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Superteams

Where work happens

During the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations doubled down on teams and teaming as a survival strategy to enable adaptability and speed.

Leaders now have the opportunity to use what they have learned to construct “superteams” that pair people with technology to re-architect work in more human ways. By amplifying humans’ contributions to new and better outcomes, superteams can play an integral part in an organization’s ability to grow and thrive.

Shifting realities

In early 2020, the escalating COVID-19 pandemic forced organizational leaders to quickly reset business and workforce priorities. The pandemic’s scale and severity forced organizations to challenge their views about what work was essential to deliver to their customers, shareholders, and stakeholders during a prolonged period of heightened uncertainty. To rapidly reorient their goals and operations, we saw organizations turn to teams and teaming as the go-to unit for organizational performance. For example, Ford formed special teams and set up new production lines in its manufacturing facilities to shift from making hybrid car batteries to tens of thousands of ventilators. Teams, newly forming, growing, and reconfiguring, were supercharging organizations’ ability to pivot and get work done amid turbulent and demanding conditions.

Teaming became a life raft for talent and organizational strategies during COVID-19 because teams are built for adaptability rather than predictability and stability. Teams can learn and adapt faster than individual workers alone since teams of motivated individuals will challenge each other to come up with better, more creative ideas. As organizations shift from a focus on efficiency to a focus on learning, we expect them to increase their reliance on teams to drive growth and navigate uncertainty.

As the world emerges from the pandemic, organizations have an opportunity to use what they have learned to multiply the value of teams even further. The next frontier in teaming is superteams: combinations of people and technology leveraging their complementary capabilities to pursue outcomes at a speed and scale not otherwise possible.

Superteams have yet to take hold as a widespread organizational strategy, in part because many organizations still tend to view technology as a tool and enabler rather than as a team member and collaborator. Most respondents to our 2020 Global Human Capital Trends survey, for example, said they view artificial intelligence (AI) mainly as an automation tool—a substitute for manual labor—rather than a way to augment or collaborate with human capabilities. However, this view may be slowly starting to change.

AI can be especially important to a superteam’s ability to create new value. In organizational psychology, what Scott Page calls a “diversity bonus” results from forming teams composed of different kinds of thinkers, meaning that heterogeneous teams outperform homogenous ones at solving problems, making predictions, and developing solutions. Research shows that organizations with above-average diversity produced a greater proportion of revenue from innovation (45% of total) than those with below-average diversity (26%), which translated into stronger overall financial performance. With AI bringing its own style of “thinking” to a team, the mix of human and machine intelligence can yield diversity bonuses that exceed those produced by teams composed of only humans, however diverse.

That said, sometimes adding technology may not be the right answer, and doubling down on human capabilities may be a better approach. For example, Walmart has ended its program to use robots to check the inventory on store shelves in favor of using human workers instead. Even as demand ballooned during the pandemic, the organization found that managing its on-shelf products could be done just as simply and cost-effectively by its people as by the robots.

Business Hypothesis

Superteams can give organizations the opportunity to re-architect work in more human ways, leveraging technology to elevate teams’ ability to learn, create, and perform in new ways to achieve better outcomes.

The big payoff from superteams is not just that they can get work done faster and cheaper. Rather, their greatest value lies in their potential to re-architect work, using technology to change the nature of work so that it makes the most of people’s distinctly human capabilities. Doing this goes beyond considerations of user experience and human-centered design. And as the Walmart story shows, it’s not just a matter of using technology to perform parts of the work. It means deliberately using a superteam’s complementary human and technological strengths to design work so that it enhances humans’ natural ways of working. The following three examples highlight that when technology is combined with humans in superteams, it can enable distinctly more human ways of working that lead to distinctly better outcomes.

Often, people do their best work when they work in teams. The collaboration tools that made remote and virtual work possible during COVID-19 also prompted some organizations to rethink how those technologies could be used to team far more effectively across organizational and ecosystem boundaries. For instance, in its response to COVID-19, AstraZeneca, one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies, pulled together hundreds of scientists from across therapeutic areas—respiratory, cardiology, and oncology, among others—and from the work together to develop a vaccine and other therapeutics. Additionally, The organization used collaboration technologies to enable real-time partnership and data-sharing that increased the speed and level of teamwork necessary for rapid progress.

Technology can also enhance people’s natural powers of judgment. For instance, the insurance industry is experimenting with AI and predictive modeling to evolve the traditional underwriter role. As application processing moves closer to the point of sale, AI can provide data-driven suggestions to increase underwriters’ ability to make informed decisions about risk. These “exponential underwriters” don’t have to become tech experts or data scientists to use and benefit from the technology. They only need to understand how and when to leverage AI-assisted solutions to accomplish the work more effectively, fulfilling their role in human-machine collaboration.

Finally, technology can improve people’s uniquely human ability to create new knowledge. One example comes from Remesh, a company that helps to facilitate live, online focus groups at scale using an AI-enabled platform. Remesh uses AI to analyze and organize responses in real-time and capture insights arising from the answers. Not only does this deliver insights faster, but it also improves the quality of the insights by surfacing views that might otherwise not emerge. The platform prompts participants to vote on which responses from other anonymous participants they agree with the most. Its algorithms then automatically calculate and rank responses based on group popularity, allowing for a clear view of participants’ ideas unclouded by factors such as bias and individual personality differences.

Emerging priorities

The survey showed that executives are shifting their focus away from work optimization and redesign toward work reimagination, with 61% saying that they would focus on reimagining work going forward as opposed to 29% before the pandemic. But to move from optimization and redesign to reimagination, organizations must also change the way they’re leveraging technology in work. Work optimization and work redesign focus on achieving the same work outputs more efficiently, so they largely depend on using technology to substitute or augment human work. Work reimagination, on the other hand, uses technology to transform the nature of work in ways that achieve new outcomes and make possible new aspirations.

To create an environment where superteams flourish, executives should consider the following.

  • Set audacious goals. Stop focusing on how to improve existing processes and outputs and instead focus on defining new aspirations and outcomes.
  • Don’t stop with envisioning new ways to achieve those outcomes. Re-architect the work to put reimagination into action.
  • Avoid the instinct to use technologies only as an enabler for the work you already do. Instead, take a broader view of technology’s transformative potential to elevate the impact it can have on work.
  • Use technology to design work in ways that allow humans to perform at their best: working collaboratively in teams, breaking down silos to work across functions and businesses, creating knowledge, learning in the flow of work, and personalizing and humanizing the work experience.
  • Make the creation of superteams a cross-organizational imperative, leveraging the best thinking from HR, IT, and the business.

Superteams are most powerful when organizations use technology to empower teams in a way that makes work better for humans and makes humans better at work. They hold the promise of helping organizations bring human and technological capabilities together to re-architect work and deliver new value to all stakeholders. When given the right environment to thrive, superteams of humans and technology together can unlock organizational potential and achieve greater results together than either humans or machines could achieve on their own.

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