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The conventional wisdom on high-performance teams is wrong

In the May Harvard Business Review, Richard Hackman repeats the conventional wisdom on high-performance teams: “Even the best leader on the planet can't make a team do well. All anyone can do is increase the likelihood that a team will be great by putting into place . And the leader still will have no guarantees that she will create a magical team. Teams create their own realities and control their own destinies to a greater extent, and far sooner in their existence, than most team leaders realize.” 1/

The five conditions that Hackman refers to are (a) the team must be real; (b) the team has compelling direction; (c) the team should have clear tasks and norms of conduct; (d) the team needs a supporting organizational context; and (e) the team needs expert coaching.

What Hackman doesn’t address: if you take certain additional steps, you can routinely create great teams, almost as reliably as putting a pot of water on a fire will cause it to boil. It turns out that Hackman’s “five conditions” are simply an incomplete specification of what is needed to get “great” or “magical” performance. They are necessary but not sufficient.

What are these additional steps needed to get great performance? They fall into five main categories:

A. Self-organizing teams

One of the keys to getting consistently great team performance is to empower self-organizing teams. Self-organizing teams have greater capacity to mobilize the energies, the insights and the passion of the team members than manager-led teams. They also need to have a clear and compelling direction that can be adjusted as the context changes. This include:

  • The organizational locus that is responsible for setting the team’s direction and updating that direction as conditions change must be explicitly identified. That locus is responsible for holding the vision for the team, as the context and the work changes; that locus is desirably a self-organizing team, with a single person representing the unambiguous voice of the team. The locus is variously called the vision holder, or the product-owner or the project manager.
  • Both the team’s vision-holder and the team’s coach understand and support the concept of a self-organizing team. If the management tries to “manage” the team in the traditional command-and-control fashion, the team will not self-organize.
  • The team is cross-functional and cognitively diverse. Cognitive diversity enables ordinary people to achieve extraordinary performance.
  • The team is small: The team is normally 7 + or – 2. Larger projects can be handled by networked groups of teams.
  • The team is co-located. Studies show that co-location routinely doubles productivity. Once a team has reached high velocity, geographically distributed modes of operation is possible, without loss of productivity.
  • The team is allowed to self-organize. This includes ensuring that the team has a say in who is on the team, can decide how much time work will take, and how much work to undertake in any work period.
  • The team is not interrupted by management during a work iteration. Great performance is precluded if the team is continually interrupted.
  • The vision-holder maintains a single prioritized list of work to be done by the team. Priorities are updated and reconciled on a continuing basis.

  • B. Radical transparency

    Self-organizing teams operate on the edge of chaos. To make sure that the teams do not slide over into chaos, or if they do, to enable rapid rectifying action, radical transparency is necessary.

  • The team works in relatively short iterations. Short iterations enable both management and the team to see what is being accomplished. The length of the iterations depends on the degree of uncertainty in the context. In some fields, weekly, fortnightly or monthly iterations are the norm. A kanban mode of operation is an alternative, that may be more attractive when the work is extremely unpredictable.
  • The work to be undertaken in any iteration is clearly specified and doable within the iteration. Obvious as this requirement may seem, it is in practice quite difficult to accomplish.
  • The work to be undertaken is defined in terms of user stories that are to be implemented. The team is focused less on producing things and more on actions that will delight clients and stakeholders.
  • The team meets daily. The members of the team briefly review with each other what happened yesterday, what is planned for today and what are the impediments getting in the way of the work. The impediments are recorded for future action.
  • The team posts visible charts to track progress. The charts are kept on the walls of the team’s common workspace and visible to all team members and to management.
  • The team focuses on completing work by the end of each iteration. Work in process generates more work. Bringing work to closure as soon as possible is a key to high-productivity.
  • C. Relentless self-improvement

    Rather than the traditional situation in which the management urges the team to do better, the focus is on establishing transparency that enables the team itself to realize how it is doing, and encourages the team to do better.
  • The team measures and tracks its velocity in each iteration. The team tracks changes in velocity of time and thus knows whether or not it is improving.
  • The team holds retrospective reviews. The team assesses progress and determines how work could be improved in future.
  • The coach works with management and the team to remove impediments.
  • D. Delighting clients and stakeholders

    Traditional management focused on producing goods and services. Improved management focused on satisfying clients. High-performance management focuses on delighting clients and stakeholders.
  • The vision-holder decides what will delight the clients and stakeholders. Ideally, the vision holder is the leader of a self-organizing team that also includes members of the team doing the work.
  • The vision-holder works with the team doing the work to define the user stories that are most likely to delight clients and stakeholders. The team is focused on actions that will delight clients and stakeholders.
  • The team gets stakeholder feedback. At the end of each iteration, the team gets feedback from stakeholders as to the value of the work that has been done.
  • E. Interactive comnunications

  • Self-organizing teams ignite the passion, the energies and the insights of the members of the team. This kind of enthusiasm is easily killed by heavy-handed one-way communications.
  • Both the vision-holder and the coach communicate interactively with the team. They refrain from one-way communications, telling the team what to do, in a top-down, command-and-control mode.
  • Both the vision-holder and the coach master interactive communication: They learn how to use power of stories and questions to communicate.

  • Individually, none of these five sets of actions is new. What is new is putting the components together in an integrated fashion. When all the elements are implemented together, self-organizing teams tend to evolve into a high-performance mode and extraordinary gains in performance can occur.

    This is hard

    Traditional management might object that these actions constitute a lot of things to do. And that it’s not easy to do all those things at the same time. And that acting in this way is radically different from the way most organizations are run today.

    Those objections are correct. This is a different way to manage and it’s not easy.

    But if you want great performance from your teams, that is the way to get it.

    Where it's happening

    Scores of organizations are now doing this on a routine basis, and routinely getting “great” and “magical” performance. The results are not only massive gains in productivity, but also deep job satisfaction in people doing the work, and delight among clients whose needs are being addressed directly and in a timely fashion.

    Initially these measures were initially pioneered and refined for software development. Until a decade ago, software developers were among the worst performers in organizations: their work was always late, over budget and full of bugs. By following the measures listed above, teams of software developers are now among the best performing teams in their organizations.

    As a result, this way of managing is now spreading beyond software development into sales, marketing, consulting, call centers, and in fact every aspect of work.

    The approach can be applied to managing large projects like a mammoth project. Or it can be applied to a tiny project as small as organizing your daughter’s birthday party. It can be used to manage normal workflow in a work unit, such as a consulting firm, or a sales organization, or a church, as well as the work of an entire organization.

    What it means

    The measures sound like a lot of “nuts and bolts”. And it's very easy to get lost in the nuts and bolts, but in the end, it isn't really about the nuts and bolts, and improved efficiency. Those are just stepping stones towards creating exhilaration in the workplace, igniting lots of shining eyes and delight, and in the end inspiring people to reinvent themselves.

    Because of the results it is producing, a radical new way of managing work is emerging. It involves a different way of thinking about work, a different way of managing work, and a different way of participating in work. It isn’t a quick fix. It isn’t an incremental change or a shift at the periphery. When fully implemented, it affects everything in the organization. It entails fundamental change.

    To learn more...

    More about this exciting new way of managing work will appear in my book to be published by Jossey-Bass in the Fall of 2010. In the interim, you can learn more by subscribing to my newsletter or attending one of the upcoming masterclasses in Washington DC or London.


    1. “Why Teams DON'T Work” Richard Hackman interviewed by Diane Coutu and Michael Beschloss: Harvard Business Review; May 2009, Vol. 87 Issue 5, p98-105.

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