You know all those books that teach you how to make your team great, or how to push your team to rock star performance? Toss them aside.

You can’t make a team great, says Harvard Professor Richard Hackman, a world-leader researcher in group performance, leadership effectiveness and self-managed teams. Thankfully, there’s a but: you can create the conditions for a team to become great.

In this post I will define what a “great team” is, what are the criteria for high team effectiveness and how you can apply it in your every day work.

This post is based on the conclusions presented by Harvard Professor Richard Hackman in Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances (2002) and Collaborative Intelligence: Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems (2011).

What is a great team?

The very best work teams always serve their customers well […] But they also become increasingly capable performing units over time, as members gain experience and discover new and better ways of working together. And, finally, they provide settings in which each individual member can find in his or her teamwork a good measure of personal learning and fulfilment. An effective work team does all three of these things.” Excerpt From: J. Richard Hackman, Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances (2002).

There are three things that great teams do differently and do very well, according to Hackman:

  1. They are serving their customers.
  2. They grow as a team.
  3. They grow and learn as individuals.

1. Serving customers

What is an effective team?

Before jumping into the topic of serving customer, I’d like to define effectiveness. According to Hackman, an effective team is a team whose output (product, service, decision) “meets or exceeds the standards of quantity, quality, and timeliness of the teams’ clients – the people who receive, review, or use the output.” Excerpt From: J. Richard Hackman, Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances (2002).

These standards of quality are the client’s standards, not the standards of the team itself. This is the main distinction that has to be made in defining the effectiveness of a team: if the team isn’t its own client, we always consider effectiveness reaching or exceeding the client’s standards.

Who is the client?

This is the next question that comes to mind. Is the external individual (or business) that buys the product the client, is it the internal stakeholders that uses the system the client?

The client is  whoever actually uses the product created by the team.

The client is not the team, the team’s manager, not even the CEO (unless, of course, the CEO or the team manager is the final user of the product built by the team).

As so many CEOs make decisions for the customers and push for ideas that are not related to the real users of the product, I would like to emphasise this: the client is not the CEO.

When the client is not clear on quality standards

So what happens if the client is not very clear on those standards or is not an expert in the industry?

The team should facilitate the building of those standards together with the client. More often than not, “good” means different things for the client and for the team; identifying the differences of opinion creates the path towards innovative performance strategies. The team should constantly focus to look into these differences.

According to Hackman, all group failures they investigated were caused by the team not taking seriously the fact that good performance is whatever the client thinks it means (or the user, I would add). Being open to the customer needs and working together to deliver the product produces the most outstanding results.

Good teams know these facts and tend to the customers’ needs and expectations. GREAT teams actively shape those expectations, and then exceed them”. 

2. Growing as a team

Over time, a team working together becomes an increasingly capable performing unit, as members gain experience and discover new and better ways to work together.

According to Hackman, the social processes the team uses in carrying out the work enhance members’ capability to work together interdependently in the future.” Excerpt From: J. Richard Hackman, Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances (2002).

By working together, the team members get to know each other well over time, they know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and become very skilled in coordinating their activities, or anticipating their next moves, and initiating proper responses to them even as these moves happen.

In Hackman’s words:

Effective work teams operate in ways that build shared commitment, collective skills, and task-appropriate coordination strategies – not mutual antagonism and trails of failures from which little is learned. They become adept at detecting and correcting errors before serious damage is done, nd at noticing and exploiting emerging opportunities. And the periodically review how they have been operating, milking their experiences for whatever learning can be had from them. An effective team is a more capable performing unit when its work is finished than it was when work began.” Excerpt From: J. Richard Hackman, Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances (2002).

3. Growing as individuals

Growth doesn’t only happen for the team as a whole, but great teams will create growth and development for each individual member of the team. A great team provides the setting for each individual to find a good measure of personal fulfilment in her teamwork.

That’s the magic of teams, they become incredibly skilled at learning, expanding knowledge, getting new skills, exploring different perspectives of the world, and all these push each individual to grow.

It gets better. Individual growth or learning represents only one benefit of working in the team. The members of team create strong interpersonal relationships, even friendships that can last beyond the group’s lifespan.

The opposite, a team that has a negative impact on members’ learning and growth is not counted as effective.

If the group prevents members from doing what they want and need to do, if it compromises their personal learning, or if members’ main reactions to having been in the group are frustration and disillusionment, then the costs of generating the group product were too high.” Excerpt From: J. Richard Hackman, Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances (2002).

How you can use this criteria

What can you do with the information above? Carefully consider this criteria when you form or work with teams:

  1. You need to be explicit about your values, define what you hope for and what you promote when you talk about teams. Is individual growth a criteria for a great team, or you consider it’s not essential?
  2. The effectiveness criteria will help you answer the question: are you measuring the right things? The criteria will create less likelihood to use random indicators when we measure the performance or “success” of the team.
  3.  It brings our the realisation that the team needs to make trade-offs continuously between the three aspects of overall effectiveness.
  4. Provides a standard for testing and choosing different structural or managerial interventions to help the team. When you intervene with the team, which of the effectiveness criteria do you want to influence? How does it affect the other criteria? Why are you considering this particular one? These questions and the clarity they bring should limit or even remove unfit interventions for the team.

Hackman’s criteria can be used to assess the effectiveness of any team, regardless of industry, domain, composition (it was used in industries as various as aerospace, CIA, manufacturing, education), and it work perfectly with the Agile Manifesto and Principles:

  • Customer collaboration and satisfaction is the core of the manifesto as well.
  • Team and individual growth – self-organising teams, continuous learning, motivated individuals are part of the Agile principles as well.

I will conclude with Hackman’s brief summary of team effectiveness:

All that is necessary for effectiveness is output judged acceptable by those who receive or use it, a team that winds up its work at least as capable as when it started, and members who are at least as satisfied as they are frustrated by what has transpired. The challenge is to generate ways of understanding, designing, and managing teams that help them meet or exceed these modest criteria.” Excerpt From: J. Richard Hackman, Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances (2002).

I will address in a new post how you can build these ways to understand, design, and manage teams that are set to become great.