Naji Gehchan: Hello, leaders of the world. Welcome to spread love in organizations, the podcast for purpose-driven healthcare leaders, striving to make life better around the world by leading their teams with genuine care, servant leadership, and love.

I am Naji, your host for this episode joined by a distinguished Professor of Management and founder of the MIT Leadership Center Deborah Ancona.

Deborah’s research and work led to the creation of multiple powerful models, tools, practices and concepts, including X-Teams as a vehicle for driving innovation within large organizations, and also the concept of distributed leadership that enable organizations to foster creative leadership at every level.

She has also served as a consultant on leadership and innovation to several companies including healthcare. 

Deborah is the author of the book, X-Teams: How to Build Teams That Lead, Innovate, and Succeed along with several other publications and articles in prestigious reviews. One of my favorites is “Family Ghosts in the Executive Suite”, I had the privilege to hear it, and apply it directly in Deborah’s leadership class, and it did help me tremendously!

Deborah – I am thrilled to have you with me today!

Deborah Ancona: Well, I’m thrilled to be here. Thanks for the invitation

Naji Gehchan: From psychology to leadership and management, there might be some links, but would love to hear your story. And what’s in between the lines of your journey. And now being a distinguished professor at MIT, Sloan and founder of the leadership center.

Deborah Ancona: So my story, it’s interesting because I have all of the students in my classes tell their stories. And I don’t always think about, about my own. Uh, but one of the stories I do tell in the class is that, um, I come from a kind of an intellectual family. Um, my father was a professor, um, and. Everybody in the family had medical background.

So my dad was a doctor and my mother was a medical social worker. My brother was a doctor. It was just expected. That’s what I would do. But, um, I hated natural science. I hated physics. I hated chemistry. I hated all of those subjects. And, um, the good news was that I. Somehow had the wherewithal, cause I was a pretty gutsy, uh, gets a young lady, um, to say, no, this is not for me.

And, and that kind of led me, um, to ask the question, well, what did I really like? And, um, It’s funny because there was a bet with a, a friend of mine, uh, who was taking a management course and I was taking a psychology course and he said, oh, that’s so easy. I could get an, a easily. And I said, oh really well, I’ll take a management class and you take a psychology course and we’ll see who does better.

And that led me to really. Uh, liking that idea of taking the psychology that I had studied all about cognitions and how people think and why people are fearful and why people get depressed and lots of interesting questions from psychology, but applying them in business and managerial situations. So I found that very intriguing.

Um, so off I went to get my PhD and found that, um, One of the areas. Again was very intriguing to me. So I I’ve always kind of followed my nose to say, what’s a problem out there. That’s, that’s interesting. That kind of pulls my attention. And so, um, while I was working on my PhD, I was asked to come in and work at a telecommunications company.

To understand what made their teams effective. And, um, I was very lucky. My advisor got me into this company and we had lots of data collected of over a hundred teams and we took all of the. Literature that was known about teams. What makes teams effective? Um, so you looked at, uh, the right kinds of people, um, clear goals, clear roles, comradery, cohesion, uh, being able to synthesize everything good.

Decision-making, uh, the ability to create trusting relationships, all the things that are written up in the literature. And so we went out and we studied those things and. All of these dynamics were totally predictive of how satisfied members of the teams were. And predicted how well they thought their team was doing in selling communications equipment.

The only trouble was there was zero none, no relationship between what, how well those teams were operating. And their financial revenue, the revenue they brought into the organization. So this started the next, I don’t know, continues to this day. So 20 plus years of research on what makes teams effective.

And, and I love those kinds of puzzles. Why is it that what we think we know doesn’t really work and what does work? Um, and so I love that. Almost investigative process of interviewing people and observing them and collecting a lot more data and having people actually record what did they do? Um, studying highly effective teams and contrasting them to less effective teams.

What are the, what are the real differences? And it turned out that while all of the things that. Intrinsically think of as important in teams, the things I’ve just mentioned, clear goals and roles and cohesion, et cetera, those are important, but they’re only half the story. And if you get half the story wrong, you can still have a lot of failures.

