Should Your Organization Play By Pick Up Game Rules?

Remember playground pick up games? Can the enthusiasm of creating games, rounding up players and adapting on the fly become a model for collaboration in organizations? 

The ability to collaborate is an organizational requirement for the 21st century business. More wins happen in the white space working between organizational structures than within dedicated units and teams.  Resources and intellectual capital often span borders. This distributed capital combined with the speed of change and intensity of competition requires organizations to break the chains of reporting relationships and work across as well as up and down. There simply isn’t enough time to re-organize the boxes every time an opportunity arises. As Amy Edmonson writes in her article “Teamwork on the Fly” in the April issue of Harvard Business Review, organizations need to play more like pick up teams and less like carefully managed professional teams.

Why The Effort Is Worth It

Organizations that figure out how to collaborate are well rewarded. In Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity and Reap Big Results, Morton Hansen (2009) suggests attractive results. Hansen identifies three categories of collaboration benefits: innovation, better sales and better operations. His research suggests organizations that effectively work in the white space realize improved profit growth and asset efficiency, with a resulting healthy boost to return on equity.

What Gets In The Way

The reasons for building collaboration as an organizational competency are inherently obvious, which is why so many try. My guess is that more try than truly succeed. Hansen documents challenges to collaboration that perhaps you have experienced.  Incentive and performance systems that reward based solely upon unit and personal results contribute to organizational hoarding of people and ideas. Knowledge management systems are weak, so people don’t know how to connect with experience and expertise elsewhere. Support mechanisms are not in place to transfer resources across boundaries. These infrastructure challenges are real and must be changed to improve collaboration.

Just Get Better

While the infrastructure barriers to long-term collaboration must be removed for sustained success, those barriers should not excuse failure to get better at working in white space.  Edmonson (2012) shows the way.  Use the pick up team model for flexible, temporary organizations to capture unique opportunities. You don’t need to change infrastructure to play by pick up rules. 

The Pick Up Game Rules

Define the Game. Edmonson calls this “scoping.”  Before organizing the team, define the game. What’s the opportunity? Why do we think we can win? Where are the boundaries? What are we willing to commit? How do we keep score? Some organizations throw smart people together and ask them to “figure it out.” This not only wastes time, but also adds more chaos to an inherently messy proposition. Even in pick up games, the game and the rules are defined before teams are chosen.

Design the Team and Its Support.  Edmonson thinks of this as “scaffolding.” It’s the temporary design that supports the project, but is flexible enough to change as the work changes. What resources does it require? What roles? What knowledge management tools does the team need, at least to start? How are team members switched in and out? Don’t over think this. Unlike intact teams; pick up teams stay together only long enough to win.  But the more of the basic scaffolding the team doesn’t have to figure out, the quicker it can focus on the opportunity.

Pick the Players. Pick up players are talented volunteers. According to Edmonson, the best players are those confident enough to experiment, speak up, listen, reflect and integrate. A team is doomed when parts of the organization are asked to offer a team member as a “tax” and the most expendable member is offered.  The right talent is vital for pick up games, where speed, creativity and collaboration wins.

Practice Some Plays. Pick up games are more chaotic. People have to build trust and mutual understanding in the midst of the “fuzzy front end” of an opportunity. Make it easier by encouraging the team to develop assumptions about how it will work together. What are the interdependent relationships between the team and the rest of the organization? How does the team manage hand offs and communication? How does the team connect to learn? The best way to accelerate pick up team functioning is to experiment, observe, evaluate and adapt practices. Experiment early and deliberately rather than late and accidentally.

Have a Coach.  Pick up teams can be burdened with organizational drama. The right coach is vital to keep the effort focused and members motivated. According to Edmondson, a pick up team leader has the special role of emphasizing purpose, which can get lost in the commotion of white space projects. He or she also needs to provide the emotional support needed for members to freely and quickly test, try and share. Part of the emotional support is to reframe failure from something to be avoided to something that produces progress.

Embrace Messiness. Innovation comes from the creative destruction of boundaries and barriers replaced with something better. Expect the inconvenience of broken processes and the emotional dust ups of destruction. These are the price for a better solution that the old structure could not deliver.

The next prize for your organization may be in the white space. Practice collaboration by playing by pick up game rules. Encourage people to get better at working across and around instead of the comfort zone of up and down. Find the energy from a good short-term game that can help your organization win in the long season.


Edmondson, A. G. (2012). Teamwork on the Fly. Harvard Business Review, April, 2012. pp. 72- 79.

Hansen, M. T. (2009). Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity and reap Big Results. Boston: Harvard Business Press.

6 thoughts on “Should Your Organization Play By Pick Up Game Rules?

    • It is hard, isn’t it? Just another reminder that simple doesn’t mean easy. Among the challenges of working across is that we get so stuck in working vertically. So, the metaphor at least helps people imagine what could be. The credit for the pick up idea goes to Amy Edmondson. I recommend her article; it’s quite good. Thanks for stopping by, David.

  1. I love the idea, struggle with the implementation. Improvisation requires that the players be concerned with the performance of the other people in the group. Many organizations have a culture of rewarding superstars at the cost of others. This has resulted in organizations which reward self-interest and lack of collaboration. Add this to the increasing level of narcissism in our society and you’ve got an organization that is not set up for improvisation and collaboration.

    I once took an improv class with my colleagues from Kraft Canada. Was it a learning experience. They only way it works is if you care more about your improv partner’s success than you care about your own.

    My conclusion – to play pick up, you have to hire for collaboration and improvisation. If you don’t, you’ll just have a bunch of superstar wannabes fighting for the pass.


    • Thanks for the view, Colleen, and certainly understand the dilemma. Pardon another sports analogy, but organizations want to hire Michael Jordan and ask him to pass the ball. They reward him on points scored, then give him a developmental need on “teamwork.” Mixed messages abound.

      One CEO uses the condescending term of asking leaders to “walk and chew gum”. It conveys the message that if leaders were just smart enough, they could lead their part of the business and contribute to white space projects. One step in the right direction is to give leaders a different frame for work across teams. In my experience, most line leaders go to either extreme when leading a white space project. They either a) throw people together with no direction and expect magic – the “figure it out” approach or b)lead a white space team like a tightly managed team of direct reports – the “pick a side” approach. I liked Edmondson’s metaphor because the model of pick up teams gives both white space teams and their leaders a more useful model.

      I’m with you on hiring more collaborative people. But, this approach also represents problems. First, most organizations are lousy at assessing people in the hiring process. They already think that they hire collaborative people, just like they think they hire “smart” and “creative” people. Second, what about the people who are already there? One of the reasons people leave is a misfit with culture. For those with a collaborative preference, it’s dangerous to be a dolphin in the shark tank.

      Frankly, what’s probably needed to truly get to collaboration is an “all of the above” approach.Adapt the culture and improve the infrastructure.In the meantime, do some experiments to help people practice and learn. The later is where I see the ‘pick up” team approach fitting in.

      Thanks for your comments. It reminded me of Steven Colbert’s Commencement Address at Northwestern last year. One of his key points is what he’s learned from his career: “No one can win at Improv. When someone does, you lose the joke.”

      • As usual, the dialogue adds to the learning. We completely agree. More of both are essential to success (and your comments on the hiring process in the modern organization are bang on.)

        Thanks for being thoughtful and engaged.

        PS Can I steal the Colbert quote? I love it


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