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Q&A: An MIT Professor’s How-to’s for Building Teams That Drive Innovation

Leadership expert Debora Ancona is reshaping the way we think about teamwork. Here, she shares how to apply her unique approach in the educational world.


Deborah Ancona, PhD

Seley Distinguished Professor of Management, Professor of Organization Studies, and Founder of the MIT Leadership Center, MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, MA

PhD in Management, MS and BA in Psychology

Deborah Ancona started her college studies with some clear expectations from her family, many of whom worked in medicine: She would, of course, be a medical doctor. There was just one problem: She hated chemistry. Ancona changed her major seven times before going into psychology, eventually capping her studies with a PhD in management.

From there it was on to an assistant professorship at MIT Sloan School of Management in Boston. After that Ancona did consulting with Bristol-Myers Squibb, Bose, Takeda, Li & Fung, OCP, Accenture, and American Student Assistance, who all availed themselves of her expertise in the intersection of the human mind and the business world. But she ultimately heard the call of Sloan School again, returning to teach and to found the MIT Leadership Center in 2005, through which she often leads accelerated courses for executives, such as Transforming Your Leadership Strategy.

Ancona is perhaps best known for being a pioneer in the study of team dynamics—particularly with regard to the new concept of X-teams—short for externally oriented teams. While many traditional management models focus solely on managing inside the team itself, Ancona recognized the importance of managing outside of the team’s boundaries, too. Doing so, she found, made teams more adaptable to their environment and more successful overall. Many large organizations have since used this model—detailed in the book X-Teams: How to Build Teams That Lead, Innovate, and Succeed, cowritten by Ancona and Henrik Bresman—to drive innovation.

Course Hero recently asked this busy professor to share some tips for educators seeking to drive innovation within the “large organization” of their college or university and help their students build leadership skills in the classroom. She shares her answers—and some easily actionable tips—in the interview below.


“If you begin to prepare a leadership identity that is collaborative, that is about learning, that is about moving and making things happen ... you’re giving [students] the confidence that they can lead.”

— Deborah Ancona, PhD

Course: Transforming Your Leadership Strategy

Course description: This program is built around MIT’s unique Distributed Leadership Model―an innovative and impactful approach to executive leadership that lies at the core of leadership development at MIT, and the result of an intensive, four-year research project at the MIT Leadership Center to identify more effective strategies for leading in a networked economy. Tested in diverse, real-world settings, the model allows managers to succeed as leaders by being flexible and adaptive in new and unexpected ways through the application of two key concepts: a 4-Caps+ Leadership Framework that makes it possible to harness, align, and leverage the leadership capabilities that exist throughout an organization; and X-Teams, a revolutionary approach to creating flexible, outwardly-focused project teams that enables managers to both keep current with shifts in markets, technologies, and competition, and accelerate the pace of innovation and change.

See resources shared by Deborah Ancona, PhD

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Course Hero: What motivated you to rethink the traditional approach to teamwork?

Deborah Ancona: It was data. I’m from MIT, and MIT is a very data-driven environment. If you want to make an argument, they’ll ask, “Where’s the data?”

I went into studying teams by looking at sales teams in a telecommunications organization. What we were teaching at the time—the mental model that’s burned into our brains—was an internal view of teams: that to make a great team, you have to set clear goals, allocate clear roles, and have cohesion, clarity, and trust—along with the ability to coordinate, collaborate, and communicate. All of those things are true, but our data suggested that, for teams to be the most effective, they also had to join internal focus with reaching outside and across boundaries. That started a multiyear inquiry into what makes teams effective.

The answer that played out over many studies was that team success requires more than just an internal approach. It requires an external approach, as well. That’s really what prompted me to do this. It was the data showing there was a whole piece that was missing.

What do you mean by an external approach?

The external portion involves reaching outside of the team and across team boundaries—going out into the environment to understand what is happening there and what changes are taking place.

Successful teams use ambassadorship, scouting, and task coordination so that they’re understanding, fitting in, and getting resources from the upper level of their environment and coordinating with other parts of the organization.

