This is the second in a series of short articles I am writing to assist leaders create and sustain high performing teams. Whether you are a CEO or a Project Team Leader, creating and maintaining a great team is a constant challenge. These articles are designed to help.
How do you create and sustain a high-performing team?
The late J. Richard Hackman, Harvard professor and leading expert on successful teams, spent a 40-year career exploring this question. His seminal work, Leading Teams – Setting the Stage for Great Performances (2002), followed by his and colleagues’ Senior Leadership Teams – What it takes to make them great (2008), developed the team performance model that I’ll present here.
Hackman did not discover the perfect recipe for success. When interviewed for the Harvard Business Review, Hackman commented that despite the widespread assumption that teams are the best way to get things done, his research revealed just how bad people often were at teamwork. His remarks showed that, most of the time, team members didn’t even agree on what the team was supposed to be doing, and that as a result team leaders had to take great personal and professional risks in setting the team’s direction. But, Hackman said, “Even the best leader on the planet can’t make a team do well”. He suggested that all anyone can do is increase the likelihood of success by putting into place appropriate enabling conditions. Again, as Hackman said, “I have no question that a team can generate magic. But don’t count on it”.
An important discovery from Hackman’s research and that of his colleagues was the insight that collaboration in teams was less reliant on the personalities and attitudes of team members than on five enabling conditions. He noted:
“the likelihood of effectiveness is increased when a team (1) is a real team rather than a team in name only, (2) has a compelling direction for its work, (3) has an enabling structure that facilitates rather than impedes teamwork, (4) operates within a supportive organizational context, and (5) has available ample expert coaching in teamwork”. (Leading Teams pg. 31)
Hackman later added an additional condition to his model – having the right people on the team.
In their Senior Leadership Teams volume, Hackman and his colleagues classified three of these conditions as essential to creating effective teams, and the further three acting as “enablers” – enabling the team to take advantage of the solid foundation provided by the “essentials”.
Hackman’s research suggests if the essential conditions are not in place, the odds are slim that the team will do a good job. The essentials are:
- Having a real team, rather than a team in name only.
- Providing the team with a clear and compelling purpose.
- Ensuring the team has the right people – members who have the knowledge, skill and experience required for the team’s work.
A real team
Calling a group of people a team does not make it a real team. For a team to be real, everyone on that team needs to know everyone else in the team. Hackman said that it might seem silly that he would say, “If you’re going to lead a team, you ought to first make sure that you know who’s on it” but referenced the work for the Senior Leadership Teams volume where he and his colleagues studied more than 120 top management teams around the world. They found that almost every team said it had set unambiguous boundaries on membership, yet when members were asked to describe their team, less than 10% agreed about who was on it.
A real team also needs to be stable, with members together for sufficient time to learn how to work together. And of course, in a real team, members work collaboratively towards achieving the team’s goals.
A compelling purpose
Every successful team needs a clear purpose – its reason for being – and that purpose should be compelling and consequential. Team members simply cannot be inspired if they don’t know what they are working toward and don’t have clear goals. Plus, the goals should be challenging, and, critically, their achievement of consequence to the team’s members. In other words, members must have a reason to care.
The right people
Teams must have the right number of people with the right mix of technical and social skills to complete the job. While every member cannot possess superlative technical and social skills, the team itself needs an appropriate balance of both. Diversity in knowledge and perspectives help teams to be more creative, however adding people to a team comes with added costs in terms of managing co-ordination and communication.
Hackman’s research indicates that by putting these three essential conditions in place, the team has a solid foundation for carrying out its work. Conversely, without them, there is a risk of team dysfunction, conflict, and uncertainty.
In addition to the three essential conditions, three enabling conditions allow the successful team to take advantage of the solid foundation provided by the essentials. These enabling conditions are:
- A solid team structure.
- A supportive organisational context.
- Competent team coaching.
A solid team structure
Teams need to have a sound structure. That is, they need to have clear task design, be the right size to perform its tasks, and have clear guidelines, or norms, that govern how their members work together.
- Being clear about the team’s tasks is critical for it to function effectively. Clear task design fleshes out the team’s purpose in a way that enables the team and, importantly, its clients to understand exactly why the team exists. It allows team members to use their judgement and experience to best deliver the desired outcomes.
- Having the right number of people in the team is also important – if it is too small you won’t get the work done, while if it’s too big, effective coordination and execution becomes an issue.
- Ensuring that everyone on the team understands the “non-negotiable” behaviours for working together is a core requirement for effective team performance. Clear ground rules for how members are expected to work together helps create a collaborative and effective team culture.
A supportive organisational context
Teams do not exist in a vacuum. They are part of an organisational system that will inevitably influence its ability to perform. Hackman’s research revealed that the best organisations recognise and reward the team’s performance – and not just the performance of individuals. The best organisations ensure the team has access to the information, learning tools and physical resources it needs to do its work.
A big part of a leader’s role is to navigate the system to ensure the team is supported in the way it needs to be successful.
Competent team coaching
The final condition identified by the Hackman research to enable a team to perform effectively is the sixth condition, the availability of sound team coaching. It was noted that when the other 5 conditions were in place, effective coaching can significantly improve the performance of the entire team. This coaching can come from the leader, other team members, or an external coach, and the research highlighted that the keys were that coaching was available when needed, was mostly focused on improving team processes (as opposed to managing differences between team members), and offered at appropriate junctures.
Research on the 6 Conditions Model suggests that the 6 conditions account for up to 80% of team effectiveness. For those interested in exploring how your team rates, the Team Diagnostic Survey, developed by Hackman, Ruth Wageman and their colleagues at Harvard University, will provide useful insights into what the team is doing well – and how you might improve. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss this further.
Enjoy your week.