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Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances - The Five Keys to Successful Teams

Harvard professor J. Richard Hackman has studied the secrets of effective teams ranging from airplane cockpit crews to musical ensembles. He believes that corporate leaders can create better teamwork within their own organizations by adopting five key concepts. Read an excerpt from Hackman's new book, Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances. Plus: Q&A with the author.

In Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances, J. Richard Hackman lays out five conditions necessary for successful teamwork: The team must be a real team, rather than a team in name only; it has compelling direction for its work; it has an enabling structure that facilitates teamwork; it operates within a supportive organizational context; and it has expert teamwork coaching.

Hackman discusses the role of leadership in establishing and fostering teams in this e-mail interview with HBS Working Knowledge's Mallory Stark.

Stark: What can leaders do to foster the five conditions (see above) you say are critical for teamwork?

Hackman: The simple answer is that leaders should do anything they appropriately can to get the conditions in place—there is no "one right way" to do so. But beyond that simple answer is a second set of requirements that are not always easy to fulfill. Leaders who succeed in creating conditions for team effectiveness, one, need to know some things; two, need to know how to do some things; and three, need an above-average level of emotional maturity and political acumen.

J. Richard Hackman
J. Richard Hackman

Need to know some things. As I point out in my book, a great deal of conventional wisdom about what it takes to foster team effectiveness is, to put it bluntly, wrong. Most of us believe that "harmony helps performance," for example, or that "bigger is better," or that "teams need a constant flow-through of new members to stay fresh." Our research findings provide an alternative to conventional wisdom, one that views the leader's job as, first of all, getting those five conditions in place, and then doing whatever the leader can do to strengthen them and to help teams take good advantage of them.

This requires some depth of knowledge about what those conditions are and why they provide a solid platform for group development and performance.

Need to know how to do some things. There are real skills involved in creating the key conditions for effectiveness. For example, take "establish a compelling direction for the team." Creating this condition requires much more than merely writing out a vision statement and giving it to the team. Leaders often err either by giving teams too much direction (for example, telling them not only what they are to accomplish but all the details about how they are to go about accomplishing it) or too little (for example, giving merely a vague description of the team's purposes and leaving it to the team to "work out the details"). Setting good direction for a team means being authoritative and insistent about desired end states, but being equally insistent about not specifying how the team should go about achieving those end-states. This requires some skill and, unfortunately, it is not the kind of skill commonly taught in MBA classrooms or executive leadership programs. Similar skill requirements also hold for the other four conditions.

Emotional maturity and political acumen. One usually cannot establish the conditions for effectiveness on the leader's own schedule. Trying to force a condition when the time is not right almost never works. This means that leaders, like hungry lions, must lie in wait for the right time—and then, when it is right, pounce. To wait for the right time, especially when things seem to be getting worse rather than better, requires no small measure of emotional maturity.

Sometimes there is no prospect that organizational circumstances will become more amenable to creating the key conditions. In those circumstances, leaders must draw on their political skills—identifying the people or groups whose cooperation is needed to move forward, and then finding ways to get their interests aligned with the leader's own so that constructive change can begin. In the book, I give lots of examples of how leaders in various industries have done this while still maintaining their personal and professional integrity.

Q: Once managers have established the five conditions, what are the biggest challenges faced by most team leaders?

A: You are right that getting the conditions in place should be the first priority. After that, two challenges surface. The first challenge is to keep those conditions in place (and then, ideally, to strengthen them), which can be no small matter in organizations that traditionally have been designed and managed to support and control work performed by individuals rather than teams. Constant vigilance is needed to make sure that well-intentioned colleagues who are responsible for other functions, such as human resources, technology, or reward system experts, do not inadvertently compromise the key conditions as they seek to achieve the highest level of professionalism in their own areas.

