X-teams drive innovation

There’s a silent revolution going on in more traditional organisations. Matrix structures, communities, and projects distribute leadership throughout the organization and make the formal organograms fluid. On top of that, the boundaries between external and internal  become permeable. This revolution enables speed and flexibility. In earlier posts we discussed the impact on middle management. Middle managers can no longer execute in a rather passive way strategy. They also need to experiment and influence upwards. Same goes for successful teamwork.

We are used to see teams as stable groups with strong internal dynamics and clear boundaries with their environment. Teams have clear goals, roles and processes. This is no longer enough to be successful in complex environments. “Within this world of “distributed leadership” teams cannot solely look inwards,” state Ancona & Bresnan (2007, p.4). Newnormal teams have to be “X-teams“, their research shows.

X-teams engage first in high levels of eXternal activity. They are in direct contact with all stakeholders: customers, experts, competitors, top management. While exploring, X-team members are also ambassadors for their ambition: they get buy-in early on and embed their actions directly in the overall strategy. Through their external activity X-teams also benefit from the myriad interdependencies with other parts of the organization. They negotiate resources, trade services and get actively feedback to get their work done.

X-teams show eXtreme execution. Because of the significant external activities, the internal X-team dynamics have to be excellent. This doesn’t mean very elaborated job descriptions, administrative processes and regular formal meetings. X-teams first of all have a safe internal culture for open debate, direct feedback and continuous sharing. Team members feel the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. Secondly, x-teams reflect on their team processes: the team is oriented to learning and continuous improvement. “You have to treat mistakes as the next challenge.” (p. 98). Thirdly, x-team members know each other. They have shared, realistic and clear sense of each other’s competencies.

X-teams have fleXible phases and structure. As the demands of the task change, team members shift gears and change what they do and how they do it. The three phases of eXploration, eXploitation and eXport need different activities, leadership and tasks. The structure of X-teams is defined by extensive weak and strong ties. Team membership is fluid but differentiated. Core members carry the team’s history and identity. Operational members focus on specific tasks. And outer-net members join in temporarily for specific tasks. This differentiation helps to act in a stable matter without losing flexibility.

X-teams need specific procedures and tools to be succesful. Staffing will take into account diversity, external ties and process skills of the team members. Psychological safety and team reflection will be stimulated by e.g. getting to know each other personally, setting explicit norms, mapping explicitly the expertise in the team. Extreme execution needs discipline, integrative meetings, clear operating rules, participatory decision-making, specific IT-solutions and a shared timeline. Especially these shared timeline with non-negotiable milestones can have a huge uniting impact.

X-teams need distributed leadership and distributed leadership needs x-teams. The core idea is: “we’re all incomplete and interdependent.” For innovation to work, power and leadership is needed at operational level.  Distributed leadership is orchestrated sensemaking, relating, visioning and inventing. What is the role of top management? In essence provide strategic direction, manage overload, empower people, promote networks, be ambidextrous, “set up rhythms and cycles in the cacophony of sounds” (p. 236) and above all, be role models in X-teamwork.

Any comment?


About Koen Marichal

Director Future Leadership Initiative at Antwerp Management School
This entry was posted in 4. Results & teams, 7. Homogeneity & diversity, Academic insights & evidence, English and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s