Big Teaming

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It's Saturday morning, around 10am. Most people are getting on with their weekends but we're in a big high-windowed library room deep in the Science Museum in London. Scattered across the room, sat around five tables are a group of 50 strangers who've gathered to use their creative skills to help tackle a cause they believe in; beating cancer. They are all there to do some Good for Nothing.

Something is starting to happen. There's a special buzz, a palpable sense of energy in the room. The noise level is rising. On one table in the middle of the room there's a highly experienced cancer research scientist from Southampton University called Kevin in his late 50s sat in front of an old laptop. He’s showing a small group of hipster-looking designers, communicators and technologists how he analyses and classifies cancer research tumours.

Sitting next to him are two 19 year old computer scientist students from Imperial College London, Tom and Pete. They've got their shiny iPads out, and are furiously writing code as he describes what he and many other pathologists across the world spend many hours of their valuable time doing. Namely, working out the size and shape of cross-sections of tumours, stained with dyes to make the process easier. And plugging all that data into a computer. The young 'hackers' are watching and listening intently, but they're not convinced...

One of them has decided that the whole thing looks and feels too scary. The flesh coloured slides and the dark red/pink looking stains look too much like cancer. His hunch is that the public will never want to get involved in looking at this sort of thing. He’s wondering if there’s a way to think differently about it. He wants to apply a filter to the images so he makes a test image digital. It looks more like he's playing on Instagram than practising science.

His first working prototype, coded up in just minutes, draws breath from within the group. The filter means the background is now black and the stain is dyed a deep neon pink. Or turquoise blue. It looks much better; more interesting; maybe even enticing. It's easier to see, analyse and looks less like a cancer.

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Kevin is blown away. He shares that the whole pathologist community have been doing this process in the lab, under a microscope for over 30 years. No-one has ever stopped to question how they've done it, until now. But in one stuttering leap, this unlikely small crew of unusual suspects have started to crack the code that would go onto enable the thousands of normal people to accurately and effectively classify millions of images.

Members of the public could actually do the job of the pathologists, but at much lower cost, and much higher speed. On their smartphones, on the tube or train into work. With enough eyes on each sample, the accuracy is good enough. And if the public can carry that load, it frees up the pathologists from lab work meaning they can spend more valuable time with their patients.

This story is captured in this film and represents the birth of Cancer Research UK's highly acclaimed citizen science programme which went onto explore how gaming, design and intuitive simple technology can help in the quest to accelerate the pace of research in the cancer industry.

One eye-opener for me in this story is how a small group of strangers - a pop-up combo of unlikely allies who would never normally get to hang out with each other - rapidly form highly effective teams that identify completely novel ways to solve challenges. They find ‘flow’ in a matter of hours. And they do it with hardly any support or guidance. In fact self-organising and self-determinism seem to trump process and more traditional ways of working. It all happened very organically and naturally.

This 'crack unit' or 'squad' approach to teaming where diversity is king (or queen) is highly counter-cultural. Of course in the renaissance era we would have expected to see the leading experts of the day connect, create and join dots like never before - the so called coffee-shop culture. You can see how much progress was made by the multiple inventions of previous eras, many of which form the basis of modern life. But today that's just not the way we roll.

We see glimmers of a new way forward in the small multi-functional innovation teams that are increasingly found in the world of creative and digital innovation. But often those teams are still really very homogenous. There's no real diversity in the mix - by that I mean a deeper level of diversity than age, gender, race. I mean real differences in personality, values, life experience and domain diversity.

We are encouraged to specialise, to identify and operate within our domain, to go deeper. As a result we often build walls around our work and stay in silos. Yet the simple act of creating space and time for unusual suspects to learn, create and solve problems together opens up huge innovation possibilities.

These liminal spaces - the ones that exist between the boundaries of existing domains, silos, organisations and systems - are a potential hotbed for new teams to collaborate in creative problem-solving. Over the last few years with Good for Nothing and Swarm, I've seen countless examples of how bringing together unusual suspects can lead to radically new ways to tackle wicked or system problems. The power of crack squads practising big teaming. And I think this is just the tip of the iceberg.

But it's not easy work. Time is needed for people who operate in completely different worlds to learn each other's languages. To properly listen to and genuinely understand each other and the problem from fresh new perspectives. Trust is needed to help build the psychological safety required for everyone to show up as themselves, without fear of failure, or judgement. Practise is needed to bring ‘a beginner’s mind’ into the group’s journey to an understanding of what’s possible - what I call ‘knowing just enough to be dangerous’. Not so expert that they can’t see new opportunities but not so naive, that they just discover what’s already known. And new kinds of space with a different ethos and set of conditions are needed to 'hold' these exploratory kinds of conversations.

It's said that babies need just two things to feel loved. To be held and to be heard. I think radically new ideas need the same. And that requires a different kind of hosting and human interaction.

As we strip back what's really happening in these spaces that have lead to breakthroughs, it does seem to come down to something very simple and intuitive.

If you fill a space with a compelling purpose that invites diverse participation, set a challenge that ignites people's energy, creativity and passion, encourage new practises and ways of working and then you get out of the way, magic can happen. Maybe, this big teaming approach is a glimpse of the future. Maybe, just maybe, some of the more intractable challenges facing humanity could be tackled with a more systematic and intentional approach. One that actively designs for and encourages the serendipitous connections and creative sparks that can point to new ways forward.

These days I'm definitely dreaming about big teaming.