MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog

How to combat team failure and drive innovation using the X team

Critical studies show that the real work of successful innovation starts and ends with the team, and that the way we build and manage teams is what is truly responsible for the success or failure of “the next big thing” in innovation.

Most teams fail due to a perfect storm of several factors such as lack of effective communication, inefficiency, lack of clearly defined roles and goals, and poor leadership. But even successful teams struggle against these obstacles on a daily basis and still there are others that perform way above and beyond expectations. What do successful teams do differently?

How to Build a Team for Lasting Success: Secrets of the X Team

Deborah Ancona, Seley Distinguished Professor of Management and Professor of Organization Studies at MIT Sloan, has evaluated hundreds of teams in over twenty years of study, and has discovered why top teams fail, and other teams succeed. Ancona and her research group found that successful teams displayed a balance of specific characteristics. They called these successful teams ”X teams,” and found that building X teams is a key cornerstone to creating innovation and driving peak performance within an organization.

Characteristics of an X Team

  • Form a cohesive group, displaying characteristics of trust and team spirit.
  • Communicate effectively, ensuring their communications permeate all layers of an organization to spread key information, fast. They actively enroll management support and include key stakeholders in communication of important messages.
  • Establish cooperative relationships, and seek out key information from other teams and outside sources.
  • Work within a flatter, more distributed organizational structure.
  • Weave multiple tiers of involvement and loyalty into their dynamic, including an inner tier of core team members who coordinate and make decisions, as well as a peripheral layer that includes full-time operational members who do the ongoing work.
  • X teams are flexible enough to extend outward to part-time members, some of whom may not be employees.

The Secret Sauce: Scouts & Ambassadors

Key members of X teams function as ambassadors and scouts who play an important role in communicating externally to strengthen initiatives outside of team boundaries. As active ambassadors, they acquire “buy in” from management, gather feedback from other teams, seek protection from internal opponents, and acquire sponsors and raise funds. In addition, they can gather key information and feedback from unlikely sources across an organization, gaining new insight into product and process innovation. Scouts and ambassadors are a key component to X teams because they focus upward and outward—beyond the world of their team, unlike teams that fail whose focus often lies inward, limiting possibility to gain insight, resources, and support from outsiders.

Empowered X Teams = Innovative Organizations

Every day, organizations are inundated with fast changing information. They will be able to drive innovation most effectively if they use the X team structure. Leveraging X teams empowers organizations to achieve positive results because their teams can acquire and process information to their advantage while gaining the support and resources they need to innovate.
Deborah Ancona teaches in Transforming Your Leadership Strategy and the Advanced Management Program at MIT Sloan Executive Education.