Leaders, like hungry lions, must lie in wait for the right time—and then, when it is right, pounce.
— J. Richard Hackman

The second challenge for leaders is to help teams take the fullest possible advantage of their favorable performance circumstances. In Chapter 6 of the book, I discuss team coaching at some length, and how different coaching functions—such as building team motivation, consulting to the team about its work strategy, and helping members harvest and use the lessons learned from their collective work—are best done at different times in the team life cycle. Leaders can do a great deal to help teams exploit the positive potential of a well-designed structure and context.

Q: Where do most organizations fall down in terms of creating a good team structure?

A: The three most common problems we have encountered are these. First, failing to be clear enough about who is on the team (members cannot collectively take responsibility for the team outcome if they do not know for sure just who they are) and failing to provide enough stability of membership so that members can learn how best to work together. Well designed teams learn quickly how to work well together, and they get better and better over time. But not if team membership is ambiguous or constantly in flux.

Second, failing to provide a clear, challenging, and consequential direction for the team. In the interest of "participative management," organizational leaders sometimes back off from authoritatively specifying a team's purposes; or because they are worried about how well the team will do, they sometimes assign the team only a small and relatively inconsequential part of the overall task that needs to be performed. Those are perverse mistakes, since having a vague or relatively unimportant piece of work to do actually compromises team performance. Team empowerment rarely comes from long and seemingly democratic discussions about what teams' purposes should be. As I said earlier, it comes instead from establishing a direction for the team that is clear, challenging (with no guarantee of success!) and highly consequential for the organization or its clients.

My rule of thumb is that no work team should have membership in the double digits, and my preferred size is six.
—J. Richard Hackman

Third, composing teams that are too large and too homogeneous in membership. My rule of thumb is that no work team should have membership in the double digits (and my preferred size is six), since our research has shown that the number of performance problems a team encounters increases exponentially as team size increases. Homogeneity of membership is a frequent problem because each of us works most easily and comfortably with people like ourselves. I would no doubt get along very well in a group whose other members also are middle-aged white male pipe-smoking professors. We might very much enjoy our time together. But our creativity would be higher if our group had a diverse mix of members—people who have real substantive differences in their views about how the work should be structured and executed. It is task-related conflict, not interpersonal harmony, that spurs team excellence.

There are other pitfalls as well, of course, a number of which have to do with the supportiveness of the organizational context within which the team works. For example, whether the reward system recognizes and reinforces team, as opposed to individual, excellence; whether the team members can get access to the information and resources they need for their collective work, and so on. But the three just listed are the most frequent problems we observed in how leaders structured the team itself.

Q: Your research focused on real-time teams such as cockpit crews and musical ensembles. Such teams have little room for trial and error. Is your work translatable to teams in less real-time environments?

A: Yes. I've given a good deal of research attention to real-time teams for two reasons. First, I find them fascinating. There is a real excitement to observing a team whose members know that they have to get it right the first time, that they cannot go back and try again if things do not go well. The more important reason for studying such teams is that they set a high hurdle for assessing the quality and usefulness of our findings. If we can learn what it takes for success in a highly demanding situation where there is no room for error, then surely the findings should apply as well to teams that do have the chance to redo their work if it does not come out well the first time around. I've enjoyed the challenge of trying to generate research findings that can be helpful to teams and leaders in the most stringent and consequential performance circumstances.

Q: What were the biggest surprises that you encountered in your work on teams?

A: The biggest surprise also was an unhappy one: how incredibly under-utilized members' talents were in most of the teams we studied. There were some exceptions, of course, such as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which scoops up and uses every scrap of musical and leadership talent that exists within the ensemble. But most teams, including senior executive teams, generally leave untapped enormous pools of member talent. The main contribution I hope my book makes is to help team leaders and members learn how to better harness and focus members' talents in carrying out the team's work—and to do so in a way that strengthens the team itself as a performing unit and that contributes to the ongoing learning and growth of individual team members.

· · · ·

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J. Richard Hackman is the Cahners-Rabb Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University.

