Building Resilient Teams and Cross-Collaboration Between Different Organizations, with Renee Rookwood


Renee Rookwood (left) and Maple So (right). Graphic: Rebecca Wilkerson

Interviewer: Maple So

Welcome to a new episode of Collaboration, Partnerships and Social Media in the Knowledge-Driven Enterprise. Our host, Maple So, discusses social ideas and concepts with organizational leaders at MITRE, who share professional and academic experiences relevant to team building.

Team resilience is comprised of two main concepts – adversity and positive adaptation. Resilient teams stick together during challenging times, learn from the experience, and adapt to a new level of functioning. In this episode of the MITRE Knowledge Driven Enterprise Podcast, Renee Rookwood, Healthcare Principal, shares her relationship with the concept of resilience and how it is applied to teams.

Resources mentioned in this episode:

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Podcast transcript

Maple (00:15):

Hello everyone. My name is Maple So, and welcome to MITRE’s Knowledge-Driven Podcast. Today, I will be discussing building resilient teams and cross collaboration between different organizations with Renee Rookwood. Renee, would you like to introduce yourself and share with the listeners about your role and experience at MITRE?

Renee (00:37):

Sure. Thank you, Maple. My name is Renee Rookwood. I’ve been at MITRE for the past, almost 12 years. My background is bedside nursing, so come straight from the hospital, bedside care, taking care of patients, primarily focused on cardiac nursing. I went back to school about 15 years ago to get a Master’s in Informatics and joined MITREs shortly thereafter, after graduation.

Since that time, I’ve been leading projects in our Health FFRDC world, in particular. Did some specializations in electronic clinical quality measures, as well as strategic engagements for researchers, and also did a stint over in the health of FFRDCs Project Management Office, in helping to make our efficient use of our Health FFRDC Alliance members that much more better.

I have a strong affinity towards partnerships and towards engagement and bringing teams together in a resilient way, so it’s been great work. My latest project has been helping with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disseminating new technology to local and state health departments.

Maple (02:12):

Thank you, Renee. So, what is a resilient team?

Renee (02:16):

Great question. So, resilience I think, is what comes to mind when we face tough times. Some might say it’s one of the latest buzzwords brought on by the pandemic, or when you think of the war in Ukraine, or a number of adverse situations, unfortunately, that we’ve had to face over these past few years.

The essence of it must be described in certain sayings, such as Vince Lombardi, when he says, “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.” Or, the philosopher Nietzsche is credited with saying, “That does not kill us, will make us stronger.”

Resilience really comes from the Latin word resilire, which means to leap or jump back, and it was first used in physics and engineering. So, you think about a piece of material bouncing back to its original shape after being put under stress. And since its inception, “Resilience” has been applied to a variety of different domains, such as an ecologist studying our environment, or psychologists studying individuals, sociologists studying communities, and managers started applying resilience to business with the introduction of High Reliability Organizations, or HRO’s.

But it may be actually surprising to hear that it has only been applied to teams in the past decade. There’s still a lot to be learned on exactly what is a resilient team. There’s not an agreed-upon single definition. Is it a trait of the team? You either have it, or you don’t. Is it a capacity of the team, meaning there’s low resilience or high resilience? Is it an outcome? And adversity is definitely a requirement for resilience to occur.

A resilient team is one that really faces that adversity and bounces back or, better yet, they actually bounce forward when facing adversity, meaning they are a stronger team having faced the challenge together. The team has learned from the experience, they have grown into a higher functioning team, and will respond even more effectively to future adversity because of it.

Maple (04:41):

Thank you, Renee, for sharing what is a resilient team and the applications in a resilient team.

So, what personal, academic, and/or professional experiences sparked your interest in resilient team building across organizations?

Renee (04:57):

Well, I guess individually, we all face adversity at some point, right? Death or illness of a loved one, divorce, sleepless nights with a newborn, changing jobs, moving. And for myself, and maybe you can relate, when I have faced adversity in my life, I really sought out the experience of others. A more knowledgeable other [resource] could be in the form of a book, a TED talk, a friend, a mentor, someone, or something to help scaffold me to a higher level of understanding, a higher level of functioning, to really get through it, to keep going and to stay in the game.

