Teams create knowledge like workers build houses

Archimedes Eureka moment, finding out how to measure the volume of irregular objects, is well-known for two reasons: (1) He apparently ran naked through the streets and (2) he connected a personal experience (seeing the water swap over the edges) to the problem of how to assess the purity of the irregular gold crown of Hiero of Syracuse.

With the death of the renaissance man, it is the responsibility of teams to connect different experiences and expertise domains to create knowledge. This means teams need to co-create their Eureka moment. Teams have this great potential, if only their disciplinary background would stop getting in the way of team members talking with each other. It is not the talking that poses a problem (most people enjoy talking about what they know and how important it is), but the talking with each other. Team members need to engage with each others statement and build on it. In the language of Second City Works they need to embrace the “Yes, and” mindset.

Transcending versus Traversing Knowledge Differences

Authors from the University of Southern California and McGill University wrote a wonderful piece on how teams can transcend their knowledge differences and create a shared product. The authors argue that traversing knowledge differences through information sharing and negotiation requires much time and can create much upheaval in teams. Fortunate, teams can also create knowledge without deeply sharing their expertise and dealing with all their differences. This is what the authors call transcending knowledge differences. They do not claim that traversing knowledge differences is wrong, but rather that depending on the situation one might be better than the other.


When transcending knowledge differences, teams begin with creating a landscape of knowledge assets. Team members statements are objects in this landscape, the assets. These statements can refer to their own expertise or the task they need to accomplish. They are comments planted in the landscape without much discussion. At this moment no co-construction is happening, no deep dialogue. In a way, team members are just randomly planting knowledge. Once landscaping is done, the construction can start. But any construction needs a scaffold. The second step involves creating this scaffolding. Now team members start to co-create by creating a shared representation of their task and solution. This shared representation contains some of the assets planted in the landscape of knowledge. The focus is not on getting rid of differences, but on creating something together. The scaffold remains fluid, and not tied to somebody’s expertise. When this is done, team members can begin building their product. This happens within the scaffold. It is a process of creative conflict, in which the scaffold can still evolve. Like trying out different pairs of glasses, team members strive to find a solution within the scaffold. In this processes, tension that arises is addressed through dialogue when trying out the different pair of glasses. Finally, at the end, the scaffold can be removed and visitors can enter the building. At this point the product the team created is tangible and the team begins to introduce it to external stakeholders. house_scaffold

In closing…

When teams create knowledge it is as if they are building a house. They do not need to discuss all their differences, but the differences that are meaningful, those that impact on how the house will look like. It is important that everyone agrees, and nobody is forced to build a house they dislike. If you can’t stand what you are building, chances are that your work is sloppy. And houses that are build on weak foundation tend to crumble when the weather turns bad.

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