So the other side of the equation, if you will, is what we term X teams, externally active teams. What differentiates high-performing teams from low performing teams, whether they’re hardware teams, software teams, top management teams, manufacturing teams, service teams. Is the ability to not just be good at interacting within their borders, but to be able to reach out, to understand the larger organization, the larger ecosystem, what are new trends?

How do I get my fingers on the pulse of new technologies in a, in an exponentially changing world, as we have seen. For the past 10 years and, and even more amplified with COVID is the B is the need to adapt. And if you aren’t monitoring the external environment, if you aren’t learning from that external environment, if you aren’t creating, um, allies and dealing with your adversaries, if you aren’t reaching out to really coordinate, then you are not as effective.

You are when you do engage in those activities. So anyway, that was, that was a whole long time of really having a great time working with teams, studying teams, watching them pretending I was a member of a communications team, uh, lots of, lots of fun things. Um, and then post that, um, I actually kind of diverge, um, into thinking, well, what about the individual?

Um, how do we help individuals to be able to develop so that they can become members of those kinds of teams so that they can deal with the uncertainty, uncertainty, and ambiguity. So that story. The creation of the course that you took, uh, which is how do you understand and develop your own unique way of leading, which we call your leadership signature.

Um, and, um, Again, lots and lots of talking to people about how they developed looking at it, the theory. So I engage in a lot of sense-making, which is one of the core attributes or capabilities that we look at in the leadership model. And I think, um, part of the power of that model is the idea of sense-making.

Leadership models don’t include it. And yet this ability to really dig deeply into the problem that you’re trying to solve, really try to understand your context, make sense of the context in which you are operating is, is critical. And I use that skill to really, um, pull together. This framework, um, that brought me right back to my psychology roots.

So I was a psychology major after throwing away the natural sciences, I became a psychology major. And, um, so that brought me back into, into those roots, which I’ve enjoyed. Um, I’ve enjoyed helping others to be able to. So on their journey as it were, I hate that word journey, but I use it, um, to develop, um, more fruitfully, uh, using the constructs and concepts that I’ve developed and that I borrowed from a lot of other people.

And the other side of the equation is. Working with teams and individuals and seeing the progress that they were all making. And yet they would go back into toxic environments or organizations that were so bureaucratic that they couldn’t use their new found skills and they become, they became frustrated.

Uh, and so that started a whole other kind of research, um, story, as it were to say, uh, What constitutes a nimble organization as opposed to a bureaucratic one and not only nimble and its ability to adapt, but also having a culture that was not toxic, that kind of embraced freedom and, and people’s ability to be full-fledged members.

Uh, of those organizations. Uh, and so that work with, um, Elaine Backman and. Isaacs by the way that X team was done with Henrik, Brisbane and David Caldwell to give credit where credit was due. Um, so Kate, Elaine and I did did a, oh, I don’t know, many years multi-year study to look at what constitutes nimble.

And so that’s been some of my more recent writing as well. And an HBR article 2019. So that’s a little bit, um, not so much my personal journey, but my personal research journey as it were. And oh, by the way, along the way, I had four kids. Um, so I, um, I have four great children who are grown up now and in launch mode.

And that was also just a. Lovely lovely part of my life. I, um, I never held a child before I had one, so I was woefully unprepared. Uh, but nonetheless, um, I, I just found the kids a joyful experience, watching them grow and develop and feeling like I had some, um, albeit small role to play in, in helping them navigate.

The complex world that we live in. So, um, so that’s my story.

Naji Gehchan: Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. The powerful story, and you summarized in some minutes, huge amount of research that actually helps businesses help us as leader to be better organizations and better leaders. I will go back to a couple of things you shared.

So first. Um, if, if we want to talk about X teams, I love how you frame it. What’s the difference between a high-performing team and our performing team and this internal and external lens. What would be for a leader leading this team? What would be the top one or two capabilities that you think the leader needs to have for them to foster this type of environment for the team?

Deborah Ancona: So I think. One of the things that leaders need to be able to do is to understand that they don’t know everything. Um, and therefore, uh, a big aspect of both X teams and nimble organizations is the idea of distributed leadership that you have to open up your mind to be. Able to receive an update your view of the world.

