Making teams work in volatile and uncertain environments

As the covid-19 response moves toward recovery and management, Ben French sets out three lessons for forming teams able to respond effectively to emerging challenges.


A crisis, a global pandemic and a new virus, requires fast work, without comprehensive information. Governments, civil society and businesses need to respond, quickly. Teams will lead that response. Yet building effective teams is not as easy as we’d like it to be, even in the best of times.

Last year I wrote a blog called 'Theories of Change, Theories of People', well before the covid-19 pandemic shook the world to its core. As countries begin moving from their immediate response, towards the recovery and management phase of the crisis, we can presume that project delivery teams will proliferate. From managing health responses to mitigating the economic impact, teams are going to play a critical part of countries’ ability to successfully respond to the pandemic.

We know a lot about team formation and problem solving in in volatile and uncertain environments. Drawing on OPM’s experience, I’ve sought to identify three critical lessons to focus on when setting up teams during the covid-19 crisis. To be effective teams will need to invest time in applying these lessons at the beginning of the team formation process. If these lessons are applied teams will be better armed to respond quickly and effectively to emerging challenges. If not, teams are liable to get stuck and solutions to emerge more slowly.

Three key lessons for team formation

Lesson 1: take time to build teams.

Obvious as it sounds, developing a productive and high performing team does not just happen. During a crisis, even when time is limited, taking time to think about and invest in team formation is critical. The investment in time will pay off as teams find ways to work more effectively.

This matters because we know effective teams lead to better outcomes, but when I reflect on OPM’s work, I see just how challenging team formation is. The barriers to building teams are numerous – from time to financial incentives, individual motivations to aligning team goals. We recognised that a good team is a diverse team - one that brings together distinct experience, perspectives and frames of reference.  Matthew Syed writes brilliantly about this in his book Rebel Ideas: The power of diverse thinking on the value expanding frames of reference.

In OPM some of our most unique ideas have come from expanding frames of reference. For the evaluation of the Open Government Partnerships, we brought together a political scientist and a big data expert and came up with a new way of looking at political analysis through data mining the news, identifying the approaches to policy advocacy that work and those that do not. But we also struggle. Different approaches and perspectives in a team can be like oil and water, sitting together but not mixing. It can create tension within teams and a sense of discomfort that is not easy to acknowledge or to manage.

In general, I have found that we consistently underestimate the time required to bring people together and at worst don't invest in it at all. Daine Coutu's interview with Richard Hackman of Storming, Forming, Norming, highlights this exceptionally well. Tension is necessary; it challenges group thinking and creates space for ideas to emerge. To manage this effectively requires time, openness in terms of discussion, and a willingness to surface team conflicts as a precursor to developing new perspectives.

Getting to this point is tricky. We often assume that leadership solves this problem and it is important. But we also know this is only one part of the puzzle - an ingredient in a capable team, but insufficient for success. Mike Woolcock's term 'useful struggles' used to describe the creative tension and dissent that good teams need is a useful concept here. Leadership that enables ‘useful struggles ‘ is central, but embodying that leadership style requires time, thought and effort.

As the current crisis progresses, the focus will shift to medium term planning, but the pressure of daily delivery will remain. Within this context leaders must take time to think about the teams they are building. A focus now on team composition, clear team objectives and space for dissent and useful struggle will pay dividends long term. Without this, good ideas will struggle to emerge and limited funds invested won’t achieve maximum impact.

Lesson 2: invest in building your team’s story.

You have likely heard Facebook’s motto, “move fast and break things”. It is a powerful story for each employee in Facebook, telling them exactly where to focus their time, and that its okay to fail. The story a team tells itself defines the boundaries of the team, what they are trying to accomplish, and for what reason. It is different than the vision, the story or narrative is the informal culture of the team. These are the watercooler stories told about key successes in a team’s history. They matter because these stories set the culture.

In a crisis, the faster we arrive at this one guiding story, the easier it is for the team to work together. As a leader, setting this story and thinking carefully about what this story might be is important. Its set through the actions of the team. If a team tells themselves a story about their boss who constantly punishes bad behaviour and never goes the extra mile, it is unlikely that the team will generate ideas and solutions. In a crisis, leaders and teams need to focus on their stories and focus on identifying stories where they have challenged the orthodox and gone the extra mile. A team that has a narrative of creating a world-beating widget is much more likely to be open to improving and iterating. In development, we tend to talk about theories of change; we can think about them as a useful reference point for its narrative.

For teams working in volatile and uncertain environments we have found that static narratives do not work, and neither will a narrative that frames the problem in terms of winning and losing. Looking across OPM’s work, the most effective project teams are those that build a narrative based upon problem solving, with scope for iteration and dissent. Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation is the most well-recognised framing of an iterative approach to project delivery in development. But it's not the only one.

In a crisis, the story that teams use to define themselves is critical. In dealing with covid-19 leaders needs to work with their teams to develop stories based upon problem solving and innovation. Achieving this means actively celebrating failure and encouraging individuals to take risks – within reason. This story will drive innovation, and without it, teams will struggle to focus on what really matters – finding solutions to wicked problems.

Lesson 3: make sure everyone has the same map.

Every team brings a set of mental models with them to their work (e.g. a civil service framework, or an economist perspective on the world). The mental models, or frameworks, are like maps. They help guide how people think and give them directions on where to go next. Many of these frameworks will be personal — a belief in decentralisation or private health care. In team formation choosing, carefully, the frameworks that the team will use to understand and discuss the project is as important as choosing your teams story.

Frameworks by their very nature close down options and points of view. But they also provide a simple and easy reference point through which teams can quickly understand each other. Without simple common frameworks, most teams would struggle to work together. Its like giving a group of individuals different varieties of maps and telling them to all arrive at the same place.

In crisis and when dealing with complexity, choosing the framework a team uses takes on even more importance. With the wrong framework, teams become stuck and focused either in the wrong direction or on a narrow subset of possibilities. Teams need, especially during a crisis, an open framework that creates opportunities. These will be project specific, based upon the needs of the team and the objectives. Increasingly, we see that a useful framework for organisations has three characteristics:

  • It is easily understood and relevant: it cannot be too complicated and it must connect to the project's long term objective. The theory of change could provide the framework, but in general this is too complicated; instead it's the central objective at the heart of the project that matters
  • It looks towards the future: a framework is useful if it requires the team to think beyond their immediate priorities. Delivering the outputs today matter, but so does making the ideas and the new tools, approaches, services, ways of working, etc., stick. A framework should encourage the team to look up and think longer term
  • It’s simple and user friendly: teams are time-poor. A useful framework should become a tool that frames team discussion on priorities and work streams. A few valuable frameworks that I particularly like are the Triple-A framework, Everyday Political Economy Analysis, the Cynefin model below.

With covid-19 changing everything that we do and requiring our teams and work to be adaptive, and open to change, identifying frameworks that help teams manage this complexity is critical to their ability to perform. Take time to develop a common point of reference and way of understanding different points of view within a team. Without it teams will be reading off different maps and going in different directions.

Right now we need to be nimble, iterating and adapting to changing circumstances. If this process feels like turning a super tanker, with a slow and cumbersome turning circle, we have failed to establish the essential team mentality correctly.

Fortunately, we can avoid this, it just takes some thought, and a bit of time. We can build teams that iterate and act more like speed boats, able to change direction rapidly to ensure that we take advantage of opportunities and respond to this crisis. In a crisis like covid-19, teams that invest in their set-up, setting a powerful narrative and adopting the right conceptual frameworks will be much more able to thrive in the uncertain times ahead.

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