Despite years of promises that teamwork will serve as a cure-all for the problems of business, many managers have found that even teams with highly motivated, skilled, and committed members can fail to achieve the expected results. Professor Richard Hackman from Harvard University has been studying teams for years and believes that more often than not, failing to establish the groundwork for effective team performance leads teams to be less effective than if the leader simply divided up tasks and had each individual work on his or her assigned part. As Hackman notes, “I have no question that a team can generate magic. But don’t count on it.”
What are the main factors Hackman has identified that lead to effective teams? Teams should be kept small and have consistent membership to minimize the types of coordination tasks that take up valuable time. Too often, organizations set up project-based teams and then reconfigure them, without considering the stages of group development that might have to occur before the team can achieve full performance. Supports need to be in place, like group-based rewards and clearly defined group responsibilities. Surprisingly, in his study of 120 senior management teams, Hackman found fewer than 10 percent of members agreed about who was even on the team!
Successful teams also have assertive, courageous leaders who can invoke authority even when the team resists direction. Similar lessons were derived from the failure of Ghana Airways, a state-run organization that experienced frequent changes in top management that were disruptive to establishing a consistent leadership team. As a result of excessive turbulence and lack of strategic vision, the 40-year-old air carrier that was once an emblem for the country went bankrupt.
Do these weaknesses mean teams are never the answer to a business problem? Obviously, it is often necessary to bring together and coordinate individuals with a diverse set of skills and abilities to solve a problem. It would be impossible for all the management tasks of a complex organization like Ghana Airways to be done by disconnected individuals. And often there is more work to be done in a compressed time period than any one individual can possibly accomplish. In these cases, it is wise to consider how to best heed the advice provided above and ensure your team isn’t less than the sum of its parts.
1. What do you think of the elements of successful teamwork Hackman has identified? Do you believe these elements are necessary for effective team performance?
2. Can you think of other conditions necessary for teams to be effective?
3. Imagine you’ve been asked to assemble and lead a team of high-potential new hires to work on the development of an international marketing campaign. What specific steps might you take early in the team’s life to ensure that the new team is able to avoid some of the problems Hackman identified? Is there any way to break down the overall group goal into subtasks so individual accountability can be enhanced?