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

Rita McGrath
7 min readNov 2, 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…

--

--

Rita McGrath

Columbia Business School Professor. Thinkers50 top 10 & #1 in strategy. Bestselling author of The End of Competitive Advantage & Seeing Around Corners.