Now Is the Time for Networked Teams

business model innovation

Now Is the Time for Networked Teams

The Power and Importance of Networked Teams

October 18, 2019
by Brandon TirrellKen Gordon

“The challenge is often not seeing a change coming,” writes Rita McGrath in her new book, Seeing Around Corners: How to Spot Inflection Points in Business Before They Happen, adding: “Fortune called out the potential of Amazon in 1996!” The challenge, McGrath correctly asserts, is “doing the transformation work required to rewire the organization.”

Such rewiring is notoriously difficult, but increasingly necessary. Organizations that have traditionally enjoyed the advantages associated with size are now likely to find themselves saddled with an entrenched structure and culture at odds with a rapidly changing landscape. This outdated organizational model drives their legacy businesses but is often ill-equipped to respond to new market opportunities, technological changes, or new competitors. In short, the model that has made many companies successful in the past is now hostile to the innovation and transformation required to drive substantial growth.

Reforming these legacy models into ones that foster growth requires shifting from rigid, structured units to decentralized, networked teams that can operate fluidly across silos. And because our job is to help our clients make this shift, we’re constructing our own networked team model to lead the charge. Applying this philosophy, we can rapidly form intentionally organized consulting teams to tackle our clients’ most profound challenges.

Orgs that traditionally enjoyed the advantages of size now find themselves saddled with an entrenched structure and culture at odds with a rapidly changing landscape.

Chris Michaud, Head of EPAM Continuum, says networked teams “foster connection and collaboration across business, design, and technology services to help our clients become market leaders.” In doing so, we accelerate the pace “at which we can drive meaningful innovation out into the world.”

We’re obviously not the first people, or the only ones, who believe in networked teams. As David Weinberger notes in Too Big to Know: “in a networked world, knowledge lives not in books or in heads, but in the network itself.”

But there is something special about the structured way we network ourselves, and it has a history. While EPAM Continuum is a relatively new entity—EPAM acquired Continuum in March 2018—the idea of networked teams is not.

EPAM has long employed global, multidisciplinary teams that unite to deliver well-rounded technology solutions.

Similarly, Continuum’s intentionally diverse project teams have for decades designed novel and successful products and services for clients. “We’ve found that people who are really good at only one thing get disaffected and leave,” says Jon Campbell, Head of Experience & Service Design at EPAM Continuum. “We’ve always been really good at finding people who can work across the team. It’s not The A-Team—one explosives person, one helicopter pilot—they all have to be able to do more.”

Now that EPAM and Continuum have combined forces and integrated our offerings, our network is larger and stronger. EPAM is a company of tens of thousands; Continuum was less than 200.

"EPAM may have grown into a 30,000-person team, but we’ve never lost our agility or entrepreneurial mindset,” says Natalie Gross, Principal Consultant, EPAM. “With EPAM Continuum, we have the opportunity to build a truly global and differentiated consulting community—resulting in a new breed of solutions, methods, and tools to help clients take advantage of the exciting change in front of them."

What do we see as the future? One in which the employees are empowered to activate the network as needed. They will be as independent as they are interdependent. We’re not there yet, but we’ve laid the groundwork and the will to evolve is strong.

Our intent now is to backcast to that ideal state in our project work, and iterate as we go. Taking on the existential challenge of creating the future is what we teach our clients—and it’s a challenge we’re taking on ourselves.

What might that ideal future state look like?

“Imagine that a networked team can be turned on or off like a utility—a faucet or a light switch,” says Campbell. We’ll have the right elements—which might include elements such as collaborative personalities and flexible governance structures—so when “a client comes in with a challenge, we automatically assemble the right team,” and that team “dissipates into the ether after a project.”

Our networked teams aim to be as independent as they are interdependent.

In this ideal state, neither we nor our clients will find our progress impeded by rigid reporting lines or misaligned business units. Rather, people will have the freedom to solve the right problems with the right ideas and the proper guidelines to ensure that all networked teams are moving in concert. Campbell uses a physics analogy: “It’s almost like the bonds between atoms. They have to strengthen or loosen depending on the atoms around them.”

We’re confident that our newly forming ways of working today will deepen and develop over time. Dan Kjaergaard, Head of EPAM’s Retail & Distribution Practice, agrees, saying that our future leaders will naturally embody customer-centered flexibility. They will look at a project or difficult challenges and say: “Let’s keep in mind what the customer is asking us to do, let’s make sure we’re set up correctly, let’s change our model.”

In a future post, we’ll look at the role trust plays in building network teams. “Relationships and trust are important,” says Campbell. “If you keep yourselves too far apart, there’s a tendency to go back to your ‘homeroom.’” In the new model, the homeroom is the project room, and it’s your job to get along with your “classmates.”

Until the bell rings again, your homework is to read this piece, co-authored by HBS professor Tarun Khanna, on developing trust, and think about how trust plays out in developing networked teams.

filed in: business model innovation, employee experience, complex systems

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