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Amy Edmondson’s required reading

An expert on teaming from Harvard Business School shares three books for leaders who want to encourage collaboration in their organizations.

Amy C. Edmondson’s abiding interest in teaming may well be rooted in her intriguing stint as chief engineer to the iconoclastic R. Buckminster Fuller in the early 1980s. It was Fuller, after all, who plucked the word synergy from the lexicon of chemistry and expanded its use to include the way in which a holistic approach can help any interactive system — whether a geometric structure or a business — add up to more than the sum of its parts.

After Fuller’s death in 1983, Edmondson served as director of research at Pecos River Learning Centers, a training and development firm, where she designed and implemented transformational change programs for large companies. In 1996, after adding advanced degrees in organizational behavior and psychology to her undergraduate degree in engineering and design (all from Harvard), she joined the faculty at the Harvard Business School; 10 years later, she was named its Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management.

Since then, Edmondson has been teaching, consulting, and writing about the organizational synergies that can be created via teamwork, with a particular focus on the role leaders play in producing them. In Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy (Jossey-Bass, 2012) and Teaming to Innovate (Jossey-Bass, 2013), she explored teamwork in dynamic, unpredictable work environments. Most recently, in Building the Future: Big Teaming for Audacious Innovation (Berrett-Koehler, 2016), Edmondson and coauthor Susan Salter Reynolds examined the challenges and opportunities of teaming across sectors through the case of Living PlanIT, a startup that designs operating systems for urban  infrastructure.

When I asked Edmondson about the books that executives should read to become more effective team leaders and to capture the benefits of synergy for their companies, she shared the following three titles.

Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, by Edgar H. Schein (Berrett-Koehler, 2013). “I believe that humility and curiosity are the 21st-century leader’s most important attributes, and this surprisingly engaging book, by a pioneering organizational researcher, speaks to both of them. What is humble inquiry? Schein says it’s ‘the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.’ Why should this deeply interpersonal process be of interest to business leaders? Because leaders today cannot begin to accomplish, or specify to others how to accomplish, the organization’s work. Their true role is to unleash the efforts of others to achieve greatness and this cannot be done without humility — recognizing one’s own limits as well as the limits of the organization’s current capability, together with a genuine desire to learn. Humility in the face of the complex, dynamic, uncertain world in which we all live and work is simply realism.”

“Humility in the face of the complex, dynamic, uncertain world in which we all live and work is simply realism.”

Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, by the Arbinger Institute (Berrett-Koehler, 2000). “The provocative and deceptively academic title of this book obscures its beauty and powerful humanity. It describes a model of leadership based on certain cognitive and emotional interpersonal dynamics through the story of a man who is facing challenges at work and home that should be painfully familiar to any high achiever. It explores how we blind ourselves to the harmful effects that some of our well-intentioned actions have on others, and how, by letting ourselves off the hook for those actions, we also seal ourselves off from learning. Why should leaders care? Because their interpersonal strategies, despite good intentions, can unwittingly sabotage their effectiveness — limiting personal and organizational success. Any leader who reads this book and takes it seriously will be poised for a transformational journey.”

Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer: Managing for Conflict and Consensus, by Michael A. Roberto (Pearson Education, 2005). “One of my favorite management cartoons shows a smiling boss asking his team, ‘All in favor?’ Dutifully, each team member says, ‘Aye.’ But, of course, the thought bubbles emanating from each head reveal the real responses, which range from ‘Heaven forbid!’ to ‘No, no, a thousand times no!’ OK, we all know it’s hard to speak up. But it’s the smile on the boss’s face that gets me every time. Like most leaders, he isn’t even considering what he must do to reverse these predictable dynamics. That’s where Mike Roberto’s book comes in. It uses a handful of vivid cases drawn from various organizations and sectors to show leaders how to promote the honest, constructive dissent and skepticism that is required to improve the decisions they make vis-à-vis the most important issues facing their organizations.”

Theodore Kinni
Ted Kinni

Theodore Kinni is a contributing editor of strategy+business. He also blogs at Reading, Writing re: Management.



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