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Leading Teams: setting the stage for great performances - Book Summary

By: Richard Hackman

"A leader cannot make the team great, but a leader can create conditions that increase the chances that moments of greatness will occur- and, moreover, can provide a little boost or nudge now and then to help members take the fullest possible advantage of those favourable conditions". (Hackman p.253)

Richard Hackman's spent his career studying teams. His work on building teams at once challenges and reaffirms what we understand about leadership and team building. Leadership is about creating the conditions for team success and for teams of teams (organizations, businesses, not-for-profits) to succeed. At the same time, we place too much emphasis on the "leader" as being responsible for this success. Hackman argues that "as long ago as the 1950s, it had become clear that research would not succeed in identifying any set of universal traits that could reliably distinguish good from poor leaders". 201

In reality, great teams are not the creation of a single great leader. Leaders are responsible for laying the groundwork but need to create an environment where a team can succeed. The leader's job is to put in place the five conditions for team success - having a real team, a compelling direction, an enabling team structure, a supportive organizational context, and expert team coaching – each factor is summarised below.

Having a real team: for a team to be successful, it needs to have clear boundaries. They need to know what their task is and the work that is required of them. A group might have a common activity, but if they don't require the other team members to perform it, they are not a team – they are a "co-acting" group, e.g. a call centre. It must be clear to everyone involved who is in the team, and who is not. "To work well together, the team need to know who they are". (TK p44) The boundaries of the team's authority must be clear. What is the extent of the team's decision-making authority? Is this a self-managing team, or does the team require external authority for decisions? The figure below sets out the different team times, with autonomy and authority over team direction increasing from left to right.

Hackman also argues against the common conception that "the performance of teams whose membership stays intact for a long time gradually deteriorates because members get careless, insufficiently attentive to environmental changes, and too forgiving of one another's mistakes and oversights". (Hackman p.xi) Instead, high-performing teams experience a high degree of stability in membership over time, enabling the team to become more effective at working together. "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". (Hackman p.55)

Set a compelling direction: a team's objective or direction needs to be challenging, clear and consequential. Challenging in that it energizes and motivates the team to push themselves. Clear enough to orient the team to align performance with purpose. And consequential, in that the objective matters to the team. The team must also have the authority to set, revise and update its direction, especially if it's to be self-managing and not to wait on external leadership decisions constantly. (Hackman p.62) The table below summarises the elements that make up a compelling team direction.

Establish an enabling team structure: "Getting the team's work designed right often requires leaders to overcome powerful interior forces in their organization, and…always bring some measure of risk". (TK p98) An effective team structure overcomes organizational norms and inertia through team composition and establishing clear team standards and behaviours.

Leaders need to work to create standards and behaviours. Letting them emerge naturally might encourage harmony but will not serve the long-term objectives of the team. These behaviours need to be clear. Members should be active, not reactive, participants in the team's environment. Behavioural boundaries must be clear, identifying what the members must always do and never do. "Those who design and launch teams, therefore, should be insistent about the core norms, give the team great latitude to establish whatever secondary norms members may prefer, and then help the team learn how best to capture and use the benefits of the 'deviant' behaviours that remain". (Hackman p.115)

Team composition is about right-sizing the team while ensuring it has the right skills and character traits. Size, a larger team is not better, and six people are about the right size for an effective team. Set your team size smaller than you think it needs to be to deliver the task. Diversity is important in team composition, with team homogeneity not leading to better outcomes. While too much diversity can also hinder team cohesion. Interpersonal skills matter. People need to be supported to build their skills to work in a team.

Build a supportive organizational context: team formation often focuses on the team itself without looking at the wider organizational context. It is critical to creating a conducive external environment for the team, ensuring the right reward, education and information systems are in place for team success.

  • Rewards systems need to recognize team performance. The benefits of the team can be lost if the performance-contingent rewards and recognitions are given to individual members rather than the team.

  • Information systems must ensure that the team has access to the information they need to perform their tasks.

  • Train and support the team to enable them to succeed in their task.

Coach the team appropriately: building a team requires effective coaching of the team, not the individual. Coaching interventions also need to focus on specific activities at the different stages of team development. Initially, the focus should be on motivation and setting the direction. The emphasis is on setting the framework to establish the norms, what the team must always do and must never do. In the middle, the focus is on consulting and helping with strategy. Research shows that interventions that lead to changes in strategy are hugely effective in the middle of a team cycle. Coaching interventions should draw out learning at the end of the team's work. What did the team learn, and what behaviours should be encouraged for the future. This framework is summarised in the table below.

What does this mean for the leader or authorizer of the team? First, no leader alone can make the team perform well (Hackman p.ix). All you can do is set the conditions. Second, "if you are going to lead a team…you must first make sure that you actually have a team to lead…" (TK p.41) The leader is the enabler, who Hackman views as having the responsibility for "…creating and maintaining the five conditions that increase the chances that a team will, over time, become increasingly effective in carrying out its work". (TK p 31)

For anyone thinking about establishing a team, the key is to focus on the enabling conditions, which will require a willingness to take difficult decisions about who is and is not in a team, as well as to admit what you do not know. The second is to maintain those conditions through coaching and learning (through experimentation) when to intervene and stay well away and let the team get on with it. In the end, Hackman notes that it is the doing that's a challenge.


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