Deborah Ancona is an expert on teams. She’s studied hundreds, mostly in business but also in government and elsewhere, along the way discovering much about what makes them tick. One of her key findings is that teams can have great internal communication, a strong sense of camaraderie, and clear goals — and still fail.

Why? Teams, says Ancona, an MIT professor of management, need to keep lines open to external constituencies, from other units in the organization to top management. Example: a team assigned to create an add-on program for one of a software company’s core applications. “You need to interact with a lot of different groups if you want your product to get out the door,” she notes.

The emergence of Ancona’s concept of the “X-team” — where “X” stands for external — has coincided with the growth of teams as key agents in corporate leadership. “In a world where information is widely distributed and problems are increasingly complex,” she says, “teams are a major source of innovation in many companies.”

Ancona’s X-team work is part of the ongoing research on what makes for effective leaders within the MIT Leadership Center. The organization, based at MIT Sloan but with strong links to the School of Engineering, was put together by Ancona and several colleagues last spring.

The center aligns leadership and team development with science, engineering, and management skills – leveraging the best of MIT – while addressing and solving practical problems affecting society. Its offerings so far have included:

  • an individual course on leadership and entrepreneurship;
  • workshops that bring leaders, including individuals like former Comcast chief executive officer Michael Armstrong, to MIT; and
  • a two-day, real-time simulation of an international rescue effort.

The last provides a sense of how Ancona and her colleagues view leadership. The simulation had students trying to create a safe zone for at-risk refugees in war-torn Bosnia. “The time is short, everyone’s tense, there’s a lot of uncertainty, and no one person’s in charge,” notes Ancona.

The center, made possible in part through the financial support of Jack and Margarita Hennessy, has had marked successes. An executive development program for Merrill Lynch that integrated team and leadership skills with risk and investment management, for example, helped that firm launch a major new business.

Ancona says the center would like to do still more, especially in areas like presenting new simulations, exploring what leadership models work best, and evaluating and measuring the effectiveness of leadership development.

Still, she’s pleased with the center’s progress to date — and is also having fun. Helping create teams and seeing what they can do is “humbling for me,” she says, “and many of the ideas that have come out of the teams we’ve helped to develop have been amazing.”