You don’t know what you have inside until you are in it and you’re facing that adversity and learning a new way of being. As I reflected back on the adverse times in my life, I found this learning process fascinating and how sometimes it just took finding the right resource, at the right time, given the right context, to make all the difference in my wellbeing and my performance and how resilient I was at the end of the day.

And so, I took that fascination to my graduate studies at George Washington University, where I am currently a Doctoral Candidate in their Executive Leadership Program, and as I’ve been reading and researching these past couple years, I stumbled upon the term social capital, and social capital relates to the intangible resources and those assets that arise from relationships.

Pop culture might oversimplify this concept by the Beatles song, you need [With] A Little Help From My Friends, or potentially like phoning a friend in the game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, access to different social resources within a network is an impactful option to find a new way through complexity and adversity.

I don’t mean for that to sound opportunistic, but I think we can all agree that different social relationships, or different social ties within our lives, serve different purposes. They have different strengths about them. They create different opportunities, and, in the literature, I could see this concept of social capital within networks being proactively tapped into during times of adversity.

This was most obvious in the community resilience literature. So, this makes sense. A disaster hits a community, and the community mobilizes their network to help the community spring back to where they were before, to rebuild the infrastructure, to access the clean water, emergency services, and now that I’m beginning my dissertation phase of my studies, I’m asking similar proactive questions about project teams.

So, during times of adversity are the successful teams the ones who proactively access this invisible organic network of resources outside of the team, that helps them spring back or spring forward during times of adversity?

Maple (08:15):

Thank you, Renee. So, how do we best measure team resilience?

Renee (08:20):

That’s a great question. I would say it’s a challenge and maybe it depends is a better answer. One of the more heavily cited measurement scales is by Sharma and Sharma 2016 and they developed a validated questionnaire for measuring team resilience. It has 10 components measured on a Likert Scale, of anything from team learning to team flexibility, to assessing network ties, shared language, trust, team competition, task design, et cetera.

I would say then at the end of the questionnaire, the scores are summed up to get a measurement of their team resilience. But the research is still pretty nascent on measuring team resilience. I also find that on the surface, the scales are very insular in nature, meaning they are mostly focused on the team environment, which is super important. Is there trust? Is there positivity? Are there group norms? All very important on being a resilient team.

But what may be missing are the social resources outside of the team and how these may affect the resilience of the team. Do they have access to the right resources at the right time, given the right context? This is probably going to be a focus for my dissertation as I consider how to potentially apply social network analyses to the team resilience research.

I’d also, I guess, caution users of such scales because too much resilience is not always a good thing. So, the team that scores the highest may not, in fact, be the best performer. Consider those scenarios where a team persists in seeking a really unattainable goal, or maybe they’re overly tolerant of adverse situations. The author Adam Grant–he gave a commencement speech at Utah State University in 2017–and he describes virtues like resilience like a vitamin. So: they’re essential for health but taken too much, and you might end up with other problems.

So, I’d encourage almost a longitudinal view of team resilience. Team should understand that team, their resilience, will change over time, depending on the social interactions amongst the team and depending on the context. Context is super important. The team’s resilience at the beginning will be different than at the end, depending on number of these different factors.

Largely this boils down to their ability to coordinate and cooperate and collaborate. So, tools like Sharma and Sharma’s scale would be good to perform, but maybe periodically and use it as a discussion topic as a team along the period of performance versus just a one-time snapshot.

Maple (11:25):

Thank you, Renee. You brought up some great points that’ll help us look at measuring team resilience and also some great tools that you have mentioned in the podcast.

So, in what ways do different personalities among team members affect team resilience?

Renee (11:43):

Great question. So, relationally, coordinated teams perform well, so they can–if you’re relationally coordinated–you can access the knowledge on the team and experientially learn better together, which really underpins team resilience and creative problem solving. So, different personalities affect team resilience, but it’s hard to really say, “Oh, this personality is better than that personality,” Because it’s mostly about the collective. How does this group of people come together for collective decision making? You can have a team of all individually resilient people, but they–if they can’t come together, if they can’t create a positive learning environment and coordinate their tasks–they will not be a resilient team and they will not perform.

But certain personalities can strengthen team resilience. For example, team members can learn from each other by observing if there are individuals on the team that are very good at performing some of these resilient functions. So, it’s not necessarily that a non-resilient team member is going to bring down the resilience of a team because it’s more about bringing the collective together and creating that social glue, and some members are just stickier than others. A team may consider, like, doing as teams [the] “Strengths Finder” workshop to find out who may be more resilient than others, who can potentially demonstrate some of these characteristics and help to bring the team together.

