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.

Scare Yourself


This is a repeat of a pre Halloween post from last year.  I’m up to the challenge again. Hope that you are, too.

The Halloween push is on. Pop up stores dot shopping centers, candy displays crowd aisles, and domestic goddesses like Martha Stewart show us how to transform our homes into Halloween themed party centers. If you are around anyone in the ten years old and younger crowd, the decision about “what to be” for Halloween is among the most important of the year.

Permission to Transform
Halloween gives us permission to transform ourselves.  For one day at least, we set aside the neural connections that form our self-impression.  As David Brooks (2011) describes in his book The Social Animal, one reason why it’s easier for children to get into the spirit of transformation on Halloween is that they are particularly skilled at blending, or the task of taking two mental connections that do not belong together and create something entirely new. It’s the basis of imagination. It’s why a child takes clothes to a dog to create an canine fashionista, or invents their own words to a story. They haven’t formed the strong, rapid cognitive patterns that tell them dogs don’t wear clothes and the story can only have the words in the book. Maybe why children so love the imaginative liberty of Halloween is that for one day, the rest of us get in the act.

The Day After Halloween
For most of us, our adrenaline rush of reinvention ends early next Tuesday just after midnight. The mad scientists’ lab returns to a family room, the witch’s hat goes back in the basement, the dog is delighted to get out of the dress and candy goes on sale. We’ll return to “real” life and our “real” selves.

An Alternative
No, I won’t suggest you go to work masquerading as Lady Gaga next Tuesday. But, I will suggest that there is something about the spirit of transformation offered at Halloween that we can extend into our work lives. The neural connections that Brooks and others have described may help us swiftly navigate days but stymie our imaginations. We don’t lose our ability to blend ideas; it’s just becomes easier to come to the same conclusions.  It doesn’t have to be that way.

Our pattern of looking at the same things in the same ways hit me in a certification workshop with the Team Management System with TMS Americas this week. First, they challenged us to reexamine what work we do, especially as part of a team. Simple, right? Yet, I was struck by how often we (myself, included) make assumptions about what and how we’ll work together.  We do it the way we did it the last time, without making new connections about different possibilities or approaches.

A second challenge regarded our preferences.  For example, we label ourselves as “not creative” because somewhere along the way we formed that pattern. So, we don’t try to be creative. Often, we label someone else on the team as “creative” and give him or her this responsibility. The same is true of all the “not’s”: not organized, not good communicators, etc., etc., etc. How many times do we wear the mental costume of who we are and what we do and never stop to consider transformation? Even on Halloween?

Moments of greatness are possible when we imagine ourselves, and our work, differently.

  • It may be rusty, but the imagination you loved as a child is still there. Challenge assumptions about your preferences.  Try something you have not done in your job, or try something in a new way.
  • Reflect on your next task, either by yourself or with a team. Ask Is there a better way? There probably is.
  • In areas where you or your teams have a deficit, can you get a little better? As a colleague of mine used to ask: Can you get to The Realm of Okay? You can probably be better than you think you are.

Finally, next Tuesday, scare yourself a little. Make it a day when you don’t just try to look different, but try to be different. Look at just one task in a different way, and try just one new skill.  To show that I’m up for the challenge, I’m going to scare myself next Tuesday by taking my own advice. Check back to see how I do.

To find out more about thinking patterns and self-definition, check out The Social Animal by David Brooks.

To find out more about Team Management Systems, check out the TMS Americas website at