Leveraging the Power of Teaming

Kay Peterson

In our recent podcast, Michellana Jester describes her experiences with MIT Sloan’s Global Entrepreneurship Lab where business and graduate student teams provide insights and analysis to startups in emerging and frontier markets. To accomplish this, G-Lab students work together on teams that face the challenges of working in a new context with multiple stakeholders who may have different life experiences and perspectives, managing vast amounts of information, analyzing complex challenges, and deciding on concrete solutions that can be implemented quickly and efficiently.  Michellana has discovered that the critical element to successful business outcomes begins with leveraging the power of “teaming.”  

Michellana has found that while students intellectually understand what it means to be on a high performing team, they’ve not necessarily deconstructed the elements of effecting teaming. In fact, when project teams stumble with outcomes, it is usually when they do not take the time to really know each other, lack appreciation of their back story, and are unable to manage conflict. Occasionally, a team will eventually “implode.”  

To address this need, Michellana helps her students understand that the complexities of how they work together are critical to what they accomplish. She creates the foundation for teaming with psychological safety that will promote the diversity of opinion required to tackle complex decision-making.

Harvard professor Amy Edmondson describes her research on “teaming” in her classic book, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy.  The behaviors of highly effective teams describe a culture that Edmondson defines as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”  Edmondson found that more than anything else, the behaviors which create “psychological safety” were critical to making a team work well.  “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

In her MBA classes, Michellana operationalizes these concepts by designing learning experiences that prepare student project teams to soar by leveraging the power of “teaming.”  She underscores to her students the importance of how they treat one another, how they communicate, and how they invite diversity of opinion.  A key element of her design process is how the students develop team trust over time.  

Early in the team formation process, Michellana stresses the importance of “building the scaffolding” with traditional exercises like establishing team norms, getting everyone’s input, and determining how decisions will be made. Michellana has acknowledged the challenges of experiential learning in the covid-world and the role of emotions in learning.  

Michellana leverages the Experiential Learning Cycle and Learning Styles to help the teams discuss their needs. “What are our preferences? Where do we fall on the Learning Cycle? How can we best incorporate everyone’s strengths and capabilities? How can we share a process of teaming that builds on strengths and manages challenges that we face in navigating the entire Learning Cycle process?”  

Michellana understands that strong teaming is not ensured with initial exercises and discussions. She and the G-Lab mentors facilitate learning about the how of teaming throughout the project. They create the safe space needed to have difficult conversations and keep the creative ideas flowing.

Perhaps it is from this deliberate attention to relationships, psychological safety, and team process that “MIT Sloan G-Lab teams have provided high-impact insight and analysis on an extremely cost-effective basis to 515 startups and fast-growing companies with 700 projects in 54 emerging and frontier markets.” This also means that approximately 3000 graduate students have experienced what it is like to be a member of an exceptional team that continues to learn together. As they enter the workforce, they will bringing the most highly valued skills to their future employers.  

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Listen to Learning at the Edge podcast with Michellana Jester here.