In 2013, Bill Drayton published an SSIR article called “A Team of Teams World.” Drayton, the founder and current chair of Ashoka, painted a picture of an emerging future in which shifts in how people work will have a profound effect on how organizations operate. “We are moving rapidly into a world defined by change, which is the opposite of repetition, … ” he wrote. “Value in this world comes not from providing the same thing over and over to a client, but from managing kaleidoscopic change processes that are busily bumping one another. Because one now needs to see and seize ever-changing opportunities, the new organizational model must be a fluid, open team of teams.”

In our research, we investigate the elements of performance that enable certain nonprofits to achieve outsized impact. As we noted in a recent article, three of those elements—the ones in which nonprofits are most likely to struggle—are board governance, funding, and impact evaluation. Another crucial element involves organization and talent. In studying this element, we learned that the team-of-teams model is emerging as a critical factor in organizational success. In the coming years, we believe, it will become a standard throughout the social sector.

Exploring the model

The team-of-teams model emphasizes decentralized autonomy, meritocracy, and a sense of partnership. Instead of maintaining a traditional structure in which people work in hierarchies based on a function or a formal business unit, an organization operates as a constellation of teams that come together around specific goals. At the center of this constellation is a coordinating executive team, but the composition of each project team shifts over time. Teams and team members work together in continuously evolving ways.

For many decades, almost every organization had one of two basic structures. Most organizations—for-profit as well as nonprofit—were structured functionally, with employees arrayed into departments that dealt with finance, sales and marketing, human resources, and so on. In the 1960s and 1970s, the business unit structure began to replace or complement the traditional functional structure. This new model reflected the way that organizations were diversifying into multiple lines of business and into multiple geographic regions. Organizations with this structure include General Electric, in the private sector, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, in the nonprofit sector.

In the 1980s, organizations began experimenting with either a matrix structure or a network structure. Models of this kind sought to address a persistent challenge: Any important decision requires inputs from parts of an organization that extend beyond a single function or a single business unit. Unfortunately, most organizations lack the ability to make a network-based structure work effectively. There is still a lot of talk about network organizations, but we rarely see one that is working in practice.

Fortunately, the recent rise of technology has paved the way for the new and more-effective model called team of teams. Until society had various forms of digital communication technology such as email, text messaging, and knowledge management software, we didn’t have the architecture to support a team-of-teams model.

This is where Drayton’s vision comes into play: It shows organizations how they can achieve the previously unfulfilled promise of a network structure. The emergence of technologies that facilitate dynamic, real-time collaboration makes it possible to overcome the limitations of organizing work around functions or business units. Today, any organization that operates on a large scale or with a high degree of complexity must consider adopting some version of the teams-of-teams model.

The team-of-teams model is more fluid and dynamic than other models. Any network model has dimensions that are clearly defined in terms of who’s included and who’s not included. Team of teams is more fluid and will enable stakeholders to engage people who are not part of their network. The beauty of team of teams is that it works within a network, outside a network, and across a network.

At Ashoka, Drayton and his colleagues have redesigned the entire organization to accommodate the needs and opportunities of a “team-of-teams world.” At Ashoka, teams actually extend beyond the boundaries of the organization. “We also include those who were previously involved with Ashoka but have gone on to do other things,” Wells said. “People leave and come back and still feel part of the family and network. This is highly valuable.”

Adoption of the model at Ashoka has also led to a radical shift in hiring practices. Instead of hiring for specific positions, Ashoka focuses on how well potential employees fit with its value system and culture. Hiring managers choose employees for characteristics such as entrepreneurial quality, belief in Ashoka’s “everyone a changemaker” vision, and social and emotional intelligence.

Meritocracy is central to Ashoka’s implementation of the team-of-teams model. “We base promotions on how much change making happens based on somebody’s contributions, and it does not correlate to age or education. So titles aren’t ‘director’ but ‘senior change leader,’ ‘senior change manager,’ ‘entrepreneur,’ ‘intrapreneur.’ It’s not a promotion after two or three years, it is when they are ready,” said Diana Wells, president of Ashoka.

Applying the model

In short, Ashoka leaders’ commitment to the team-of-teams model runs deep. Yet, as we have discovered in our research, the power the model manifests itself even when an organization applies it selectively.

Consider Pratham, an education nonprofit in India. Pratham has adopted elements of the model to implement an important annual project. Every year since 2005, Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) Centre has conducted a survey that provides reliable estimates of children’s learning outcomes in every state and rural district of India. ASER surveys 600,000 children each year in 300,000 sampled households. Collecting this data is no easy task, and that’s where Pratham’s variation on the team-of-teams model comes into play. The ASER Centre, based in New Delhi, functions as a core team that oversees teams of volunteers—30,000 volunteers per year—who go from village to village to assess the reading and arithmetic skills of children across the country.

One set of volunteers includes Pratham staff members who work in other parts of the organization. By tapping employees for the ASER project, Pratham is able to build organizational capacity “with respect to the nuts and bolts of measurement, evidence, and analysis,” said Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham. “The first year, we recruited volunteers from different parts of Pratham. In the second year, we noticed that those units sent different people from the year before. We realized that a time-based project like ASER teaches people a lot in a very short time. No wonder we got a new set of people to train in the second year.”

Volunteers also come from more than 2,000 organizations that have partnered with ASER—organizations that include universities and colleges, NGOs, self-help groups, youth clubs, government departments, and private-sector companies. The ASER Centre manages relationships with partner organizations, and volunteers from those groups travel across the country to conduct the survey. “Over time, the survey has evolved into a ‘See India’ program that appeals to a sense of adventure in the volunteers,” Banerji said. “ASER takes surveyors to far-off villages that they otherwise would never go to. In fact, the harder it is to get to a village, the more excited our volunteers are about it!”

The ASER Centre practices quality control through a framework that resembles the way a core team operates in a team-of-teams structure. The framework consists of three parts: training, monitoring, and “recheck.” During a two- or three-day training session, volunteers learn about basic sampling, survey methodology, and statistics. Monitoring is equally sophisticated. While volunteers conduct the survey, ASER master trainers review their work, and in turn the master trainers’ work is monitored through call centers. Finally, ASER rechecks data through multiple processes, including a field recheck and an external process audit.

This approach to adapting the team-of-teams model is so effective that Pratham has applied it to other, similar initiatives. In 2011, the organization conducted a survey called PAHELI (People’s Assessment of Health, Education, and Livelihoods). The PAHELI initiative, which drew support from the United Nations and the government of India, measured various critical indicators of human development, and its reach extended to seven Indian states.

Along with facilitating large-scale survey efforts, adoption of the team-of-teams model has helped Pratham build organizational capacity. “ASER is an excellent short boot camp in which you either perform well or perish,” Banerji said. “The survey is run like a course in which participants acquire skills that are applicable in other parts of Pratham as well. In fact, the skill acquisition is so strong that … within Pratham the next generation of leaders often come from ASER.”