Jun 262016

Essential Features Of A Real Team

Leading Teams Hackman









Early in the book author J. Richard Hackman, who is a scholarly expert on teams and managing them and a Harvard professor, writes about his own membership experience with teams and how he will never be on a specific one again himself.

The book is written on the basis of scientific research, including situational observations, and whilst including anecdotes and stories is backed by methodical study.

At the book’s end the author marvels that not even the best team leader can make a team effective. So why write this book? It is to say that the leader creates the conditions and the probability of success tilts to the favourable.


Conditions And Not Cause And Effect


The book begins by banishing several myths whose persistence has rendered them accepted wisdom.

  • Teams whose members work harmoniously perform better than those which experience conflict
  • A primary “cause” of team dynamics is the behavioural attributes of its leader – note the emphasis on ‘cause’ as causality is refuted soon enough in the book.
  • Larger teams perform better than smaller ones due to more resources
  • The performance of teams whose membership is constant deteriorates overtime as members lose attentiveness and forgive oversights and errors.

Each of these conventional wisdoms is wrong. Does the author have your attention?

Leading Teams Setting The Stage For Great Performances begins by distinguishing between two management philosophies:

  • Minimizing risk by reducing or eliminating self-management and scripting
  • Opening up to risk in order to exploit the benefits of self-management to do more for the customers and the creativity therein

The first option comes with opportunity costs such as underutility of team members’ intelligence, initiative and other obvious losses.

The second options may lead to excess creativity and the relegation of the customer as a priority

This book asserts that effective leadership does both: “threading carefully between the poles of creativity and control.”

In that instance impressive teams with impressive leaders:

  • Serve customers well
  • Are capable performing units that get better
  • Are comprised of individuals who learn and are fulfilled

The criteria for team effectiveness, however, changes depending on the situation and with it also changes the relative weight one assigns to these factors


Conditions And Not Cause And Effect


The book lists the 5 conditions a leader puts together in order to increase the chances for the above three instances:

  1. A real team is not in name only
  2. A compelling direction
  3. An enabling structure that facilitates work and does not hinder
  4. A supportive organizational culture and context
  5. Available and ample expert coaching

The book is insistent regarding environment and contextual causes and shuns the standard cause and effect correlation; however, a leader enabling the above conditions and triggering the right moves itself is a cause and effect, right?

In the chapter on A Real Team the author almost throws a thought grenade insisting that thinking has to be regarded to teams and away from individuals (be they leaders, best salespersons, etc.). Reorienting to group level thinking is unconventional, but makes sense within the context of the book’s message. A well setup team functions well and there is less emphasis on individuals. The message is reminiscent of the lesson offered in the recently reviewed book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. Set the scene, fix the environment and even below par individuals perform better in above par groups.

In the same chapter the four features of real teams are itemized:

  • A team task exists
  • Clear boundaries exist
  • Clearly specified authority for members to perform is defined (Which suggests inclusion of executable work, monitoring and managing the work process, designing units and arranging for organizational support and of course setting direction and objectives) and
  • Membership stability over period of time is a given

Under providing team (page 63) with a Compelling Direction the author discusses a compelling script, invitation by the leader, a consultation to start to get the direction right and then the abandonment of concepts like “empower” and “consensus.” There are shades of Daniel Pink here.

Page 72 lists the Functions And Benefits Of Good Direction in a table.


Page 73 elucidates Setting Direction about Means versus Ends in a table

Table 3-2

It is counterintuitive but a nuclear power plant for instance requires the type of work that is in the upper right-hand quadrant.

Overall though a direction has to be challenging and achievable.

Bottom-line key to success: lead others compellingly and paint a picture of the end-state.


Conditions And Not Cause And Effect


Under Enabling Structure, which the authors arguably place the most emphasis, the obvious ask is for the leader to create a good basis so the team does not have to create one on its own.

