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In a hyper-connected world, organizations don’t have to tie themselves to specific people and places to thrive. With the help of software, many are turning to “flash teams,” virtual brain trusts and work forces built on the fly to address specific needs.

A concept hatched in Stanford’s computer science department, flash teams use crowdsourcing to find specialists. This way, a business can assemble and manage an external team with the flexibility to rejigger it, as needed. When done right, a flash team turns out faster, cheaper solutions.

“One thing that was really surprising and exciting about what we saw was how quickly flash organizations developed solidarity and collective behavior,” noted Stanford’s Melissa Valentine, a member of the Flash Teams project.

Also known as swarming, the approach allows businesses to complete complex projects quickly while drawing on expertise it lacks in-house. Swarms, as in nature, form quickly, attack a challenge, then dissipate.

“If you’ve ever gotten stuck on a design problem and couldn’t for the life of you figure out how to solve it, consider holding a swarm session,” urges Fast Company.

Innovators now translate the principles of a swarm of “outsiders” to teams banding and disbanding within their organization. Rather than traditional cross-departmental collaboration, swarm sessions operate “more like a war room,” says Sumo Logic design director Daniel Castro.

Notes from the Swarming Field

New software allows groups to form swarms that work in concert “to answer questions, reach decisions, and make predictions,” according to Louis Rosenberg for Venture Beat. As long as they set up the right tools and rules, innovators can supercharge work flows.

Autodesk turned to swarming when it sought to improve the customer experience of its cloud-based engineering software. The solution had to be cost-effective and capable of handling the many possible customer issues arising from a complex product. Without an existing team that had the required skills, it decided to swarm.

Autodesk needed the newly-formed teams to field live calls and chats, and they had to respond quickly to customers. It assigned a Swarm Master to lead the project and implemented response-time targets to ensure answers got to customers promptly.

The approach resulted in higher customer satisfaction and faster answers to customers than Autodesk’s top products. Other benefits included an expansion of skills among the team, a refined understanding of the product among the software developers, and team building.

At website design firm B12, teams composed of freelancers build out webpages based on a flash team model. Its team software, Orchestra, divides the design process into tasks it farms out to freelancers. The system can monitor how well teams are completing tasks and which team members work best together.

The workflow system helps B12 deliver designs “up to twice as fast and at about a tenth of the cost of many competitors with dedicated design teams,” writes Fast Company.

This new way of working can also save lives. A swarm of doctors, one recent RAND study found, performs better than a single practitioner. A group of radiologists reviewing mammograms, and supported by computational software, surpassed the accuracy of doctors working alone. For patients, this kind of fast, collective diagnosis can add years to their lives.

Built for Speed

Getting the right platform and protocols down makes a huge difference in a swarm’s success. Here are some lessons from the field.

  1. Assign roles, including a Swarm Master, to lead, monitor, and reconfigure teams.
  2. Set up a flexible structure. A team might mimic the hierarchy of a traditional department, but it needs more freedom to swap out players and shift tasks.
  3. Use collaborative and appropriate tools. Depending on the size of the team, it could be as simple as a group Skype conversation. Or maybe you need something more robust. Once a flash team goes beyond about 30 people, multiple workstreams, assets, and deadlines make an enterprise-grade tool like Clarizen imperative.
  4. Curate talent communities. “Building a pipeline of talent is imperative with swarming,” writes industrial and organizational psychologist Marla Gottschalk.  She suggests mapping the skills and strengths of team players.

 

Taking time upfront to build flash teams can revolutionize the way innovators tackle challenges. The ability to gather the right people and resources, including software, to attack a critical problem or opportunity sharpens an organization’s competitive edge.

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