Turn Your Teams Inside Out
Externally focused teams can drive innovation, performance, and distributed leadership — but adopting them requires a shift in mindset.
It’s been over 20 years since we first identified a new kind of work group emerging at innovative organizations. Entrepreneurial, externally focused “x-teams” have proved to boost organizations’ agility and speed of execution in the face of rapid change and uncertainty, and have been used successfully in product development, sales, manufacturing, and senior leadership.
However, while x-teams are particularly relevant to today’s challenging business environment, they are still found at only a relatively small number of companies and not-for-profit organizations. The prevailing approaches to training and managing teams haven’t changed much at all.
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At most organizations, managers concerned with teamwork still focus largely on internal group dynamics. X-teams, in contrast, combine this internal focus with a strong orientation toward external outreach and learning. They reach out to stakeholders both inside and outside their companies. Their emphasis on networked action helps to distribute leadership to all levels of the company. And, as organizations shed bureaucracy and become more nimble and networked, x-teams become the building blocks of these new architectural designs.
Ongoing studies of x-teams have produced new insights into why they succeed — or don’t — and how to maximize the likelihood of success with this model for organizing collaboration.1 We and other researchers have found that difficulties in adopting the x-team approach are typically caused by outmoded assumptions about teams at all levels, confusion over how to compose x-teams, and a lack of understanding about how to manage these groups’ activities. In this article, we’ll briefly review these challenges — which largely stem from inertia — and describe the success factors we’ve observed among high-performing x-teams.
Old Assumptions Die Hard
Conventional thinking about teams conjures an image of a circle of dots representing the members, with lines connecting them. The work performed by the group — whether a 12-person jury or the eight executives on a senior leadership team — is focused inside the circle. For x-teams, the picture needs to depict not a closed circle but a more permeable boundary: Relationships and activities are not limited to team members but involve many more stakeholders. X-team members are active in crossing team boundaries and bringing others in. But the traditional bounded, internal focus can be hard to dislodge, and its persistence undermines the effectiveness of a would-be x-team.
1. For an overview of recent research on how teams operate in their external context, see M.M. Maloney, H. Bresman, M.E. Zellmer-Bruhn, et al., “Contextualization and Context Theorizing in Teams Research: A Look Back and a Path Forward,” Academy of Management Annals 10, no. 1 (January 2016): 891-942.
2. D. Ancona, H. Bresman, and M. Mortensen, “Shifting Team Research After COVID-19: Evolutionary and Revolutionary Change,” Journal of Management Studies 58, no. 1 (January 2021): 289-293.
3. M. Mortensen, “Constructing the Team: The Antecedents and Effects of Membership Model Divergence,” Organization Science 25, no. 3 (May-June 2014): 909-931.
4. H. Bresman, “Changing Routines: A Process Model of Vicarious Group Learning in Pharmaceutical R&D,” Academy of Management Journal 56, no. 1 (February 2013): 35-61; and C.G. Myers, “Storytelling as a Tool for Vicarious Learning Among Air Medical Transport Crews,” Administrative Science Quarterly 67, no. 2 (June 2022): 378-422.
5. A.T. Mayo, “Syncing Up: A Process Model of Emergent Interdependence in Dynamic Teams,” Administrative Science Quarterly 67, no. 3 (September 2022): 821-864.
6. C. Riedl and A.W. Woolley, “Teams vs. Crowds: A Field Test of the Relative Contribution of Incentives, Member Ability, and Emergent Collaboration to Crowd-Based Problem-Solving Performance,” Academy of Management Discoveries 3, no. 4 (December 2017): 382-403.