by Ruth Wageman on

Most organizations these days are pervaded with teams: leadership and management teams, product design teams, operational teams, service teams, cross-functional task forces, ad hoc problem solving teams, agile development teams.  I’ve noticed that many management articles about teams start with some variation on “most work gets done in teams these days,” or “teams are now the building blocks of organizations.”    There’s plenty of evidence to support these observations, and we have no desire to argue.

But that raises some pretty important practical questions about organizational success: Which teams really matter?  Where should you put your best energy, resources and time in making sure certain teams are set up with all they will need to succeed?  How can you develop in your organization a pervasive practice of setting up teams brilliantly when they really matter?

Some such teams are pretty obvious: The NASA team responsible for designing all the algorithms that govern space vehicle travel, and the Mars rover’s Entry, Descent, and Landing team are literally mission critical.

Some are not so obvious: the front line service teams, under resourced and overworked, who also are the very people who have some of the best insight into how the company is perceived; the middle management teams who are the primary source of connection across otherwise-siloed departments; the skunkworks imagining a very different organizational future.

And some are clearly not mission critical.  I have worked with many a team whose primary obstacle to sustaining their energy is that they suspect that their work will never be used.  Formed of representatives from all around the enterprise to “make a recommendation” about how some organizational initiative should be rolled out, they suffer from frequent excused absences and team members delegated by their bosses to take their place, poorly structured work, and little authorization to get resources or make their decisions stick.  Team like this are not a rare exception: in some organizations, they are pervasive.

Richard Hackman used to say in his lectures at Harvard that teams are like amplifiers: if noise goes in, bigger noise comes out.  Great music in, great music out.  His point was that if you can’t get the basic design of a team right—a real team with the right people and a compelling purpose for their work together—it’s best not to use a team at all, because the negative consequences of poor design choices are multiplied when people are experiencing those obstacles together.  And when you do get the design right, it takes significant energy and attention…and the consequences for great collaboration are immense.

Our joint research identified 6 Conditions that can be designed, launched and led towards attainment of mission success.