You Can’t Make a Team Great. But You Can Help It Become Great

All that is necessary for effectiveness is output judged acceptable by those who receive or use it, a team that winds up its work at least as capable as when it started, and members who are at least as satisfied as they are frustrated by what has transpired. The challenge is to generate ways of understanding, designing, and managing teams that help them meet or exceed these modest criteria.” Excerpt from: J. Richard Hackman, Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances (2002). 

So, with the knowledge of what an effective team is, I’d need to address the next big challenge: how can you create the environment – ways to understand, design, manage teams – that sets the stage for high performance?

This will be the topic of this post. I’ll go briefly through the conditions for effectiveness and how you can use them to push for your team’s growth.

The five conditions of team effectiveness

We know what a great team is, but what did the team do to get there? Are they great thanks to an incredible leader? Or the people in the team really click and jell well together? The general accepted theory is that the leader makes or break a great team.

The management literature is only focused on identifying the “right” leadership, leaving aside some obligatory conditions that need to be fulfilled for team greatness.

No “right” leadership can make a team great, but what the leaders can do is to create and support the five enabling conditions that smooth a team’s path towards effectiveness:

  1. Create a real team (not only a team in name)
  2. Specify a compelling direction or purpose for the team
  3. Create an enabling structure that facilitates, not impedes, teamwork
  4. Provide a supportive organisational context
  5. Make competent team-focused coaching available to the team

Conditions (1) real team, (2) compelling direction, and (3) enabling structure refer to building good basic organisational design; conditions (4) organisational context and (5) expert coaching are core conditions for effectiveness.

I will briefly describe each condition below; I will continue with separate posts for each team effectiveness condition, where I dive deep into practical applications.

1. A real team

Before getting into the characteristic of a real team, the first question you need to answer is: do I need a team? Is a different way of collaboration better for the scope of your work? Find out when to use a team and when not in my previous post.

Assuming the scope of works requires a team, what are the attributes of a real team? Hackman and his team identified four conditions for a team to be considered “real“:

1. The team is working on a interdependent  tasks

A real team has to have a team task, on which they work interdependently, they need to produce something together and be accountable for the result of their work together. At the same time, the success of this task has to be assessable.

2. Clear boundaries that distinguishes members from non-members

The members of the team need to know clearly who is part of the team, who shares responsibility / accountability for the product they deliver, and who can help out in various ways, without being a team member.

The team needs to be jelled as a performing unit; members should develop their specialised roles, share norms of conduct that characterises real work teams. They also need to develop collective momentum that will enable the generation of high-quality products.

3. Delimited collective authority for the product of their work

So you have clarity about the team task, you know who’s in the team, now you need to decide on the team’s authority. This has to be explicitly done, before the team starts working, otherwise team members will do it implicitly, so they can either become excessively timid in making decisions or overstep the actual bounds of their authority.

4. Moderate membership stability over a reasonable period of time

There is a well engrained myth when it comes to team performance that a team needs to “refresh” its membership after a certain period of time, as members stop growing.

Research is unanimous on breaking this myth: Teams with stable membership perform better than those that constantly have to deal with the arrival of new members and the departure of old ones. The evidence documenting the validity of that assertion is, as I read it, incontrovertible.” Excerpt from Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances (2002).

Reasonably stable teams perform better. Over time they develop familiarity with one another, so no more time is wasted in getting oriented with new coworkers; they create a shared mental model of the performance situation and a shared pool of knowledge, accessible to all; they learn how to leverage the members’ strengths and how to deal with the less skilled members to get the best results;  gradually, they are likely to build share commitment to the team and care for one another.

The most important thing is that work teams develop their own, idiosyncratic ways, and there is no action a leader can take to re-create the benefits of a permanent team.

2. Compelling direction

A team can not be effective if they don’t have a direction, or a purpose to work towards. Hackman is adamant in the idea that direction has to be set by an authority. And that’s not an issue with self-managed teams.

Even if direction is done through collaboration with the team, discussed, tested, revised, at some point someone has to clearly designate the mountain to be climbed.

The direction of the team can be set by the team leader, a manager outside the team, or the team itself (for self-governing groups). The point of the second condition of effectiveness is that you have to identify who has this authority and make sure they set the direction for the team competently, convincingly, and without apology.

This is an essential condition for the team to be efficient. A good direction energizes the team; it orients the team so they can choose the best ways to proceed to reach their goals; it engages the team members’ talents, pushing them to pursue a collective purpose with each individual giving their best.

But for direction to be good, it has to be: challenging (to generate strong collective motivation), clear (to orient the team towards their common purpose), and consequential (to engage the talents of the team members).

