. When members with extremely different disciplines are able to work together to solve problems. When everyone is part of leading and the team learns to behave like a single organism. Focus on building relationships, generating high self-awareness, and embracing conflict to transform it into strength.

Be an agent, not a victim

Change is hard. We are hard-wired to resist it and it often proves to be a negative force for that reason. But it’s also inevitable. And we always have a choice: we can choose to be affected by the change or choose to affect it. Great teams have a high awareness of what they can influence and what they cannot – and they make things happen based on what they can affect. Focus on cultivating a bias toward action, an opportunity-focused culture, and a mindset of “what could we do?”