Blame It on the I-Team

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by: John Caddell

Last night I was reading a new book, "X-Teams: How to Build Teams that Lead, Innovate and Succeed" and I got this weird lightness in my stomach, a small vacant feeling just beneath the rib cage. The authors, Deborah Ancona of MIT’s Sloan School and Henrik Bresman of INSEAD, were describing a common phenomenon: teams that worked hard to improve their performance had more fun, became happier but often failed miserably at their missions.

The feeling in the pit of my stomach was deja vu. I’ve been on one of those teams. Back in my EDS days, I worked for a sales VP who studied a lot of Peter Senge’s Learning Organization principles and took them to heart. He applied them to our team and to its relationships. We had periodic offsite sessions to create strategy, we "checked in" to meetings, and we built close bonds both inside and outside of work.

Yet we didn’t succeed, ultimately. The team was broken up within a year or so. Many of us left the company soon thereafter (me included). What happened? It’s something I wondered about for years, and until this book lacked an explanation that made sense to me.

The paradox of great teams, according to Ancona and Bresman, is that they frequently focus internally, on their relationships with teammates and on their assignments, and lose perspective and context. They lose sight of other groups in the company and, most dangerously, of customers’ evolving needs. The team begins to work better together, and the problem is compounded–other teams are seen as ineffective, "us vs. them" develops, and at some point external support for the team dissipates. You’re left with a high-powered vehicle that can’t go anywhere. Call it the "I" (for internal) Team.

And that’s what happened to our team. We are still in touch ten years after the breakup. We have good feelings about that year. But in the pit of my stomach, at least, is a twinge of regret about what we could have done.

(Cover photo courtesy of Harvard Business School Press)

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