How do Superteams function?

‘Superteams’, which have humans, machines and technology as colleagues and not just enablers, have been propelled by the pandemic

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The superheroes from our comic books possess supernatural powers to save the world. Then why do we need their combined might as Avengers or Justice League? Obviously because a collaborative effort and fusion of all their capabilities forms a powerful unit that can conquer the world. This holds true for superteams as well.

So what is a superteam? It is a group of specialists, who collaborate and work together as a team, with technology not just enabling this collaboration but also becoming an integral part of it. Simply put, a superteam is a combination of super-specialist humans and artificial intelligence (AI), that together with their complementary capabilities, pursue outcomes at a speed and scale not otherwise possible.

The pandemic has shown us what super teams are capable of. The fact that we could come up with a vaccine in such a short span of time is because a team of super specialists – scientists, doctors and pharmacists – from different corners of the world worked together.

“Machines don’t have ego or emotions. As long as the human team members do not see machines/AI as competition, and consider them as enablers, synergies will be unlocked and will help the human team members be more effective and impactful.” 

Ravi Kyran, chief human resources officer, Bajaj Auto

However, that is an example of a large project, with even larger goals, which were defining for mankind as a whole. The question is, how does one facilitate superteams amidst regular work in average workplaces? Can we also have superteams in our organisation, based on our capabilities?

Yes, it is possible, but we need to bring in certain changes in our perspective.

Rajesh Padmanabhan, CEO, Talavvy Labs, says, “A superteam is defined by a mix of functional experts and generalists, strategists, executors, supporters and finishers as a basket of cross-functional capabilities, with a common purpose and goal. ‘We’ is more important than ‘I’ in such self-directed work teams (SDWT) and technology is a common denominator.”

“Roles are clearly demarcated to avoid any conflict in the superteam. There needs to be clear delegation of work between humans and technology. Also, in case of conflict, there need to be policies to determine who will supersede.” 

Ramesh S Shankar, chief joy officer, Hrishti.com

So how does one facilitate that? It is never easy to blend human capabilities with technology. Companies often commit the blunder of using technology to improve existing processes and outputs. The superteam’s job, on the other hand, is to focus on outcomes and aspirations, so, one can dare to have audacious goals. Padmanabhan suggests, “Leaders should influence and not manage teams and /or people. Set the vision and be bound by core values. The order of decision making is customer, organisation, team and then the individual. At no stage will the team alter this or change the sequence. Set digital agility and adaptability as a rule. Banish hierarchies and follow work rules only. Recognise individuals and reward teams.”

Many believe what works in favour of technology here is that it is bereft of ego. Like Ravi Kyran, chief human resources officer, Bajaj Auto, rightfully explains, “Machines don’t have ego or emotions. As long as the human team members do not see machines/AI as competition, and consider them as enablers, synergies will be unlocked and will help the human team members be more effective and impactful.”

Padmanabhan believes, however, that egos will exist everywhere, and that it’s the way a team and its leader set the behaviour for dealing with egos that makes it a superteam. Here, defining the core values and practising them hard, consistently and uniformly, is important. Breach of values needs to be dealt with appropriately. A bunch of super-specialists can come together, while the team leader can set the example of being non-egoistic and level agnostic behaviour right from the start.

“A superteam is defined by a mix of functional experts and generalists, strategists, executors, supporters and finishers as a basket of cross-functional capabilities, with a common purpose and goal. ‘We’ is more important than ‘I’ in such self-directed work teams (SDWT) and technology is a common denominator.”

Rajesh Padmanabhan, CEO, Talavvy Labs

To elaborate further, Padmanabhan cites an example, “I have developed a Culture Meter (Talavvy IP), which gives every leader a culture score as feedback, and for reflection. This surrogate strategy normalises egos over a period of time and the team starts acting as one superteam. Each individual can see how they pull down or take up the team culture score, and will mend their behaviour accordingly.” He also agrees that distances reduce friction between teammates. “Remote working enhances focus, brings clarity, enables work and helps individuals and teams agree to goals with timelines and appreciate interdependencies. It also reduces emotions and egos. The unsaid is lost and not available for easy grapevine. In my view, ‘the elephant in the room’ becomes smaller,” observes Padmanabhan.

However, the conversation has now reached the point where AI in particular, and technology in general, is no longer just an enabling solution. Deloitte, in its latest workplace report, suggests not to treat technology as an enabler, but to focus on its transformative potential to enhance the impact. In fact, what is needed is a makeover of the very architecture of work itself.

“We will have to accept that AI will coexist with people and they cannot be interchanged. The challenge for the HR fraternity is to ensure that AI skills are facilitated in people and AI deployed in areas where the task is repetitive or fast computation capabilities are required.”

NV Balachander, executive director, human resources, Ashok Leyland

The biggest hindrance till date has been the fear of integrating the two, as humans considered the intelligent technology partner as threat. Ramesh S Shankar, chief joy officer, Hrishti.com, asserts on having a system, where roles are clearly demarcated to avoid any such fear in the team. “There needs to be clear delegation of work between humans and technology. Also, in case of conflict, there need to be policies to determine who will supersede.” However, he feels that in the customer service organisation, the need for humans will always be more than AI. “Understanding the customer is important to see things from the customer’s perspective. While AI can do a lot of analyses and throw data fast, it cannot empathise or show emotions to the customer. Therefore, in a superteam, balancing between tech and human interface will become very critical. That is where the leader will play a role.”

Shankar recollects a Ford story that he read, which explains his views clearly. This story was first narrated on PBS by Click and Clack, the two brothers on the show, Car Talk. A customer complained to Ford HQ that his car does not start whenever he has an ice cream other than vanilla flavour. However, when he chooses vanilla, the car does not give any trouble at all. The customer wanted to know what could be the connection between Ford and vanilla ice cream. The Company first asked the customer to keep a data of time of the day, type of gas used and other parameters. It then sent an engineer to investigate and found out that the store kept its vanilla flavour in the front for quick pick-up as it was the popular one. The other flavours were kept at the back. So, when the customer returned with Vanilla ice cream, the engine of the car was still hot and was able to start immediately. The waiting time for other flavours, however, was more, which led to the car cooling down and the vapour lock getting activated. Such a solution can only be arrived at with human help and not AI.

Even then, a year in pandemic has proved that it’s time we accept AI in places where it’s needed to get work done faster. NV Balachander, executive director, human resources, Ashok Leyland, asserts that a fine balance has to be struck between the two and everyone will have to respect both. “We will have to accept that AI will coexist with people and they cannot be interchanged. The challenge for the HR fraternity is to ensure that AI skills are facilitated in people and AI deployed in areas where the task is repetitive or fast computation capabilities are required.”

Superteams are definitely superspecialists and brilliant in their field. However, when one looks at each member individually, it becomes important to find the right balance amongst them to achieve the set goals.

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