Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

A team's internal focus is only half the story: Henrik Bresman

Traditional team models are not enough in an exponentially changing world, says Bresman, an INSEAD associate professor

Published: Apr 10, 2024 10:49:28 AM IST
Updated: Apr 11, 2024 10:16:31 AM IST

A team's internal focus is only half the story: Henrik BresmanHenrik Bresman, Associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD
Henrik Bresman is an associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD and a recognised expert on leadership, high-performance teams, and organisational change. He regularly works with companies and public-sector organisations embarking on large-scale transformations. He is also the co-author of X-Teams: How to Build Teams That Lead, Innovate, and Succeed. In an interview with Forbes India, he explains how teams that combine internal focus with external outreach can drive innovation and growth. Edited excerpts:

Q. Why do you think traditional team models won’t work anymore?
The traditional team model is not working because the world teams operate in has changed. We now operate in a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous, asynchronous, and diverse, and changing at a furious rate. Developments of the last decade, notably the pandemic, have sped up some trends already underway. For instance, evolutionary changes like the shift from stable teams to dynamic teams, clear boundaries to fuzzy boundaries, humans only and machines only to humans and machines. Alongside, there have also been revolutionary changes such as the shaping of hybrid work models.
These disruptive changes notwithstanding, the story of the last decade is not one of moving from one state to another but rather of a long-shifting arc of change. Our challenges are more complex than ever and, therefore, the old way of carrying out teamwork—with its focus on internal dynamics—is only half the story.
Q. Why do bad things happen to ‘good’ teams?
Teams that we have traditionally seen as ‘good’, with clear and aligned goals, roles, and processes that members are committed to, are failing in today’s exponentially changing world because they are inwardly focussed. Their members are following the models and theories presented in bestselling books on team effectiveness. This view of performance asserts that teams simply need to focus within—on their own process, on the problem at hand, and on their members as collaborative colleagues. This is the model that feels comfortable to most people and the one that makes us effective at shaping the internal dynamics of teams.
The problem is that this model of internal focus doesn’t work so well anymore. Fierce innovation-driven competition has forced dramatic changes in organisational life. Competitive battles are now being won being with weapons of creativity, agility, and organisational linkages, and creating synergies that efficiently satisfy customer needs. And organisational teams are increasingly called on to lead these battles.
Q. How would you define an X-team?
Instead of focusing on alignment and efficiency inside the team, an X-team shifts the lens to the inclusion of diversity across the ecosystem outside the team. The ‘x’ is about external outreach and connectivity. X-teams “go out before they go in’’. Specifically, X-teams engage in ‘sensemaking’ (activity to update their map of the context), ‘ambassadorship’ (activity to align and get buy-in), and ‘task coordination’ (activity to manage interdependencies across the ecosystem).
Consider the Cascade team formed by Microsoft in 2016 to explore the possibility of growing a tools development business. The challenge was to see if they could unlock entirely new experiences and ways of developing in the era of the cloud. They brought in market researchers to carry out in-depth interviews with next generation developers. They found there was a challenge: While software development is like a team sport, all the tools in the market were focussed on individual experience. To address this problem, Cascade developed Live Share, a real-time multi-author collaboration tool that was something like a Google doc for coding. The team continued to innovate and went on to have a huge impact on Microsoft’s approach to innovation—triggering their shift from a know-it-all culture to a learn-it-all one.

Also read: Leadership should be a team sport
Q. “Leadership can no longer exist only at the top of the organisation. It must be distributed…  and shared with teams.” Please elaborate.
It is impossible for leaders at the top of the organisation, even the greatest ones, to have all the answers in an exponentially changing world. All leaders are, in a sense, “incomplete”. They need to distribute leadership across levels, functions, and geographies—wherever the best talents, information, and capabilities to take on complex challenges are found.
Moreover, the team is the fundamental unit of distributed leadership because that is where people with diverse talents and perspectives can come together and create the conditions for ‘complete’ leadership.
Q. What are the outcomes X-teams can lead to with respect to innovation?
We have studied hundreds of teams. Examples of positive outcomes include executive teams that implement strategic change effectively, management consulting teams that win more contracts, startup teams that win more funding, drug development teams that develop safer and more effective drugs, software development teams that develop more innovative software, and school boards that institute reforms more effectively.
Importantly, because the best X-teams build a robust internal environment for debate, characterised by psychological safety, they see not only better instrumental outcomes, but also better mental health outcomes.
Q. Transitioning to an X-team—what will it entail?
To avoid overwhelming employees, make step-by-step changes. For example, if the organisation wants to know more about its customers, start with a goal for X-team members to interview one customer weekly. Allocate work to team members with clear goals, such as mapping the competitive space and finding out what the competitors are doing in the market.
Consider bringing in outside experts to brainstorm with the X-team, and then capture what’s learned and communicate it to others.
Set guardrails to manage innovation. To maintain some control over innovation and avoid chaos, use a funnelling system to choose among the new ideas generated from X-teams. One of the key things to talk about is that you’re going to come up with lots of ideas and not all of them will be good. A funnelling system can help narrow down those ideas to ones that actually make it into practice. Southwest Airlines uses a “choice committee” to decide on those ideas, while Takeda’s R&D centres have contests for the best new innovations. The winners are the ones that progress into things that the organisation actually does or implements—maybe across the entire company or unit.
Q. What’s a leader’s role in ‘x-ifying’ teams?
It depends on the leader’s role in the organisation. Top leaders need to create an architecture that allows for flexibility and agility. Team leaders need to enable members to be entrepreneurial and coach them. All leaders need to lead by example.
Q. In what kind of organisational culture can X-teams thrive the best?
Any sector characterised by a changing environment, need for innovation, and uncertainty about what exactly this means benefits from X-teams.

If you don’t have change and uncertainty, then less of a need. However, such environments are going extinct. Just about all industries are touched by the exponentially changing world we live in where the future of work is dynamic, distributed, and diverse.

In Singapore, we have introduced X-teams to the government, to large organisations in financial services and pharmaceuticals, and even startups. Now, the specifics of how the X-teams model is implemented will vary depending on the context, but the general principles remain the same.

Specifically, about the culture that is required, to be sure, a culture of entrepreneurship that encourages experimentation (which, by definition, means sometimes to fail) is great for X-teams. However, it is important to note that this culture does not need to be created top-down. It does not have to exist before X-teams get to work. We have often found that X-teams are agents of a cultural change toward entrepreneurship and agility in their own right.