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The Invisible Backbone: Leveraging Hidden Teams to Drive Organizational Success

In today's fast-paced and complex business environment, organizations require nimble structures and flexible collaboration to achieve their goals and objectives. While most leadership attention focuses on visible frontline teams and high-profile executive initiatives, some of the most important work happens outside of traditional organizational charts and formal reporting structures. Hidden teams -- informal groups that form organically within organizations to solve problems and address opportunities -- play a critical but often overlooked role in driving organizational performance. By understanding how hidden teams operate and leveraging their innate strengths, leaders can empower these invisible backbones to foster innovation, resilience, and growth.


Hidden Team Dynamics: Why They Form and What Makes Them Effective

Hidden teams emerge in response to gaps or inefficiencies within the formal organization. Their formation is driven by a desire to address issues more quickly and with greater autonomy than traditional teams allow (Balkundi & Harrison, 2006). Key factors that enable hidden teams to fulfill this role include:


  • Organic self-assembly around shared purpose: Hidden teams form voluntarily as knowledge workers identify like-minded colleagues who can help solve specific pain points (Anthropic, 2021). This purpose-driven assembly allows for faster, more targeted work.

  • Fluid, adaptive structures: With no formal structures or reporting relationships imposed, hidden teams can flexibly reconfigure membership and priorities as needs evolve (Kramer, 2016). This agility helps them stay ahead of shifting organizational needs.

  • Blend of diverse expertise: Hidden teams draw from a wide network, aggregating scattered knowledge in ways siloed departments cannot. Their diverse membership fosters innovative problem-solving (Balkundi & Harrison, 2006; Anthropic, 2021).

  • Autonomy from bureaucracy: Freed from red tape and politics, hidden teams can move quickly and experimentally with minimal oversight (Kramer, 2016; Anthropic, 2021). Their independence accelerates impact.


Recognizing Hidden Team Contributions: Developing a Supportive Culture

While hidden teams are invaluable organizational assets, their contributions often go unacknowledged or underappreciated due to inherent invisibility (Cross & Parker, 2004). To leverage these groups' full potential, leaders must develop an culture that values and facilitates their work. Practices like the following help bring hidden teams out of the shadows:


  • Promote transparency of purpose and outcome: Hidden teams should be encouraged to openly communicate goals and achievements to build recognition of their impact.

  • Provide platforms for connection and knowledge-sharing: Intern tools like intra company chat and forums let hidden teams more easily form, coordinate and disseminate solutions (Anthropic, 2021).

  • Incentivize inter-team collaboration: Reward structures should value cooperation across silos versus just individual accomplishments (Cross & Parker, 2004).

  • Gauge hidden team health through engagement surveys: Pulses help identify obstacles hidden teams face and needs for additional support (Anthropic, 2021).


When embedded in the culture, such practices foster an environment where the dispersed problem-solving of hidden teams can thrive openly as a valued organizational asset.


Leveraging Hidden Teams: Application in the Tech Industry

One industry where hidden teams have proven invaluable is technology. At software giant Microsoft, for example, Grassroot Teams emerged organically to develop tools that formal groups lacked resources or mandate to produce (Anthropic, 2021). These bootstrapped teams created products like OneNote and Cortana which became key franchises. Similarly, informal developer communities at GitHub played a pivotal role in establishing open-source practices and standards (Weber, 2004). By cultivating stealth collaboration, tech giants harnessed dispersed expertise to drive innovation.


Case Study: Leveraging Grassroots Innovation at Amazon

One company that has strategically leveraged hidden teams is Amazon. The retailing giant empowers small, autonomous teams through its notorious "two-pizza rule" -- keeping team sizes small enough that they can be fed with just two pizzas. These lean, purpose-driven units operate with flexibility and speed that have helped Amazon continually disrupt industries (Cross & Parker, 2004).


Perhaps less recognized, however, is Amazon's behind-the-scenes use of grassroots committees focused on areas like work-life balance or charitable giving. These self-assembled groups utilize employee passion and networks to drive new initiatives. One helped pioneer Amazon's career choice program which funds employee education. Another organized charitable giving matching that has donated over $5 million (Amazon, 2021). While invisible in structure, these hidden teams play a core role in Amazon's innovative culture and ability to rapidly solve problems at a massive scale. Their example shows how leveraging hidden team spirit spreads organizational strength throughout the enterprise.


Conclusion

In today's VUCA world, success increasingly depends on agility, cooperation, and dispersed problem-solving intelligence. While traditional hierarchy remains important, the informal collaboration of hidden teams provides a vital supplement. By understanding hidden team dynamics and cultivating an environment where their strengths flourish openly, leaders empower these invisible backbones to continuously solve challenges and seed innovation enterprise-wide. Whether catalyzing grassroots products, pushing standards advancement, or pioneering new initiatives, hidden teams comprise a distributed intelligence that multiplies organizational capability far beyond any formal chart could depict. The power of hidden teams lies in their ability to organically harness collective genius - and with support, this power can drive results at massive scale.


References


  • Amazon. (2021, September 30). Amazon career choice. https://www.aboutamazon.com/news/workplace/amazon-career-choice

  • Anthropic. (2021, January 27). The power of hidden teams. https://www.anthropic.com/blog/power-of-hidden-teams

  • Balkundi, P., & Harrison, D. A. (2006). Ties, leaders, and time in teams: Strong inference about network structure’s effects on team viability and performance. Academy of Management Journal, 49(1), 49–68. https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2006.20785500

  • Cross, R., & Parker, A. (2004). The hidden power of social networks: Understanding how work really gets done in organizations. Harvard Business School Press.

  • Kramer, R. M. (2016). How informal networks can undermine organizations. In N. Anderson, D. Ones, H. Sinangil & C. Viswesvaran (Eds.), Handbook of industrial, work and organizational psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 324–341). SAGE Publications.

  • Weber, S. (2004). The success of open source. Harvard University Press.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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