If the world is changing really, really quickly, then you need to be able to suspend your belief system to say, okay, what’s new, what’s different. And how do I engage? The members of my team and going out and updating our models of what does the customer need? How is technology changing? Uh, what’s different about the economic and political reality that we face right at this moment what’s going on in, in healthcare, uh, with the pandemic and all the different changes that are happening there.

Um, so there has to be an ability to be open. And to encourage many people, not just yourself to seek answers. Uh, and so that’s very necessary, um, uh, in terms of a leader being able to step into, uh, into that realm. Uh, the other thing is, I think. That that you have to be open, but it also requires an ability to step back and let other people lead and let other people come in.

Um, In interviewing leaders. I’ve, I’ve been so impressed with some of them in terms of this idea of stepping up and stepping back. You step up if there’s a need, if there’s something not happening, but the ability also to step back and for even the lowest, um, member on the totem pole, uh, to. Participate and to, um, engage, not that everybody is equal.

It doesn’t mean that everybody has equal participation, but there are things that other people can bring to the table that perhaps the single leader cannot. And we need people to do that more in this day and age.

Naji Gehchan: I love it. And so many different ideas and innovation comes sometimes from where leaders are, we think least expected.

Right? So being open and bringing everyone on the force of everyone on the table is so crucial

Deborah Ancona: and sending them out the ability to. Engage them, not just internally, but outside everybody next week, go interview a customer. What did we learn? What’s different. Go interview a competitor. What are they doing that we’re not doing?

Um, getting everybody engaged and involved, and then you all have when you report back in a better understanding of, of the context.

Naji Gehchan: So, so true. Sometimes it’s frightening. When you think the percentage of time focused on internal. Versus actually being out with customers or with, you know, face sheds or whatever, even looking around at the environment.

Yeah. I totally agree.

Deborah Ancona: The other thing, which I told you in class, I always quote John, John Reed, the former head of Citibank and the MIT corporation, um, is if your inbox equals your outbox, you’re not alone. That you have to do more than respond to what other people are asking you to do. Leadership requires aspirations to new things, to taking on new challenges.

And so that’s also a key thing.

Naji Gehchan: Uh, you, we hear it a lot. All organizations or companies now want to become nimble. So you are behind the nimble organizations and this idea and you’ve researched it. So I would two questions I would love to hear from you. What does nimble organization mean? Like the definition, if you can give it to us.

Um, and then after this one, how to create it and can we aspire towards, uh, what, what should we do as leaders to.

Deborah Ancona: Yeah. Um, well, so we’re not the only one in the space. Obviously. There are a lot of people who are looking at that now. So there are people who stay, we call it nimble, um, uh, McKinsey calls it agile.

Uh, other people call it learning organizations or, um, networked organizations. So implicit in. Is this external focus. You need to be networked and learning, um, uh, for a good period of time and nimble. You need to also be able to move. Uh, one of the reasons to employ X teams, X teams are a big part of nimble organizations is their ability to.

Put together resources very quickly and act in a changing environment. So the ability to both see problems and opportunities quickly and be able to respond to them, uh, is, is part of what nimble is, uh, as well as a culture, um, of being able to step out, being able to, uh, have flexible forms of organizing, um, a culture.

Uh, enables people to learn and celebrate learning or, um, Carol Dweck’s idea of, of a growth mindset, um, is, is quite pivotal to, to being nimble. Also respect, respect for individuals is, uh, is a core part of that. Um, and in terms of. How do you make it happen? Um, we teach in the nimble course, um, a case on such an Adela who has been hard at work actually to try to transform, uh, Microsoft, but we also studied organizations that were nimble from birth and there were several findings from that.

Um, so I’ll just go into, to. As quickly as I can. Uh, one is that we saw three different kinds of leaders in nimble organizations. The. Bottom, not the total bottom, but lower down in the organization. You have the entrepreneurial leaders. This is really the hub of a nimble organization is lots and lots of people who are innovating and coming up with new ideas.

