Not All Team Frameworks are Created Equal

When I conducted my first field research project as a graduate student at Harvard, I studied the work of customer service reps who had just been re-organized into self-managing teams. That transition was significant, both for the service reps and for their front-line managers. The service people went from having a highly autonomous job—each had his or her own customers, schedules, preferred repair practices—to a highly interdependent job of shared territories, team-designed work practices, and coordinated schedules and decisions. For the first line managers, I remember, it was also a very consequential transition—from supervisor of 10-20 individuals to the coach of 2-4 teams.

That word coach carried a lot of freight—how should they, the supervisors wondered, change their management styles so that teams could truly feel ownership of their work, and take superb care of customers? What precise alchemy of coaching behavior, such as coordinating tasks, asking good questions, motivating their teams through cheerleading and recognition, would shape them into superb teams? What “supervisor” behaviors, such as telling a team its problems and how to solve them, were now too controlling, and had to be eliminated from their repertoires?

I was intrigued by this question, and by the fact that many of these so-called teams were teams in name only—service reps still operating completely independently of each other even though formally designated as members of a team—while others were really taking on the team idea, combining great practices into the team’s shared wisdom, coordinating their days and hours to get to all their customers in a timely way, reviewing their lessons learned at the end of the week. Why were they so different?

I spent more than a year on this puzzle, following teams in action, interviewing and observing supervisors and team members, working with managers to change how rewards were designed.  I had my hypotheses going in about what would matter the most…but what I found both surprised me and shaped my later thinking about what really matters for great teams.

The three biggest drivers of team effectiveness?  Tasks redesigned to really make sense to be done by a team, a clear shared team purpose, and rewards for team excellence.  Supervisor behavior was a distant 6th…and it only mattered when the team was already well designed. In other words, fundamental conditions under which service reps worked elicited effective collaborative behavior, and coaching only helped when the teams already had a strong basis.

Richard Hackman’s paper, “From Causes to Conditions in Groups Research,” is a wonderful treatment of this great…and eminently practical…approach to team effectiveness.  Hackman argues that when we recognize teams as complex systems—complex human systems that can navigate their own way—then we pay attention to the basic inputs (conditions) that elicit and reinforce good team processes.  The emphasis both in our understanding and in our action shifts from direct intervention in the process (otherwise known as coaching) and more onto the basic conditions that elicit those processes.

Over the years, Richard Hackman articulated a model of those fundamental conditions, first as a 5- factor model best articulated in his book, “Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances,” and then we ultimately arrived at the 6 Conditions framework, pulling team composition out as its own 6th factor rather than subsuming under structural features, because its impact was so strong.  We divided the 6 conditions into those that really must be in place to get any kind of teamwork at all (The Essentials), and three that accelerate the development of a basically well-designed unit into a superb team (The Enablers).  The 3 Essentials are: A Real Team (one that is bounded, stable in membership long enough to accomplish something meaningful together, and genuinely interdependent), a Compelling Purpose (one that is clear, challenging, and consequential) and the Right People (with the capabilities and adequate diversity to contribute to the Purpose).  Note that these Essentials are all conditions—they are all designable features of teams we can intentionally put in place, rather than emergent behavioral or affective features of the team’s dynamic.  The 3 Enablers are: Sound Structure (a good size, real team tasks, explicit norms of conduct), a Supportive Organizational Context (organizational systems that promote, rather than place obstacles in the way of, teamwork) and—last in the sequence—Team Coaching.  If we carry through with conditions thinking, the idea is that when we spend our energy to get these conditions in place for a team, it will naturally develop positive collective processes, develop the capacity to self-correct when negative processes occur, and chart in own way to superb performance.

As we continue this blog and podcast, we’ll get into more about the why—why do these particular conditions elicit great team processes and performance? And the how—how do we use conditions thinking to shape our practice as team development professionals?

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