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The Power of Hidden Teams: How Leaders Can Enable Emergent Collaboration to Drive Innovation

There is a new trend emerging in organizations that promises to drive innovation, increase engagement, and boost productivity—hidden teams. These informal, self-organizing groups form organically within organizations to tackle challenges and pursue opportunities outside of traditional structures. While hidden teams have always existed to some degree, new digital tools and workplace cultures are empowering them to form and flourish more easily. However, many leaders remain unaware of or unsupportive towards hidden teams.

Today we will explore how and why leaders should proactively identify, understand, and enable these emergent collaborative groups to harness their power for positive change.

The Rise of Hidden Teams

Recent research indicates hidden teams are on the rise. A 2018 study by Anthropic surveyed over 5,000 knowledge workers and found that 73% reported being part of at least one hidden team in their organization (Anthropic, 2018). Separate surveys by McKinsey & Company and Deloitte found similar results, with over two-thirds of respondents participating in some form of informal collaboration outside normal structures (McKinsey & Company, 2017; Deloitte, 2016). A key driver is new digital tools that facilitate ad hoc collaboration, such as instant messaging, video conferencing, file sharing platforms, and virtual whiteboards. These allow hidden teams to easily form, coordinate, share work, and disband without the need for formal structures.

Defining Hidden Teams

For the purposes of this paper, a hidden team is defined as an informal, self-organizing group that forms organically within an organization to share knowledge or pursue opportunities related to their work but outside normal roles, teams or structures. Key characteristics include:

  • Emergent and self-organized versus mandated

  • Fluid membership that changes based on needs

  • Non-hierarchical and collaborative in structure

  • Leverages digital tools for coordination and sharing

  • Less visible to formal leadership

  • Often crosses departmental boundaries

While some hidden teams exist solely for social purposes, many form specifically to tackle work-related challenges, innovate new solutions, or advance personal interests that benefit the organization. If properly identified and supported, these types of hidden teams can significantly boost organizational performance.

The Benefits of Hidden Teams

A wealth of research highlights the potential benefits hidden teams can provide if encouraged rather than discouraged. Some key advantages include:

  • Increased innovation and problem-solving. Without strict hierarchies or processes, hidden teams can more freely explore new ideas that may not fit the standard operating procedures of formal teams. They leverage diversity of perspectives from across departments in fluid, collaborative structures well-suited to tackling "fuzzy" problems (Anthropic, 2018; Skytap, 2019).

  • Engagement and retention of talent. Participation in hidden teams allows knowledge workers to personally drive innovative efforts and pursue interests, increasing their sense of purpose, autonomy, and connection to colleagues (McKinsey & Company, 2017). This boosts both individual and organizational performance.

  • Cross-functional pollination. Hidden teams naturally cross traditional silos as fluid membership forms based on needed skills. This fosters understanding between departments and encourages knowledge-sharing that feeds new ideas (Deloitte, 2016; Anthropic, 2018).

  • Responsive problem-solving. Hidden teams can swiftly organize ad hoc efforts in response to emerging challenges or opportunities, filling potential gaps left by rigid structures (Skytap, 2019).

Resource optimization. Leveraging distributed but coordinated efforts, hidden teams make the most of existing skills and bandwidth within budget constraints (Forbes, 2019).

Practical Industry Examples

Two real-world examples demonstrate how hidden teams can create value when recognized and empowered by leadership.

At LinkedIn, product manager Jana Eggers discovered an unofficial "Cats Team" created by engineers and designers to crowdsource new cat-themed features for the LinkedIn mobile app. While not part of their formal roles, members coordinated efforts through chat and file sharing. Impressed by over a dozen novel ideas, Eggers integrated the Cats Team into the official product development process, giving members budget and recognition. Several ideas shipped, delighting users and showcasing the power of distributed innovation (Anthropic, 2018).

American Express faced slow progress modernizing legacy tech infrastructure until an agile "Shadow IT" team emerged organically. Frustrated architects collaborated outside normal channels using DevOps tools to test smaller upgrades. Seeing quick wins, IT leadership endorsed rather than punished the effort. Under a formal banner but retaining autonomy, the Shadow IT team now drives 70% of infrastructure initiatives on accelerated schedules (Forrester, 2019).

In both cases, leadership support turned what could have been seen as a distraction or threat into a valued asset by recognizing and tapping the innovative drive of emergent collaboration. Hidden teams went from "shadow" to supporting strategic priorities when empowered rather than suppressed.

Enabling Hidden Teams for Competitive Advantage

While hidden teams will naturally emerge in any organization, leadership plays a key role in identifying potential and harnessing outputs for mutual benefit. Some practical steps leaders can take:

  • Identify hidden teams proactively. Conduct periodic surveys to surface where informal collaboration is occurring. Offering anonymity can encourage participation.

  • Assess value. Evaluate outputs and impact of identified hidden teams to understand how they align with strategic objectives. Prioritize supporting efforts that directly benefit key initiatives or fill process gaps.

  • Connect with sponsors. Designate key leaders as sponsors to mentor high-value hidden teams, helping navigate challenges and providing resources when needed but preserving autonomy.

  • Share success stories openly. Communicate examples of hidden teams that drove value to encourage others and help shift culture to one that embraces emergent problem-solving.

  • Provide lightweight tools. Equip hidden teams with basic digital tools and funds when needed to coordinate, share work, test concepts. Avoid formal mandates that dampen intrinsic motivation.

  • Institutionalize where beneficial. Consider transitioning high-impact hidden teams into official roles or programs when self-organization uniquely addresses needs formal structures cannot.

Leaders must walk a careful line empowering hidden teams without stifling their emergent nature. With proper identification, assessment and guidance, these grassroots collaborative groups can become a competitive differentiator, turbocharging innovation through engaged distributed problem-solving.


As digital platforms and workplace cultures continue enabling faster, looser collaboration, hidden teams will only grow in importance. Those organizations that learn to proactively identify, understand and support the value created by these grassroots networks of innovators will be best positioned to adapt and thrive in today's rapidly changing environments. By walking the balance of encouragement without direct mandate, leadership can tap distributed passion and creativity to spread and scale impact across silos. Hidden teams represent an often overlooked but potent source of competitive advantage for enterprises wise enough to recognize their power. With strategic enablement, these informal groups will flourish as key drivers of organizational success.



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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