Ultimately, you need for the group to collectively gel in a certain way that usually requires a certain mix of personalities.

Maple (13:38):

Thank you, Renee. How has the move to remote and hybrid work affected team resilience?

Renee (13:45):

Oh, yes. The remote and hybrid work. Again, we don’t necessarily know. I would say data shows that teams, in general, are not very resilient under the best of circumstances. There’s always usually some kind of missed deadline or shifting targets and there’s a variety of reasons why this happens. There are plenty of teams out there that fail to hit the original mark and now we’re in the midst of complicating that further by changing the way we work, hybrid and virtual. And to be honest, we really just don’t have enough research to know all that is being impacted, what may be lost, and what may be gained.

Hybrid and remote work take a different social effort. It’s easier to do asynchronous versus synchronous work when you’re at home. It’s harder to run into each other in the cafeteria or the elevator and finish up that conversation if we’re just not physically in the same location.

So, Microsoft did a study in 2021, when they sent the majority of their workforce home during the pandemic, and they actually found that remote workers did not simply replace in-person interactions with video and or voice calls. Instead, the remote workers communicated more through asynchronous work, such as emails or instant messages. And the study concluded that remote work was actually causing Microsoft to increase their siloed work and to increase the density of those silos, which is potentially not good news when it comes to diversity or innovation.

So, if remote workers are becoming more siloed and potentially not reaching out across social groups, organizations potentially are becoming less diverse in the long term, meaning folks are just reaching out to people that are like them, if you will. And because workers maybe are not bridging across these boundaries, companies may becoming less innovative because they’re not exposed to as many different ideas. So, I think these are all important questions that we don’t know the full answers to at this point, but we should be aware.

Maple (16:12):

Thank you, Renee. You mentioned some great points about this transition to remote and hybrid work and how it has affected team resilience.

Earlier in our discussion, you mentioned a lot of research references, tools, and points, regarding building strong team resilience. So, what are some resources or references that you would like to shout out to and share with the listeners?

Renee (16:38):

Sure. I would say there are a few easy reads. The one is Google published an article in the New York Times in 2016. The title of the article was, What Google Learned From Its Quest To Build The Perfect Team. It talks about their Project Aristotle, which was a three-year effort at Google, that led them to conclude that the best teams are ones where members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs. So, not a completely surprising takeaway for maybe some of those team leaders out there, but sometimes we need to go through these data-driven activities to come full circle that the best teams are perhaps the most, maybe human in nature or whatever. That we’re listening to one another and creating those psychologically-safe environments for discourse to happen and for us to challenge each other and to be able to do that in a thoughtful manner, because that creates a resilient team.

The other one would be probably the Microsoft study that I mentioned earlier. That’s a great, fascinating study, just done in 2021. And then there’s an early publication by Deborah Ancona and she is the founder of the MIT Leadership Center, MIT Sloan School of Management and she talks about X teams and how, what sets apart these highly functioning teams and talking about how a number of the hallmarks that separates these teams are actually their external activity. What ties do they have externally to the team, as well as flexible membership of the team itself, meaning that sometimes you have to have, depending on the context or the challenge that team is facing, that sometimes you need to actually reach outside of the team to bring in different resources and have those flexible membership of the team itself.

The last two resources I’ll put up are more academic in nature. One is Elgar’s Introduction to the Theories of Organizational Resilience. It talks about individual team and organizational resilience, and it’s got a lot of case study examples. For an academic book, I would say it’s a pretty easy read and enjoyable read.

And then finally would be a scoping review, a recent scoping review done by Chapman and Colleagues about conceptual and empirical work of team resilience.

Maple (19:36):

Thank you for sharing your experiences on building resilient teams and cost collaboration between different organizations, Renee.

I’d like to give a quick thank you to MITRE and the Knowledge-Driven Enterprise for making this show possible. And again, thank you Renee, for coming on to share with us. I’m sure our listeners learned a lot. Thank you.

Maple So is a Senior Data Analytics Engineer. She is curious about strengthening positive bonds in team collaboration and how to enhance team interactions during challenging times.

© 2022 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release.  Distribution unlimited. Case number 22-2620

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