They’re entrepreneur. So what’s a great new business model that we should be pursuing. What’s a new product that we should look at. What’s some new material we should use. What’s a better way to address customer needs. So you have this huge hub of innovation that goes on, um, at, so you want entrepreneurial leaders at every level of an organization, but in particular at the lower and middle ends and then in the middle.

As opposed to bureaucratic organizations where middle managers are all about directing and planning and providing incentives and so on. Um, the, the middle level, the more experienced leaders or what we call nibbling leaders. So they are helping those entrepreneurial leaders to navigate the organization to figure out how do you present this?

And what’s the best way to get people engaged. And how do you run some experiments to prove. Proof of concept, et cetera. And then. Top you have what we call the architecting leaders and the architecting leaders are architecting. What we call the game board, uh, on which the entrepreneurial leaders and enabling leaders play.

So they’re the ones who are architecting the culture of the organization and they’re, um, removing. Um, barriers to innovation. They’re also putting up guardrails because even though nimble gives people a lot more autonomy, um, leaders get scared. I don’t want to go there because autonomy means chaos and it’s going to be a big mess.

And I don’t want to do that. Um, but in fact, nimble organizations have a lot of guard rails and those guard rails are things like, um, uh, funneling. So not every idea that comes from an entrepreneurial, an entrepreneurial leader is a great idea. And so what you want to do is make sure there’s a funnel and everybody knows there’s a funnel.

Right? Okay. Not every idea is going to make it to the rest of the organization. Um, and so there’s, um, a choice committee or, um, you enter a con. And there are very clear rules. This is what kind of innovation we want. This is what it has to be able to do simple rules. It has to be able to make whatever 500 million in the marketplace, or we don’t, we don’t want it.

It has to work with these technologies. So we don’t so very simple rules that provide. Uh, a system by which you can evaluate those entrepreneurial ideas and decide which ones go forward. Um, so the architecting leaders create these systems and these guard rails and these simple rules that help people innovate, but innovate with within particular domains so that it’s not chaotic.

Naji Gehchan: Uh, within, within this, um, those organizations, you talked in the beginning about culture, too. You talked about adaptation change. There’s all this wealth practically for entrepreneurs who are coming with ideas and building them, uh, and culture obviously should be super important. So you framed nontoxic culture.

But I want to hear more about what do you mean by not only non-toxic, but what type of culture you need to have for people to keep on bringing ideas, understand that there are boundaries and not all ideas will go in, but it’s fine. Not being afraid of bringing even more ideas or crazy ideas that sometimes.

We hear it. I know it’s too crazy for a company to do so. What is the type of culture that you think is important? Uh,

Deborah Ancona: well, first of all, a culture of transparency, if people don’t know how decisions are made, they get very resentful. Why did that person get to go ahead? And I didn’t know if it’s too political or it’s too close door, then people cease to believe in the process.

So transparency is a core element. In fact,

Um, organization about moving to nimble, but the first step is building the reputation and the actual transparency that’s needed to operate in, in a nimble way. So, um, that’s an very important piece, um, respect for other people, um, because. If you are enabling autonomy, um, you need to provide, uh, respect for everybody and their ideas and their, um, Well, respect for them as individuals.

And yet, I mean, some of these nimble organizations are very tough on ideas. Um, so it’s not that you accept everything thing. You can be very tough on ideas, but you don’t shame the person who brings that idea. Everybody’s entitled to, to have a place and, and, um, and be heard or to get the opportunity to get other people on board.

Um, To, to make things happen. Uh, you have to be able to, uh, let go, um, of bureaucracy. So if there are too many rules, too many regulations, too many, you have to go through 15,000 forms, um, at WL gore, and one of the companies that we studied, um, They don’t have these manuals for new products. There is a one-page document that you create.

It’s called real win, worth a, is it a real product that we can create? We can actually do it with our technologies. Real win. Can we win in the market? Um, with this, with this new thing that we’re going to create and worth, can we actually make money? Because if we can’t make money, I mean, the organization needs to make money.

