Over the past year and a half, many organizations have seen short-term productivity gains result from the adoption of remote work: Commute times are shorter (or nonexistent!). Meetings are more efficient. And so on. In the long term, though, this shift may well bring a significant cost in the quality and effectiveness of working relationships. One major downside of reliance on remote work is that it can enable or reinforce silos that inhibit cross-organizational collaboration. The loss of opportunities for the the proverbial “water cooler conversation” is only the most obvious example of this problem.
The team-of-teams organizational model provides an unparalleled opportunity to seize and solidify many of the productivity gains brought about by the remote, dispersed, and digital work practices that have emerged during periods of pandemic shut-down. This model—which enables teams to be built in pursuit of specific goals, with a single coordinating executive team at the center—offers a way to organize people that aligns beautifully with the future of work. In particular, it minimizes the silos that can arise when colleagues conduct more and more of their work remotely.
Team of teams was designed in part to prevent, or at least mitigate, the internal competition that occurs when organizations develop silos. Bill Drayton, the founder of Ashoka and a pioneer of this model, views the team-of-teams model as a response to a major paradigm shift. Driven by advances in technology and globalization, the world is moving from a structured sphere marked by hierarchy to a more fluid space that requires more collaboration and new kinds of leadership. In this new world, the individuals and organizations that thrive will be those that can draw on many different skill sets. The team-of-teams model is applicable to all types of organizations, and it allows the make-up of teams to change according to organizational needs. Crucially, the model emphasizes decentralized autonomy, meritocracy, and a sense of partnership—all elements that have proven to be critical in responding both to the pandemic and to the workplace changes that have followed from it.
Because team-of-teams is such a powerful model, Bill Meehan and I devoted an entire chapter to it in our book, Engine of Impact (2017). I also implemented it at the organization that I run, King Philanthropies. During the Covid-19 crisis, I have come to see that the changes brought about by the pandemic make the team-of-team approach all the more relevant.
One Acre Fund a high-performing nonprofit social enterprise, provides a stellar example of how to make the most of this model. “I see One Acre Fund as essentially a team of teams,” said Andrew Youn, cofounder of One Acre Fund. Indeed, Youn identifies the team-of-teams approach as nothing less than “an overriding strategy” for the organization.
Building One Acre Fund
One Acre Fund works with farmers across sub-Saharan Africa, providing them with both financial and physical access to the tools they need to grow their way out of hunger. Its origins date to when Youn, during his time as an MBA student, spent part of his summer break in Kenya. There, he met two neighbors named Christine and Betty. Both were farmers who tilled similar plots of land and both were mothers, but that’s where the resemblance ended. Christine lived in dire poverty; her children were visibly thin and hungry, and another child had tragically died. Betty, on the other hand, was thriving, as were her kids; her land, although it was the same size as Christine’s, yielded four times as much food.
This striking juxtaposition led Youn to investigate why Betty’s farming outcomes were so markedly better than those of her neighbor. He identified three reasons: Betty used a naturally produced hybrid seed; she applied a tiny amount of fertilizer; and she spaced her seeds methodically, rather than scattering them about as Christine did. That was it: three simple practices that led to dramatically different results—and radically different lives.
Stunned by the seeming simplicity of Betty’s methods, Youn tested a pilot intervention with a group of 38 farmers. He lent the farmers seed and fertilizer and gave them some basic training. The pilot proved successful: All of the farmers had significantly more abundant harvests. In 2006, Youn and John Gachunga cofounded One Acre Fund, which then grew rapidly. By the end of 2019, it had a staff of 8,280 and served more than one million smallholder families in Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. In the process of building One Acre Fund, Youn demonstrated the power of simple interventions. But at the same time, he discovered that building and running a complex organization is anything but simple.
Succeeding with Team of Teams
To help him manage the complex and ever-evolving work of One Acre Fund, Youn uses the team-of-teams approach. “To be successful, we can’t be simultaneously good at 25 different things—everything from logistics to government relations to field operations,” Youn told me. “We just need to build the teams that are good at those things.”
According to Youn, an organization should incorporate the team-of-teams approach into its operations as early as the recruiting process. “Team-of-teams is most effective when it’s very much embedded with the hiring strategy,” he explained. Rather than looking to hire people with years of experience in doing one job, for example, he seeks people “who are able to reason through new problems, people who have a lot of growth potential. They have both the humility to want to grow [and an ability to] constantly sop up feedback. … How we recruit relates a lot to that—who we bring onto the team.”
Youn also underscores the importance of letting teams chart their own path. After One Acre Fund gets the right sort of people in place, he explained, “we try to give them as much autonomy as possible” because that is “the only possible way to retain great people.” Youn continued:
On our programmatic teams, each of the country operations has a pretty reasonable degree of autonomy. I really want them to feel like they’re basically running their own NGO, but they don’t have to do their websites and their back office. On the support function [teams], I want them to feel like, ‘I’m running an HR consultancy essentially, and I’m hired [to help] the country operations … succeed.’
How we recruit and bring people onto the team and how we execute and [how we] give the teams that high degree of autonomy [are] very much in alignment with [the team-of-teams] approach.
One Acre Fund often creates an internal team to kick off a new initiative or endeavor; the team then disbands once its work is complete. “There [are] lots of initiatives of that kind that pop up where we’ll sprint on it and then either decelerate or make it into a permanent function,” explained Youn. When One Acre Fund was working to strengthen its customer protection effort, which involves making sure that field officers treat all customers respectfully, the organization created a dedicated team to jumpstart the initiative.
Youn acknowledges the challenges presented by a team-of-teams approach. Maintaining internal cohesion when bringing in workers from outside the organization can be difficult, for instance. But, as noted, One Acre Fund minimizes that difficulty by embedding the team-of-teams approach in its hiring strategy. Growth poses another challenge to the model. “Our challenges to a great extent are [about] keeping that team-of-teams culture as we get bigger,” said Youn. “Increasingly, as we get bigger, we have more specialization: X person sees it as their job to plot out the new enrollment strategy only, and not to think more holistically about the bigger vision.”
To mitigate that tendency, Youn insists on what he calls “crisp clarity of strategy.” He explained: “If we can do a really great job of always communicating very consistently a crisp strategy, … that makes the model more effective.” This communication, he stressed, must be two-way and authentic. “It’s not just ‘This is my vision.’ It’s … hearing feedback on the vision and making people feel bought in on [it].”
Diversity strengthens the team-of-teams model, and Youn is currently working to improve diversity within One Acre Fund at the leadership level. “Making sure the right voices are in the room is something that I’m really focused on right now,” he explained. “So much of it is about people and how we shape the environment around them. It’s not my goal to become an expert in all these different things, but rather to shape the environment for great people to thrive in their function and then to work together towards a whole.”
Originally published in Forbes