It’s Halloween! Speaking about X teams and leadership ghosts with MIT’s Deborah Ancona

business deborah ancona innovation Nov 02, 2023

Our conventional wisdom about teams is that factors internal to the team mostly determine how well they will operate.  My LinkedIn Live guest, Professor Deborah Ancona from MIT, begs to differ. No matter how great the clarity of roles, alignment on deadlines or otherwise suitable a team’s internal structure is, it isn’t until they bring in the external environment that teams truly begin to perform at a high level.  Some notes from our conversation follow. 

The original insight behind the book: We don’t understand what makes a team outperform

What prompted the original writing was a stream of research in which we learned that a lot of what we thought accounted for team performance wasn't working.  When I was working on my dissertation, we studied a number of sales teams.  We thought that what would drive good performance was clear goals, clear roles, good problem solving in the team, all the things that we learn about as key to team success. And when we looked at those variables compared to team satisfaction, we got very high correlations. If you do all those things, people would be satisfied. 

But then we looked at the actual revenue that the sales teams brought in and lo and behold, zero there was zero connection between these good team attributes and actual team performance!  That was a bit of a panic moment for me!  You don't want your dissertation to have a zero in in terms of results. But in fact, people were very excited about that finding because it called into question the way we even think about what team effectiveness is.

And so what followed were a number of years of many, many different studies, in which we began to see that it wasn't just what happened inside a team.  You have to pair that with X teams, externally active teams, teams that also go outside their boundaries to learn to connect, to get resources, to do a number of things. And so that's why we wrote the original book to say, “Whoa, the model that's burned into our brains actually may not be right.”

The second edition came about because there's an even greater need for teams to be able to adapt, to learn and to innovate.  In an exponentially changing world, speed is just taking over. And so the reason for the second book is to say people haven't changed our mental models, and yet the need is even greater than it was before.


Nimble organizations and distributed leadership

Part and parcel of new organizational forms is the concept of distributed leadership.  We’ve known for some time that we're moving away from command and control to having more distributed leadership, with leaders at all levels.  

In the early phase of moving toward X team behavior you have to engage in sensemaking. You have to look at what's different in the world, and what is particularly important for you to pay attention to. If you have an exponentially changing world, your mental model of the world is basically out of date whenever you start a new task.  

While you are doing that, it’s also time to create a lattice of relationships within the organization – up down, sideways, outside.  You want to get people excited and interested in what you're doing in order to get resources and cooperation later on. All of those things are necessary. If you don't do that early on, then that later phase, where you want to get the word out is much, much harder. You want to get that buy in early. 


Out before in

My motto for X teams is always “out before in” when setting one up.  I always say in my classes, “If you remember nothing else from today, it's out before in.”  I make a point of this because that’s not how we normally begin with a team establishing a new task.  Teams often want to jump right to solutions, without recognizing that first you have to go outside.  If you create your goals and your roles and your norms inside the team, without recognizing that your information about the external environment might be wrong, you risk zooming ahead in the wrong direction.   

So the first two dimensions of what you have to do to be an effective X team are combining our typical elements of effective teamwork, then pull in and figure out how to become a solid team that knows how to be aligned with one another listen to one another have active debate. 


Working in bursts

A pattern that we’ve found to be very effective can be thought about like “burstiness” or “pulsing.”  You have to develop a rhythm that suggests when we need to go out, but then we need to come in again to make sense of what we’re learning.  This also relates to the working remotely versus together debate.  When you're together, you want to really make sure that you can get all the work of culture, accountability, and group norm creation done.  Then you can move apart and people can do their the separate things.  

Another thing we need to balance is energy and calm.  In too many organizations, people are just burned out. It’s just GO, GO, GO.  One of the reasons that people are leaving organizations is because of the demands of continuous innovation.  We need to offer some restorative time to come to calm.  

Leaders also need to set the tone and expectations.  I love the example of Smuckers.   They have an organizational rhythm where people can live wherever they want, be wherever they want, but 22 weeks a year everyone comes together for what they call “core weeks.”  That's when you do your strategic planning. That's when you do your culture building. That's when the teams that need to be together in intensive times get together. That's where networking comes in. You're all there. You put it into that time. And then again, people go off and and can work on other things. So you can have an organizational rhythm within which X teams can then create their own rhythms.


Getting input from the “edges” of the organization

My daughter was a summer intern, working for Li and Fung, an organization that deals with supply chains in the fashion industry.  The senior people wanted to know what the current fashion trends were.  They asked all these supposedly low-level people, like the interns and new employees, and said, “you have the afternoon off, take your phone and take pictures of New York, Milan and Paris. Go take pictures of the hottest boutiques in your cities. Bring it all together. What are you seeing as the trends?  They did it within cities and then across cities and then they presented their discoveries. That was a fun assignment. People were motivated and it was useful to the organization and it was a way of getting people outside of the normal suspects involved in sensemaking.  

I was working in a pharma company, and they wanted to bring in some biotech. So how do you do that? They didn't really have a good model.  We created a couple of X teams and they went to do their sensemaking with pharma companies that were further ahead, with experts in the field, with organizational who knew about new new architectures.  At the end of the first part of the process, one of the guys sent me an email and he said, “you know, we've learned more in the past three weeks than we have in the last 10 years sitting at our desks in this organization.”   That that speaks to the idea that we think we're doing sensemaking.  But you need to be specific, asking questions about what our contracts are like, who our suppliers are and why we’re using them, what criteria do you use?  It's a very detailed information gathering that can just shift your perspective, introducing the element of surprise.  

It also empowers people. If we're trying to get more voice from people lower down in the organization, sometimes it's kind of scary for them to report to senior level leaders and share what they are seeing.  But if you've done your sensemaking, if you've collected data, I would say to bring in your data, and have confidence.  Play them a tape recording of why these particular clients are leaving your company.  People feel more confident because they've got the data, they've got the reasoning, and when presenting it they feel like they've got an edge and so people who would ordinarily never suggest doing something, feel empowered to say, hey, let's do this.


And what about the ghosts? I did promise ghosts!

I teach something called leadership signatures, which reflects your own unique way of leading. What I found was that when we let people choose an improvement goal, often they would focus on something that was shallow or unimportant. I wanted the course to be more meaningful. And so I connected in with Dennis Perkins.  We joined forces  and now have an HBR article called family ghosts in the executive suite

What we look at are dynamics in your family, your ghosts, if you will. There are good ghosts (I’m hard working, I’m independent) and bad ones (I have an unreasonable need for control or I’m a perfectionist).   In class, we get people to understand what they are, and from whence they come, so that they're not hidden. They're out there and then you can work on them. 

One quick story is that one woman in my class had an issue with authority. She came from a family where you didn’t’ challenge authority figures, so she found herself having a difficult time disagreeing with senior level leaders. One of the things we have people do is look at role models, who are people who have the same issues you have, but who have succeeded.  Subsequently, one of the Vice Presidents was giving a presentation with which she really disagreed. Normally, she wouldn’t have said anything. But this time, she thought “I’m going to channel this particular person,” and she stood up and voiced her disagreement, with the bulk of the organization ultimately backing her position.  So there are techniques you can use to tame your bad ghosts.  


Happy Halloween everyone!

This Halloween will find me on my way to London for the first Thinkers50 gala in several years.  I’m very excited to meet up with old friends and potentially make some new ones!