So. Prove to us that it’s real, that we can win and then it’s worthwhile to do, and then you get acceptance. Now there might be a lot of data collected for that, but it’s a one pager, um, rather than hours and hours and days and days, and months and months spent on. On putting those programs together. So it’s low bureaucracy, um, are part of what nimble organizational cultures have also not blaming people all the time for mistakes.

Uh, you have to have a mindset of how do we learn from what we just did not. Who do we punish? Okay. Let’s figure out who’s fault. Was it really? No. What you really want to do is say, okay, what have we learned from this? And how do we do it better next time. Now, obviously, if somebody fails over and over and over again, then that becomes a problem.

But you do want to Institute this, this learning mindset, uh, within the, within the organization.

Naji Gehchan: Great. Uh, now I want to move into a different section where I would give you a word and I would love your reaction to it. So the first word is leadership

Deborah Ancona: leadership. Uh, do you want like a word or just a, it can be an idea. Um, so. I tend to think of leadership more as in a bird formation. It’s not necessarily the bird in the front, it’s the bird in the back. That’s making sure that everything is operating smoothly. So it’s, it’s more the idea of the enabling and architecting, uh, leaders who help, uh, the entrepreneurial leaders to, to move forward.

Um, and I think that idea. Gets lost. When we think of the heroic. Um, here I am kind of leadership,

Naji Gehchan: good stories,

Deborah Ancona: stories. I think of stories as.

I want to say one of the most effective tools that leaders have, but just thinking about it as a tool, you think of a hammer or you think of, of a saw, and it’s not like that it’s a tool in that stories are a better way to communicate and that people remember stories more than data or more than lists of things, but also.

Stories engaged, not just the cognitions of other people, but their emotions as well. And so it brings an emotional, um,

Piece to, to an organization and to an audience. And so it helps people to connect to one another, uh, and it helps people to realize that, um, that we have to be, um, understanding of other people because there’s a lot behind the facade that they bring, that they bring to work. Um, But also is an important way of connecting people to one another so that they can more easily work together and do things together and have a good time doing it.

Naji Gehchan: What about family? Ghosts?

Deborah Ancona: Family goes well. No, I guess I’m a little bit surprised that not more people in the field have talked about the impact of your family because on your, on your leadership. So you, you know, you talked about ghosts, but ghosts are things that we, we take from our past. So from our actual own families, because those families have such an impact on us, on our, um, On our values and on the things that we believe in on the things that we think are right.

The things that we think are wrong, the things that we should do, the things that we shouldn’t do, that the expectations of. And who we should be in the world. Those are deep, deep, deep things we learned from our family and therapists worry about that in terms of our own mental wellbeing. But ghost is more about whoa.

Sometimes those dynamics are playing out in the workplace in ways that I haven’t really been aware. And so for me go, sorry. What are the dynamics that play out in what work that have to do with the way I was raised? What are the good ones? Because sometimes we tend to think of. The terrible demon goes.

So I can’t get over. I, I, I can’t delegate because I need to have the control because I had a very uncontrolled family life. And so I need control. Um, and so that can be a negative ghost. Um, at the same time, you could be really good at controlling and organizing and operating. So it’s important to recognize that these things we bring from the past.

Have an important impact on who we are right now, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the, for the ill and sometimes for both simultaneously,

Naji Gehchan: it’s a spread love and organizations.

Deborah Ancona: I’m sorry. W

Naji Gehchan: w what about spread, love and organization?

Deborah Ancona: Yeah. So, um, I’m not one who speaks about love very often in, in the work that I do.


so I think that’s a harder one for me. Um, I think. Love if you take it to mean care and concern for other people. Um, I think we probably need more of that in organizations because we tend to look a little bit too much at only numbers and, um, output, um, productivity and effective. Effectiveness and efficiency.

And we, we do need to also consider, um, our fellow human beings and how we treat them. And can we, can we actually help them? I don’t, I don’t know if that’s what you mean by love. Um, but I guess that’s where I would take the concept.

Naji Gehchan: Th th this is actually what we’ve been hearing quite, what I personally mean is really this genuine care and caring for your people, for them to thrive.

And this is constantly what we’ve been hearing from, uh, from thinkers and leaders, uh, around genuine care or servant-leadership with this word, uh, that isn’t too often the organization.