All images © Eyewire unless otherwise indicated.

by J. Richard Hackman

The conditions that foster team effectiveness are simple and seemingly straightforward to put in place. Yet, as we have seen, creating these simple conditions can be a daunting undertaking in many work organizations, something that cannot be accomplished either as an "add on" (as managers in some corporations appear to wish) or as a one-step transition to utopia (as members of some cooperative enterprises appear to wish).

Implementing self-managing work teams in a stable organization that has been fine-tuned to support and control individual work behavior is in some ways like introducing a foreign substance into a healthy biological system: The antibodies come out and take care of the intruder. There may be a bit of fever and discomfort along the way, but eventually things return to normal. The same is true for social systems. Small difficulties are dealt with routinely, without entertaining the possibility that they may be signaling a larger organizational malady. Only when things get so bad that a system's very survival is threatened do leaders (sometimes) take the actions that might fundamentally change how that system operates. 16

At risk of inviting incredulity on the part of colleagues who actually do research on organizational change processes (and who have developed thoughtful and practical guides for planned change), let me offer here my very own change model. Intended specifically for use when implementing work teams in organizations, my model has but two steps: (1) Be prepared. (2) Lie in wait.

Being Prepared. When a usually closed door opens, one must be ready to walk through it without delay. Organizational doors do open on occasion, but they may not stay that way very long. This means that those who wish to introduce fundamental changes in how work is accomplished in an organization (and I hope I've already convinced you that creating and supporting work teams usually does involve fundamental change) must be prepared so that when the time is right, they can initiate action swiftly and competently.

Preparation is real work. It involves study, to be sure—thinking, reading, visiting other organizations where teams are used, attending management seminars and conferences, and doing whatever else one can do to expand and deepen one's knowledge of the best ways to create, support, and lead work teams. But it also involves imaginative work—envisioning what might be created, what the teams would do, how they would be set up and led, and all the other matters we have explored in this book. And, finally, it involves political action—sharing with others one's vision of how teams would work and what they could accomplish, building a coalition of organization members who are prepared to support that vision, and taking initiatives to align the interests of powerful and potentially skeptical others whose cooperation will be necessary to launch and sustain work teams. 17

It is hard to take advantage of an emergent opportunity if one has not already thought through what one seeks to accomplish, developed an image of the desired end state that can be readily apprehended and appreciated by others, and lined up the key individuals and groups who can help make the vision a reality. When preparation has been done well, the network of individuals who will make the change happen is in place and ready. Then, when the time is right, the network can be activated and change processes can begin in earnest. One does not set out on a planned sailing trip when the weather is bad. Instead, one makes sure that the boat is ready, the crew is ready, and the intended course and destination are understood by all. And then, when the weather breaks, one can say, "OK, we can go now," and be off the dock within the hour.


Excerpted with permission from Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances, Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

Lying in wait
Sigmund Freud once said, "He who knows how to wait need make no concessions." To make compromise after compromise so that one can proceed immediately to initiate change can erode one's aspiration almost beyond recognition. That is why work teams sometimes turn out to be teams in name only—getting them implemented requires making so many concessions that one winds up with work units that are called teams but that actually do not much differ from what already exists. To wait until the time is right, on the other hand, offers at least the possibility of a fundamental alteration in how work is construed and accomplished.

One of the great features of work organizations for those who aspire to change them is that it is rarely a long wait for something to happen that destabilizes the system and thereby offers an opening for change. Perhaps a senior manager leaves. Or an organizational unit enters a period of rapid growth or belt-tightening. Or one organizational unit is merged with another. Or the entire organization acquires, or is acquired by, another. Or financial disaster seems about to descend upon the enterprise. Or a new technology is introduced that requires abandonment of standard ways of operating. All of these, and more, offer opportunities for change: The balls go up in the air, and the prepared leader brings them back down in another, better configuration. 19

All systems regularly move back and forth between periods of relative stability and periods of turbulence, and it is during the turbulent times that change occurs. Learning and change almost never occur gradually and continuously, with each small step followed by yet another small forward step. Instead, an extended period when nothing much seems to be happening is followed by a period of rapid and multidimensional change, and then by yet another period during which no visible changes are occurring. This pattern is called punctuated equilibrium, and it characterizes the evolution of the species, human development, adult learning and organizational change. 20 Wise leaders, recognizing that change initiatives during periods of equilibrium have little chance of making much of a difference, watch and wait for the times of punctuation. They know that during turbulent times major interventions have a greater chance of success and that even small changes may yield disproportionately large effects.

