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26 October 2017

Bringing together the art and science of teamwork

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

We have recently discovered a company—Accompany.io—trying to bring the best of technology-driven support to the very human work of creating and sustaining great teams. In my conversations with Parker Mitchell, the founder and CEO, I have been feeling my mind stretch and shift in new direction about what’s really possible if we combine what we know about the art of team work with what we know about the science. And slowly, slowly, I feel my sense of possibility cracking open with the different questions he asks and the different conversations his tools enable.

For example, teams are filled with paradox and contradictions. It can be hard to surface those for good conversations, because teams are also filled with people trying to smooth over differences and avoid conflict. I’ve long believed that it takes a sophisticated human to enable the conversations that show these paradoxes and to hold them up for the reflection of the group. But when we used Accompany.io’s “Align” tool (in both its off-the-shelf and customized versions) to make sense of what was going on in our own Cultivating Leadership at our all company offsite, we found a few key paradoxes that hours of conversations might or might not have surfaced. For example, there was incredibly high alignment on the idea that we all felt close to one another and had fun together, and much less alignment that we have the hard conversations we need to have. This is a key paradox that teams face (we like each other so much that it’s hard to talk about the bad stuff), and the Align tool sniffed that out in about 3 minutes of effort from each of us. We were able to organize our conversations around this and get to the heart of the issue—in deep, human terms—much faster than would have been possible without the technological support.

Similarly, I’m working with a senior team that desperately wants to create new habits that are more complexity friendly. They found after our first offsite that they had new tools and knowledge, but that old habits are hard to adjust, particularly when things get heated and rushed (which is, of course, when you most need the new habits!). Accompany.io’s Habits tool supported the insights they were having in a way that helped them check up on themselves—in a fast and convenient way—to remind themselves of the commitments they’d made to themselves.

In either case, a person could have uncovered these patterns and supported the change, but the technology did it faster and for much less money, leaving time and resources available to get to something else on the list—so vital in this world when time might be our most limited resource.

Mitchell’s view is also that technology can bring sophisticated—and thus generally expensive—ideas and capabilities to more people. This democratization of ideas and support creates new possibilities that mean that teams in non-profits, in small startups, and in parts of organizations or parts of the world that struggle to get consulting support can finally have access to some of the most powerful leadership and team work ideas out there. Mitchell says, “We wanted our tools to both allow practitioners to get at the heart of a matter with more speed and precision, and to enable people new to the journey to take the first steps, to de-risk those first conversations.”

I get that this is part of the future that is hurdling towards us, but I haven’t had a sense of its ability to support sophisticated human processes. I don’t think that technology—no matter how smart it gets—will ever be able to replace listening, empathy, and developmental support or challenge. I don’t think it will ever be able to save us from the complex world we have created for ourselves. But through Accompany.io’s material, I am more and more convinced that technology can smooth the road for us in sophisticated matters of interpersonal dynamics and collective and individual change. Just as technology can make up for the failings of our own physical human limitations (I write this on an airplane, which is one of the most glorious of technological supports to my limitations), so too can technology, supported with human skill and intuition, help us augment—and maybe even transcend–our intra and interpersonal limitations.

P.S. The picture today is from our leadership team meeting in suburban Maryland. Going on nature walks together is part of the delightful art of team work.

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