Deborah Ancona: Yeah, no, I think so. And I, I think for me, um, The the, the greatest joy really from my own work comes from that. Whether it’s, I wouldn’t consider that work from my children, as I said, um, being able to, to help them to grow and develop, but also the leaders that go through this course, I feel so.

Really grateful that they tell their stories to me and that they hopefully take some steps along their own developmental path, um, helping a team to be more effective, to come up with a great idea. That to me is just. So much fun. Oh, well, we came up with this idea. We never would have done it if we hadn’t operated in this way, uh, where we want to change.

Um, it’s just very fulfilling for people to send me notes. I’ve learned more in three weeks of sense-making than I have in 10 years being at this organization, or, uh, we were able to implement this plan faster and better than we ever could have before, or it was great to finally realize that. We didn’t have all the answers and we could go out and, and learn from other organizations.

These are, to me, if that’s what love is, then, then I’m a fan. Okay,

Naji Gehchan: great. Then I think I was going to tell you, you’re actually, you’re spreading love and how you’re doing things, right. It’s like being open outside, being open inside being this genuine leader and listening to your people. This is how I’m defining it as, as love.

And it’s part of all that you’ve been taking us and teaching us through, um, through not only this course, but also through many years of research.

Deborah Ancona: Um, the other thing I would bring to that is, um, I don’t think of love in that respect as being always supportive. Um, that is, um, I sometimes push people and I push people hard.

Okay. You could, you could do that better. What if you tried it this way? Um, what if you, um, implemented this in a different way? Um, so it’s not all, oh, everything is great. It’s also pushing people because of a core belief that the person can learn, that that person can take that input, that that person is capable of doing more and being more.

It’s not up to me to provide the motivation for that. But I do think if the person is motivated to do that, then, then I feel like part of love in a sense is feeling good enough about that person that you can push them, uh, and not just say, oh, whatever you do is fine.

Naji Gehchan: Yeah. And this is, this is one of the pieces in one of the interviews.

Sometimes we talk about tough love, right? If you think about your kids, as you mentioned to actually push them, they’re doing, you know, you help them, you coach them, you guide them. And sometimes there’s tough love. And I remember one of the great leaders we interviewed told me, it’s, it’s true now. It’s not tough love because if you generally care for your people, yeah.

You’re going to push them sometimes because you believe in them, you believe they can do better. So if they’re not. We are going to help them see it and see how they can do better. So definitely a great point. Again,

any final word of wisdom for leaders around the world?

Deborah Ancona: Well, I think the only thing that I would say is that leadership is a complex concept. And that I think part of where we sometimes fall down is taking one piece of that and saying, this is what leadership is. So yes, you need to improve your relating abilities, the ability to coach and mentor and care for others.

But. You also, um, per our model need to be able to sense, make about your environment so that you’re able to come up with new ways of, uh, meeting the demands of that environment. And you need to be at some point a visionary leader who is about where do we go in the future? What does the future look like?

What could we do together? So you have to be kind of motivated. As a leader by presenting a picture of the future that that could be achieved. And you have to be what we call an inventing leader who comes up with ways to both execute on what needs to be done. Keep the trains running, make them run better over time.

Keep on that and also creating an innovative environment because in this day and age, you need to innovate to, to kind of survive. Um, and that requires making decisions and, and coming up with new ways to, to do things and to include people. And so I think sometimes we get lost because. People talk about one part of that leadership model without really recognizing that great leaders do all of those things and also rely on other people for doing tasks that they can’t do.

Uh, and, and that’s a key part of, of what leadership is.

Naji Gehchan: Thank you so much for this inspiring discussion today.

Deborah Ancona: Uh, thank you again for having me. I appreciate it.

Naji Gehchan: Thank you all for listening to spread love and organization’s podcast. Drop us a review on your preferred podcast platform

Follow us on LinkedIn and connect with us on spreadloveio.com. We’re eager to hear your thoughts and feedback. Most importantly, spread love in your organizations and spread the word around you to inspire others and amplify this movement, our world so desperately needs.