Like preparation, waiting is work. One feels as if nothing is happening and, worse, that no one is doing anything constructive to stem further organizational deterioration. Anxious leaders cannot bear the wait, initiate change too soon, and fail to achieve their aspirations. Change-savvy leaders wait.

Forcing the issue
Sometimes leaders decide that the wait for turbulence is taking too long and toss a few balls into the air themselves, personally manufacturing a bit of chaos in hopes of creating just enough instability to give change a chance. Theater director Anne Bogart occasionally does that when stymied by an artistic problem during rehearsal:

Right there, in that moment, in that rehearsal, I have to say, "I know!" and start walking toward the stage. During the crisis of the walk, something must happen: some insight, some idea. The sensation of this walk to the stage, to the actors, feels like falling into a treacherous abyss. The walk creates a crisis in which innovation must happen, invention must transpire. I create the crisis in rehearsal to get out of my own way. I create despite myself and my limitations and my hesitancy. In unbalance and falling lie the potential of creation. When things start to fall apart in rehearsal, the possibility of creation exists. 21

It is tempting to exhort organizational managers to follow Bogart's courageous lead and take action that hastens the arrival of turbulence, thereby allowing change to occur sooner rather than later. Political revolutionaries regularly do this to accelerate the fall of a regime that is viewed as undesirable. Organizational leaders would never condone subversion, inciting public disobedience, or promoting violence to bring their enterprises to a state of readiness for change, of course. But they do the organizational equivalent of those political acts when they take actions that cannot be ignored and that make it literally impossible for the system to continue on its present path.

Examples abound. The executive team leader described in Chapter 7 eliminated a significant number of jobs and then allowed incumbents to apply for newly defined roles in a reconfigured organization. Other leaders may choose to impose a significant across-the-board budget cut. Although purportedly done to achieve cost savings, the more important function of large budget cuts may be to force everyone to rethink how they do their business. That is what the management team of Sealed Air Corporation did when it deliberately increased the company's debt burden, using the proceeds to pay a substantial dividend to shareholders. According to economist Karen Wruck, that action, taken when the firm's financial performance was fully satisfactory, forced managers to find ways to improve internal control mechanisms that they almost certainly would not otherwise have considered. 22 Downsizing can serve the same function. So can preemptive abandonment of a technology, a product line, or even a geographical location that has long been part of the organization's identity. Boeing not headquartered in Seattle? Never could happen. Except that it did, and one has to wonder if the decision to move to Chicago was at least partly driven by a hope that the move would jar the organizational balls into the air and allow, if not invite, fresh thinking about how Boeing does its business.

Draconian strategies that make it literally impossible for a system to continue operating in its traditional ways always introduce plenty of turbulence and therefore always offer the opportunity for constructive change. But, as many political and organizational revolutionaries have learned the hard way, such strategies by no means guarantee that the changes that are initiated will turn out to be good for the organization, for its people, for those it serves, or even for the leaders who fomented the revolution. People get hurt in revolutions, even those who lead them, and even when they are successful. 23

...And what it can cost
We have seen that, in many organizational circumstances, creating the conditions that actively support work teams must be more a revolutionary than an evolutionary undertaking. That is what it eventually turned out to be for Hank, the semiconductor plant production manager discussed in previous chapters. Recall that Hank was remarkably successful in convincing managers much senior to himself to alter compensation, maintenance, and engineering policies or practices so they would better support the work of his production teams. The teams continued to perform well, but eventually their rate of improvement slowed considerably. And Hank still kept them on a relatively short leash, retaining unto himself decision-making authority about those matters he considered most important.

