X-teams: A book review by Bob Morris

X-teams: How to Build Teams That Lead, Innovate and Succeed
Deborah Ancona and Henrik Bresman
Harvard Business School Press (2007)

A new teamwork model that combines an internal focus with an external approach

Here is a review I posted five years ago. While reading Leading at The Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition co-authored by Dennis N.T. Perkins, Margaret P. Holtman, Jillian B. Murphy, they cited X-Teams and I then re-read it. At a time when so many (if not most) corporate teams fail, those who head them need to check out what Deborah Ancona and Henrik Bresman have to say about “how to build teams that lead, innovate and succeed.”

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Years ago, I read Organizing Genius in which co-authors Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman examine a number of what they call “great groups” that reveal “the secrets of creative collaboration.” One of their most important points is introduced in the first chapter: “None of us is as smart as all of us.” That is to say, the “Great Man” theory is invalidated by the achievements of truly creative teams such as those at the Disney studios which produced so many animation classics; at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) which developed the first personal computer; at Apple Computer which then took it to market; in the so-called “War Room” which helped to elect Bill Clinton President in 1992; at the so-called “Skunk Works” where so many of Lockheed’s greatest designs were formulated; at Black Mountain College which “wasn’t simply a place where creative collaboration took place. It was about creative collaboration”; and at Los Alamos (NM) and the University of Chicago where the Manhattan Project eventually produced a new weapon called “the Gadget.”

I mention all this by way of introducing my reactions to X-Teams in which Deborah Ancona and Henrik Bresman assert that in recent years, the world has changed and the old model (i.e. one with an internal focus but lacking an external approach) “doesn’t work so well anymore.” The title of this book refers to teams that lead, innovate, and succeed in a rapidly changing environment. According to Ancona and Bresman, an X-team differs from a traditional team in three main ways. “First, to create effective goals, plans, and designs, members must go outside the team; they must have high levels of external activity…Second, X-teams combine all of that productive activity with extreme execution inside the team. X-teams develop internal processes that enable members to coordinate their work and execute effectively while simultaneously carrying out activity…Third, X-teams incorporate flexible phases, shifting their activities over the team’s lifetime.”

Note the emphasis on extensive ties to those outside the given organization who enable teams to venture beyond traditional boundaries, coordinate their activities, and adapt over time. Also, what Ancona and Bresman characterize as “expandable ties” that allow X-teams to structure themselves. Moreover, exchangeable membership maximizes options to include members who join and leave the team as well as to rotate leadership.

Ancona and Bresman carefully organize their material within three Parts. First, they examine the dominant “internal view” and explain how the business world has changed in fundamental ways (e.g. rapid and extensive expansion of the space of critical knowledge) and thereby rendering the old paradigm obsolete. Next, they build a framework to overcome the challenges. They outline the building blocks needed for teams to engage in “a complex web of complementary internal and external activities.” Finally, in Part 3, Ancona and Bresman “pull it all together” as they explain how managers can make the X-team model work for them. In my opinion, the most important material is provided in Part 3 but its value can only be used to maximum advantage if absorbed, digested, and applied within the context created by Parts 1 and 2.

Ancona and Bresman duly note that the traditional model (i.e. one that is internally focused and self-reflective) “works well for groups that do not need to rely on the external environment in which they function.” The number of such groups seems to be decreasing, however. All of the changes and consequent challenges that Ancona and Bresman examine in this book suggest the need for a new kind of leadership, “distributed leadership,” one that functions at all levels and in all areas of operations. There is also a need for more effective communication, cooperation, and collaboration between senior management and all operational levels.

Although all of the exemplary organizations that Ancona and Bresman examine are large (e.g. BP, Merrill Lynch, Microsoft, Motorola, Oxfam, Pharmaco, Southwest Airlines), I think that much of what Ancona and Bresman recommend – after appropriate modification, of course – can be of substantial benefit to much smaller organizations. For example, they can also engage in relatively high levels of external activity such as forging and then sustaining mutually-beneficial strategic alliances. However, as with much larger organizations, these smaller ones must remain committed to “extreme execution” within the given enterprise each day, even as these organizations proceed through Ancona and Bresman characterize as “flexible phases” (i.e. exploration, exploitation, and exportation) that may require them to change what they do and/or how they do it.

Not all organizations need an X-team. However, decision-makers in all organizations (regardless of size or nature) need to understand the X-team mindset which recognizes and appreciates the importance of “reaching out to far-flung islands of expertise” and of creating new synergies between and among all areas of operation by connecting and aligning “multiple people inside and outside the organization.”

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to read Henry Chesbrough’s Open Business Models: How to Thrive in the New Innovation Landscape in which he explains that an open business model uses a division of innovation labor “both in the creation of value and in the capture of a portion of that value. Open models create value by leveraging many more ideas, due to their inclusion of a variety of external concepts. Open models can also enable greater value capture, by using a key asset, resource, or position not only in the company’s own business model but also in other companies’ businesses.”

Also Enterprise Architecture As Strategy: Creating a Foundation for Business Execution co-authored by Jeanne W. Ross, Peter Weill, and David Robertson as well as Richard Ogle’s Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity and the New Science of Ideas.

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2 Comments

  1. Robyn on December 13, 2012 at 7:42 am

    I have read Henry’s Chesbrough’s book and found his business model to be invaluable. Great review. Thank you for all the information. Another book worth mentioning is called, “Green Beans & Ice Cream” by author Bill Sims, Jr. This is a book for business leaders who manage other people. Secondary to that, the audience is salespeople, parents, and teachers….anyone who needs to change the behavior of their followers. http://greenbeanleadership.com/

    • bobmorris on December 13, 2012 at 11:18 am

      Robyn, thank you for sharing your comments. I agree about Green Beans and expect to post a review soon. How interesting that there has been such an increased interest in salesmanship broadly defined to include almost all situations in which persuasion is the objective. Tie-ins with storytelling are inevitable as is a relatively recent recognition of non-berbal impact such as body language and tone of voice. One result is a new appreciation of role reversals (e.g. leaders become followers, followers become leaders), depending on the given circumstances. The implications seem almost unlimited. Best regards…and happy holidays!

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