Another part of what we preach is distributed leadership—when different people on a team take on leadership roles, as needed, based on their skills and abilities. That idea came out of the education world, where teachers have to deal with their classrooms, but they also have to think about the community, the parents of the children, the other teachers, and the school—and “What are they each trying to accomplish?” And sometimes parents or even students take on a leadership role in a child’s education.

If you add those things together—an external perspective, a strong internal process, and distributed leadership—you will be successful.

But it’s not just about what you do; it’s about when you do it. Do it sooner rather than later, so you learn about the constituents, the environment, and what the problem is before you set the goals.

We looked, for example, at a firm that was consulting to school districts. The teams that would go out and really understand the needs of these districts performed better. They performed even better when they went out early [in the process].

What are the key qualities of a great leader?

In the article “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader” [written by Ancona with Thomas W. Malone, Wanda J. Orlikowski, and Peter M. Senge], we articulated on the 4-CAPS+ model by looking at leaders’ stories of change and asking, “How were they successful?” By doing this, we came up with what we call the four capabilities of leaders:

  1. Sensemaking. This is going outside the team in order to understand the different issues the team is facing and making sense of the context in which you’re operating. Learning from others is also an important part of sensemaking. For teachers, it’s really important to understand what a good teacher looks like and how others have dealt with controlling the class and teaching the curriculum.
Additional Resources from Dr. Ancona

Dr. Deborah Ancona recommends these books, journals, and articles for educators interested in learning more about X-teams and organization behavior:

  1. Relating to others. This is knowing how to listen—not just talk, but listen—and get inside someone else’s shoes. For teachers, that means understanding what is happening with a problem student and how to reach out to that person. But listen first. Be able to coach and develop students and fellow teachers. And again, we have this external perspective: That means reaching out, not just to your class but to the rest of the school, to the rest of the district, to the parents. It’s really a creation of a network of trusting relationships.
  1. Visioning. What is your vision? Can you paint a vivid picture of the future and what it looks like? What are you trying to achieve in your classroom and in your school? It’s not just that we want to be great, but great at what? Put some meat on your vision of where you want to go and what you’re aiming to create.
  1. Inventing. Inventing is creating the structures and processes to move toward the vision. Even if you’ve done your sensemaking, you know what’s going on in your environment, you’ve done your relating, you have connectivity inside and outside, you have a strong set of collaborative relationships, you have a vision of where you’re going, nothing happens unless you do your inventing.

As an educator, this means asking yourself how to make your vision come about in the classroom. If you want to be better at listening to students, what do you do? If you want a classroom that is less about behavioral control and more about learning, what does that look like? What is the pathway to get there? How do you convince students to follow this new path? What processes do you put in place? That’s what inventing is.

The last piece is building credibility. This sits at the center of the four capabilities, because you can’t do any of the other things without building trust with others. And that’s your true north. Do you lead with purpose and integrity? Do you say what you’re going to do? Do you follow through with commitments? Do you lead with purpose? It’s not all about you. It’s really about the larger thing you’re trying to do.

How can educators use these concepts to help students better themselves?

It’s about consciously trying to improve and to model for their students how to be leaders. Students become leaders partially because of the role models around them. Is the teacher modeling good capabilities: sensemaking, relating, visioning, inventing, and building credibility? Are these concepts being taught to students?

We also have this idea of distributed leadership: You need leaders at all levels, not just at the top. Are students being given opportunities to lead within the classroom, work groups, or elsewhere?

You can also help them create a leadership development plan. Ask them: What are you really good at, and how do you make that shine? What are you not so good at? Have them set goals for themselves, and check in every now and then to see where they are on those goals.

What learning outcomes might we expect if teachers and students draw on your research?

One of the outcomes you could have with students is greater self-awareness of leadership strengths and weaknesses. It’s also a way of giving voice to students—and suggesting that they have some voice in what happens in the world. That’s a very empowering thing.

If you begin to prepare an identity of leadership that is collaborative, that is about learning, that is about moving and making things happen, and you give students the skills to embody those things, you’re giving them the confidence that they can lead.

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