3. Enabling structure

In a traditional organisation, it’s very hard (if not impossible) to have freedom to decide the structure of the team, but if you want to create collective motivation, you need to design work for teams that are substantial.

Here are some guidelines for teamwork-structure:

  • Teams should work on tasks that are large and significant. No one individual could build Google, but a team did
  • Ideally the team structures the work. This will almost always bring significant increases in the meaningfulness of the work. If that is not possible, they need to be involved in the structuring of the work
  • Make sure the team is small as it reasonably can be, to avoid social loafing, individuals slacking off as they count of the other team members to do the work. An ideal team size according to Hackman is 6. In Agile environments, 7 +/- 2 is recommended, and recently I read about 5 +/- 2
  • Collective motivation is fostered by self-managed teams. I wrote about the benefit of self-managed teams here
  • Give the team feedback as often as possible, as this is the basis of learning.  The feedback should be given to the team as a whole, not just to individuals
  • The team needs a team coach to help them work through their anti-learning temptations that accompany both successful and failing performances

“… if the team received regular feedback about how the team is doing AND the team is well coached, then that team is almost certain to evolve into a self-correcting performing unit, one whose every experience may come to be viewed by members as an occasion for continuous improvement.” Excerpt from Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances (2002).

Also part of the team structure, the team has to create norms of conduct that decide what behaviour is acceptable, as judged by the team, and what not. The acceptable behaviour is reinforced, while the unacceptable one is sanctioned.

4. Supportive context

A real team (1), a compelling direction (2), and an enabling structure (3) are the basis for competent teamwork, but the team, functions in an organisation. The organisational context, as well as coaching, can make it much easier for the team to use these in its advantage or can impede these advantages to happen.

As Hackman puts it, if the well-designed team represents the seeds, the organisational context is the soil where they are planted, the nutrients needed for it to grow.

There are three organisational systems that are critical for team effectiveness:

1. The reward system

This is probably the biggest issues in most organisation: the reward system is meant to reward individuals, not team. If you want to have great teams, you should provide recognition and reinforcement contingent on excellent team performance.

Recognition for good team performance encourages members to think of “us“, not of “me” and it’s essential to sustain collective motivation. For these rewards to be effective, the team must understand what is wanted and rewarded; they need indicators of the degree to which the outcomes were achieved; they need to leverage the accomplishing of their objectives.

In the end, you have to make sure you must find ways to connect team behaviours with team outcomes, and provide rewards related to these outcomes to the entire team, not to selected individuals.

The worst thing you can do is to put the team members in competition with one another and reward them for their individual results. This way, you manage to have everyone focusing on their own achievement, not on the collective task.

2. The information system

Organisations should provide teams with all the data they need to competently plan and execute their work. The teams should not ask for this data, the management is obligated to make sure the team has anything they need to deliver the best results they are capable of.

3. The educational system

The educational system of the organisation should make training and support available to the teams for any aspect of the work the team members are not sufficiently skilled or knowledgeable in.

Outside help and expertise can push the teams to transcend the limits of the members’ expertise so make sure the team has access to these resources.

5. Expert coaching

The last condition for a team to become effective is expert team-focused coaching.

What is team coaching?

Coaching a team is about group processes, a team coach will help the members of a team to use their collective resources well to accomplish the collective task. Examples: (1) lead a launch meeting before work begins, (2) provide team members feedback about their problem analysis process, (3) asking a team reflective questions about why they made a decision. The purpose of the interventions is to raise the team engagement and orient them with their tasks (1), help the team increase the quality of their analytic work (2), or help the team make better use of their knowledge and experience (3).

Coaches can’t do magic though. No coach can transform a team if the first three team effectiveness conditions are not fulfilled.

Hackman also says that when the coaching happens is just as important as the intervention itself. Let’s consider a basketball game. What’s the coach’s strategy in any of these points of the game:

  • What message does the coach give the team at the beginning of the game?
  • How about the middle of the game?
  • What is the coaching transmitting to the team at the end of the game?

These are the coaching interventions proposed by Hackman at different moments in the team’s life-cycle:

1. When the team starts work on a product

There are a lot of things a team needs to do when they come together for the first time: establish boundaries (who’s in the team, who isn’t), decide on members’ roles, create behavioural norms of conduct, engaging with the group’s product (examine, assess, redefine the team objective to become a task they can actually work on).

These discussions lead to decisions that set the track for the team, on which they will stay for a considerable period of time.

As a coach, you need to have the team have a good launch, increasing the chances the track they choose will be one that will push for team performance, motivation, and commitment. If the launch is successful, the team becomes a real, bounded social system, from just some names on a list.