David Abramis and I finished up our research at the plant, which showed that although there was much to admire in what Hank had created, the teams were not really self-managing. 24 And then, taking advantage of the turbulence that accompanied an economic downturn in the semiconductor industry, Hank finally decided to go all the way. The production teams, he declared, would now be called "asset management teams" and they would be given authority to manage all of their resources in pursuing collective objectives.

The transition to asset management teams was difficult, as transitions always are when decision-making authority and accountability for outcomes are altered. No matter how many times it was explained to them in team meetings, some team members seemed unable to understand that they now really were running their own part of the business. Others understood all too well and didn't want any part of it—life was much more comfortable when the buck stopped with Hank rather than with themselves. These responses are not uncommon when people have to come to terms with the fact that they are now the ones who call the shots and who will have to take the heat if things do not go well.

Eventually the changes "took," teams accepted and began to use their new authority, and performance measures for Hank's fab reached new highs. Indeed, his unit was more profitable than any comparable unit not just in the plant but in the entire corporation. Hank began receiving visitors from headquarters, from managers at other high-tech manufacturing firms, and even from academics and journalists who wanted to learn more about what he had accomplished—and how he had pulled it off. By all measures, Hank had a great success on his hands.

Not long thereafter, I received one of my occasional telephone calls from him. "Probably you ought to come out for another visit," he said. "This time to say good-bye. They've decided that some changes need to be made in my area, and the main change is going to be me." It turned out that the human resources department recently had completed its annual employee attitude survey, and the job satisfaction of people in Hank's area had dropped somewhat from its previously high level. That was the reason Hank was given for his termination. In my many years of organizational research I have often seen managers whose units had extraordinarily high employee satisfaction get sacked because their productivity was subpar. This was the first time I had ever heard of someone whose production numbers were off the top of the scale being fired purportedly because of a dip in scores on an attitude survey.

Hank actually was let go because he had gone too far. Drawing both on his intuitive understanding of what it takes to make a great team and on his considerable political skill, he had succeeded in putting in place almost all of the conditions needed to foster work team effectiveness. His work was revolutionary, and it was more than his organization could tolerate. People get hurt in revolutions. Especially those who lead them. Even when they are successful. 25

Excerpted with permission from Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances, Harvard Business School Press, 2002.


16. For a discussion of the power of momentum in organizational life, see Miller and Friesen (1980). For examples of the lengths to which corporations sometimes go to avoid making fundamental change even when senior leaders have ample data that it is called for, see Jensen (1993).

17. Consistent with the findings of Yorks and Whitsett (1989) about what it takes for work redesign interventions to diffuse throughout an organization, the strategy advocated here has more in common with the practice of international political diplomacy than with organizational change programs of the flip chart and to-do list variety.

18. Freud (1922/1959, p. 23). In the passage quoted, Freud was discussing how to avoid making "concessions to faintheartedness" by talking circumspectly about sex.

19. Under conditions of extreme turbulence, however, change processes become qualitatively different and less amenable to management even by well-prepared leaders. For an analysis of how organizations react to conditions of hyperturbulence, see Meyer, Goes, and Brooks (1993).

20. For an overview of punctuated equilibrium models, see Gersick (1991). For examples of how these models can inform the process of organizational transformation, see Romanelli and Tushman (1994) and Tyre and Orlikowski (1993).

21. Dixon and Smith (1995 p. 10).

22. Wruck (1994).

23. For example, see Heifetz (1994, chap. 10).

24. Abramis (1990).

25. Hank spent several months in a corporate outplacement center looking for work, and eventually accepted a position as production manager at a box manufacturing plant in Mexico. Some months later he moved back to the United States and shortly thereafter suffered a fatal heart attack.