Home Truths About TeamsDo not be deceived by the title given an interview with J. Richard Hackman, a professor of of social and organizational psychology at Harvard, that appears in the May issue of the Harvard Business Review. "Why Teams Don't Work" is really about why some teams don't work, and about the five conditions that must be in place in order to maximize the probability that your teams will work.
According to Hackman, those five conditions are:
- "Teams must be real," by which Hackman means that it must be clear who exactly is on the team and who is not.
- "Teams need a compelling direction," i.e., their mission and purpose must be clear. Seems obvious, and it is, but that doesn't mean that you can't find plenty of instances in which different team members have different views of what the team is and should be doing. Leadership in getting everybody pointed in the same direction is essential.
- "Teams need enabling structures," which means well-designed tasks, an appropriate number and mix of members, and clear behavior norms that are enforced.
- "Teams need a supportive organization," which means reward, HR, and information systems that facilitate the teams' work.
- "Teams need expert coaching." This is not to be confused with expert individual coaching of team members. The coaching teams require focuses on team processes, "especially at the beginning, midpoint, and end of a team project."
His answer is "perhaps." He goes on to talk about an example I don't find convincing, namely the idea that having a group of people working on a house will actually mean a slower job, or even an incomplete job, than if the project were handled by a single person. (Or perhaps by the standard model of a general contractor who deploys individual tradespeople, as needed. It's not clear from the text what alternative to the group approach you are supposed to imagine.) What does make sense to me is Hackman's observation that
There are many cases where collaboration, particularly in truly creative endeavors, is a hindrance rather than a help. The challenge for a leader, then, is to find a balance between individual autonomy and collective action. Either extreme is bad, though we are generally more aware of the downside of individualism in organizations, and we forget that teams can be just as destructive by being so strong and controlling that individual voices and contributions and learning are lost.Hackman then comments on the problem of the Abilene Paradox, though he doesn't call it by that name, and reiterates another of his key points, namely that fulfilling the essential function of dissent in team discussions can be a serious danger to one's career.
I recommend reading Hackman's astute, research-based comments in their entirety. Just don't be surprised that he is not actually saying in some sweeping fashion that "teams don't work."