Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances
We all recite the mantra about the importance of team work and building high performance teams, almost to the point where it has become a cliche . Richard Hackman, Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard, has been studying teams and their performance in organizations for decades. Based on some solid research (not anecdote), he has come up with interesting insights about the dynamics of great performing teams. I attended his talk in February at the Media Lab at MIT. Fortunately, it's available as a web cast if you want to view it. (Highly Recommended).
Hackman begins with a paradox. Groups have certain natural advantages: they have more resources than individuals; greater diversity of resources; more flexibility in deploying the resources; many opportunities for collective learning; and, the potential for synergy. Yet studies show that their actual performance often is subpar relative to "nominal" groups (i.e. individuals given the same task but their results are pooled.). The paradox is this: if groups enjoy such natural advantages, why is their actual performance then sub-par?
Hackman cites two reasons, one of which he develops fully in the talk. The first reason is that groups are often assigned work that is better done by individuals. It seems like an obvious point but still worth making: there are some tasks that are just better done by individuals. Hackman: "It's the difference between writing a play and performing one. How many great plays have been written by a group? Probably none." The other reason, the one Hackman develops in the talk, is that groups are often structured in ways that cap their full potential. Hackman's research yields interesting results and some surprises.