According to Hackman, the team shouldn’t focus on the approach they will have to reach their objective. Research showed that teams that did it were less effective than the ones that focused on the above – a successful launch, getting the team bounded and creating collective engagement. So you should not consider the “how” in your preliminary interventions.

2. Midpoint through the delivery of the product

As mentioned, Hackman considers that strategy discussions are an unnatural act when a team is just starting to work in that format. Members have to log in some actual experience, to work on the task together before they can have a discussion on what’s the best approach to go about their task.

And that’s why the midpoint is a good opportunity for coaching interventions that invite the team to reflect on their performance strategy. At midpoint the team is experiencing an upheaval in how members related to one another and to their work, making it the perfect timing for strategy improvement discussions.

Even gentle interventions, such as reflecting on their work so far and looking into ways to work better can be of considerable value in strengthening a team and increase alignment of its performance strategies with the requirements of constantly changing products.

3. End of delivery of the product

Post-delivery is a really good time for helping members capture and internalize the lessons that can be learned from their work. It’s the perfect time for a project retrospective and learning.

But getting the team to look into their performance and discuss how they got there is only the first step into helping the team develop its knowledge and skills.

The next and harder step is getting the explanations aligned with reality, according to Hackman. Even in sessions completely dedicated to learning from their experiences – retrospectives – a team will need assistance to analyse and address the aspects that influences their performance (its own structure, organisational context). This is why a good coach can bring tremendous value in helping the team figure them out.

What happens all the other times?

The coach will do smaller and more specific interventions the rest of the time, between beginning – midpoint – end, to help the team exploit their full potential.

Powerful interventions can be: reinforce competent team behaviours that occur spontaneously (opposite to coaching interventions at beginning, midpoint and end, that are meant to create team behaviours that don’t usually occur spontaneously); coaches can also keep an eye on excellent team processes and reinforce them when they occur (simple gestures like compliments, or modest gifts like movie tickets, or gift certificates show appreciation for this behaviour and make it more likely to happen again).

What if there is no defined beginning, middle, and end?

Hackman doesn’t consider it a problem, as we humans have the tendency to create time boundaries where they don’t exist; e.g. we work with sprints, we have quarterly goals, we have estimated delivery dates, etc.

How you can use the conditions for team effectiveness

The conditions of team effectiveness are a good diagnosis tool, either to push team effectiveness, or to analyse why certain teams don’t perform at the level they are supposed to.

Before making any decision for the team, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you have a real team?
    • Is the team task interdependent?
    • Is it clear who’s part of the team and who’s not? Is it clear whom you can go to for help outside of the team?
    • To what extent can the team make decisions? Do they have collective accountability for the product of their work?
    • Is the membership stable or will the team be dismantled when they deliver?
  • Does the team have a clear direction or purpose?
    • Is the direction challenging, clear, and consequential?
  • Is the team design fostering collective motivation?
    • Are the tasks large or significant?
    • Is the team structuring their own work or is it designed for them? If not, are they involved in structuring their work?
    • Is the team too big? Is there space for the individuals to slack off?
    • Does the team get proper feedback on its performance? Is feedback given to the team or to individuals? Is the feedback clear and specific?
  • Is the organisational context supportive of increasing team performance?
    • Is your reward system focused on individual or team? Do you reward performance for the team as a whole or focus only on individuals? When you reward the performance of individuals, do you reward behaviours supportive of team effectiveness?
    • Does the team have all the data and information they need to perform their task to the highest of their abilities?
    • Does the team have access to training (internal or external) to cover gaps in knowledge and skills?
  • Does the team have access to expert team coaching?
    • Is the coaching intervention done timely?
    • Is the coaching intervention focused on the conditions of team effectiveness or the individual behaviour of individuals?
    • Is the behaviour supportive of high performance rewarded?

The answers to these questions, combined with figuring out if you actually need a team to deliver the task and the review of the team effectiveness criteria should give you enough tools to set the stage for incredible performance for your teams.

Conclusion

A genius leader can not turn around a team for which the conditions of team effectiveness were not met:

If a team is poorly composed, has an ambiguous or unimportant purpose, and operates in an organisation that discourages rather than supports teamwork, there is no way that a leader’s hands-on interventions with that team can turn things around.” – Excerpt from J. Richard Hackman. “Collaborative Intelligence: Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems.

Contrary to the very popular opinion of management literature out there, it’s not leadership that makes a great team. The best thing a leader can do for a team is to make sure all of the above conditions are in place.

This post is based on the conclusions presented by Harvard Professor Richard Hackman, a world-leader researcher in group performance, leadership effectiveness and self-managed teams. His signature books are Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances (2002) and Collaborative Intelligence: Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems (2011).

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