The three structural features for effective teamwork are on page 98 and involve dividing up tasks and coordinating subtasks, but also changing task masters in order to give all a taste of the entirety of the concept.

In terms of how much autonomy to grant there is an interesting example on page 101. The writer takes the example of a worker whose work takes place during the midnight shift. These workers have the most autonomy in how to complete their task and take on the most responsibility. Yet, and by nature, risk is introduced.

Part of offering the team an enabling structure is getting the number of members right. Here research demonstrates the number to be 4.6. In terms of mix, another myth shattered is that homogenous team are at a disadvantage. Research suggests that there is little evidence they perform better and moreover are not liable to learn as much as heterogeneous ones. Salesforce.com, for example, is one company whose hiring practice emphasizes a mix of different people and skillsets.

If a member does not play well with others, the options are to isolate the person (wasteful) or to go ahead and put them in the middle of the team (dangerous) or the best alternative is to harvest the skills of this contributor and actively help the person integrate and working around the issues.

In Chapter five the author pays attention to motivation. Intrinsic and extrinsic ones and rewards are addictive and not mutually exclusive. So getting paid a salary or a bonus, for example, add to pleasure if one already has joy.

On a personal note, being a manager several years ago I proposed that a component of my sales team’s bonus/variable come from a shared team achievement number. The idea was to promote teamwork and make everyone on the team stakeholders in the others’ success. The idea was accepted and implemented beginning with the subsequent quarter’s payout. The corporation standardized again back out of my proposal a year later, but while in place seeing the team enjoy the fruits of each other’s labours and working together was something beautiful.

What does Leading Teams suggest are the three aspects of team effectiveness:

  1. Effort
  2. Performance Strategies
  3. Level of knowledge and skill applied

Different coachings should be aligned to the above. This coaching reduces free riding and is motivational, educational and consultative.

Coaching intervention is typically at the beginning, midpoint and endpoints (review time), but the author reinforces the notion that good behaviour should be reinforced at any time.

What coaching is not is to focus on interpersonal relationships. Again going against the grain, the author does not believe harmonious relationships are that important. In fact, the opposite is true, read this twice, good performance leads to good relationships.

However, before good coaching can take place the aforementioned direction, structure and context need to be in place. By the way, good coaching is of significantly more help to well-designed teams than poorly designed ones. It is the same old story, isn’t it? The rich get richer and the poor poorer.

As already mentioned the book makes a forceful effort to refute causation and effect. That is why there is a discussion and endorsement of the concept of equifinality. That is, there are many different ways a person, team or organization can behave and still reach the same outcome. Reading this reminded this writer of the Led Zeppelin line, “Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run…”but I digress. It is interesting though that the concept means a leader has the opportunity to expand his leadership repertoire. As long as conditions are set correctly and tasks are related to the goal good things may happen.

As much as there are multiple ways to go about leadership, there are definitely several way to not go about things:

  • Misleading or lying: destroyed credibility and moral issues
  • Ape someone else’s style: embarrassing and ineffectual
  • Resisting data: sticking with one’s preferences in the face of facts and data

Best is to have one’s own style, tend to facts and vary behaviour to match


Table 7-1

Leading Teams is a book built on science and empirical study. This quote on page 227 speaks personally and in several ways to something I have observed and marvelled at working at corporate teams. Leadership requires courage, may engender resistance and will rock the organizational boat. Doing what is expected and managing by polling is not leadership.


Conditions And Not Cause And Effect


Page 140: “Rather than make posters or hold motivational meetings, managers would be better advised to find ways to more directly link team behaviour with team outcomes.” The best way that is done is by improving the design of the work’s team. How? Challenging work, autonomy to accomplish and feedback and coaching.

What this book is either missing or lacking by design is the many other factors involved in leading teams. There are the problems, unexpected surprises, personality and authority clashes and motivational systems. Those are left to other books and studies.

Set the conditions, tinker and adjust as you observe and gather data that a correction is required.