Book review: x-teams: how to build teams that lead, innovate, and succeed

This book changed my perspective on how successful teams are build and operate, and it is a milestone in refocusing the team debate in a productive direction. Written by Deborah Ancona (MIT Sloan School of Management), and Henrik Bresman (INSEAD), it defines extreme (x) teams as teams which have an strong and active external focus, while creating and maintaining internal cohesion. The team debatte starting in the 70ies, focused team optimization mostly on internal factors like camaderie, process and rules for working & communicating internaly and gaining a strong confidence in their abilities as a team. These factors are a good base for team success, but quite often they are a hinderance to real success. They are misleading the teams to concentrate too much on the internal well-beeing and -feeling, than on external stakeholders and influences. This might give them a good feeling, but they are mostly not beeing judged as performant teams.

According to the authors, very successful teams are characterized by the following basic principles:

  • High level of external activities
  • Extrem Execution practices
  • Flexible Phases of Activities

High level of external activities
High performance teams are focusing their activities on researching the needs and perceptions of their stakeholder. The are actively scouting the environment for ideas, concepts, solutions and technologies and are actively coordinating their efforts with the stakeholders and other involved external parties. They also are working actively in communicating their aims, goals and successes to the world. But also, they are not shy to ask for support.

Extreme Execution practice
is implemented to get the work done collaboratively and to create the foundation for working internally and externally efficient and effective. Extreme Execution Practices are encompassing:

  • a participatory and transparent decision-making process
  • integrative meetings
  • simple guiding principles (heuristics) to allow team members to make flexible and quick decisions rooted in the shared understanding of the team
  • Extreme Execution Tools like shared-timelines and shared information systems.

Personally, I think the Extreme execution part could need a good brush-up by examples on how x-teams have implemented a solution environment for extreme execution and how especially agile workpractices could support them. An also welcome addition would be sharing best practices based on collaboration tools like wikis, shared mindmaps and other social media tools as well as modern project management tools like Basecamp orZCOPE.

Flexible Phases
are structuring the lifecycle of the team:

  • Explore: understand the world surrounding your team, develop empathy with your stakeholder, define your indentity as a team
  • Exploit: move from ideas to implementation, engage in rapid and social prototyping of your concepts and solutions
  • Export: Handover systematically the responsibility for your work to your clients, the marketplace or the regular organization

These phases are far away from beeing revolutionary, but I like the last phase „export“, it allows the team to let go their creation and frees mind and capacity for new projects. This is in most organizations underdeveloped and the hand-over of the work is not really planned.

Mindmap, summarizing the book
(klick on the map to open it in MindMeister)

I have applied successfully the central concepts of the book in my work with SCRUM teams and it helped them to prevent falling in the common trap of working very self-centered and leaving the outwards connections solely to the product owner.

X-teams: How to Build Teams That Lead, Innovate and Succeed by Deborah Ancona, Henrik Bresman; Harvard Business School Press; 1 edition (June 26, 2007)


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