What do we mean by Effective Teams?

The Internal Coherence project draws heavily from the work of Harvard University Professor Richard Hackman, whose book Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances (Harvard Business School Press, 2002), identifies specific structural features that foster work team effectiveness. His book is designed to help leaders maximize the likelihood that teams in the organization will perform well, by drawing attention to five high-impact conditions for them to focus on as they design and support the work of teams.

The challenge articulated by Hackman is for leadership to foster creativity, agility and learning in work teams, on the one hand, while maintaining reasonable levels of consistency, control, and alignment with organizational objectives on the other. He defines high-performing teams as having three key characteristics: providing excellent service to clients (in the IC context, to students); becoming increasingly capable performing units over time; and providing a setting for personal learning and fulfillment for its members.

The five conditions that leaders can put into place to increase the chances that teams will, over time, develop the characteristics described above are the following: 1) ensure that each team is a real team rather than a team in name only, 2) provide each team with a compelling direction for its work, 3) create an enabling structure within teams that facilitates rather than impedes teamwork, 4) provide a supportive organizational context for the work of teams, and 5) provide strategically timed, expert coaching in teamwork. Each condition is described briefly below.

A Real Team

According to Hackman, real work teams in organizations have a team task, which requires them to work together to produce a product, service or decision for which members are collectively accountable. Real teams are bounded, so that members can reliably distinguish who is actually on the team and shares the responsibility and accountability for the collective outcome, from others who may help out in various ways but are not team members. Once it is clear what a team's work is and who is on the team, team leaders must determine the extent of the team's authority. This delimited authority should be specified when a team is formed, and Hackman creates an Authority Matrix outlining the various levels of team self-management. The final characteristic of a real team is membership stability over time. Hackman is emphatic on the point that teams with stable membership perform better than those that constantly have to deal with the arrival of new members and the departure of old ones. Over time, members are able to develop a shared mental model of the performance situation and a shared pool of knowledge, especially if they receive training as a team in how to do the work.

Compelling Direction

Too often, Hackman states, teams are encouraged to set their own direction for the work in the spirit of self-management. In actuality, effective team self-management is impossible unless an authority figure determines and articulates a challenging and important direction of the team's work. This can include team consultation and a revision process, but leadership must ultimately determine the direction and goals of the work in order to energize team members, focus their attention, and engage their best talents. Leaders motivate and engage teams by articulating clear aspirations that deepen the meaning of the work and the importance of accomplishing it. Leaders also orient the actions and directions of a team by setting a compelling direction. When teams face obstacles, they use the direction set by leadership to choose the best alternative rather than speculating broadly. The alternative to compelling direction is a lack of clarity and endless discussions about the team's purpose.

Hackman writes extensively about setting compelling directions with attention to means versus ends. Ideally, a leader will articulate the overriding purpose of the work, explain what the purpose means operationally, but leave enough room or "surplus meaning" for team members to project their own interpretations onto the overall direction. Hackman emphasizes the need for members to develop rich and detailed images of the end states the team is to pursue. He also stresses the importance of performance challenges that are neither too easy nor too hard, but that are challenging. Maximum motivation, according to Hackman, is "wherever you have a fifty-fifty chance of success."

Enabling Structure

When designing work teams, leaders should put into place the basic structures that will foster effectiveness and minimize organizational obstacles. Structural features Hackman defines as key for setting the stage for effective teamwork include the design of the work the team will perform, the core norms of conduct that guide and constrain team behavior, and the composition of the team.

According to Hackman, team members develop internal motivation when they view their work as meaningful, feel personally responsible for work outcomes and feel that they receive trustworthy knowledge of the results of their efforts. Big work projects that are challenging, complete, and significant can minimize the problem of free-riders, especially if the team is kept as small as possible. Hackman states that teams should have the right and responsibility to monitor and manage its own work process; rather than micromanaging team work process, leaders should provide feedback about team outcomes. Leaders, however, need to design the work and the team structure so that feedback is sought and thoughtfully received by the team. Poorly designed teams with poor outcomes often deflect feedback and assume anti-learning stances that stunt both present and future work.

Establishing core norms of conduct, which specify what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable in the team, can strengthen structural design and team functioning. Hackman identifies primary norms, which are critical and set by management, and secondary norms, which should be left to the preferences of the team. Primary norms provide key organizational expectations to teams about operating autonomously but within clear boundaries. Secondary norms of courtesy, punctuality, etc. also help the group run smoothly, but they develop organically from within the group.

The final critical element in an effective enabling structure is the composition of the team. Research by Hackman and others shows that teams in the 4 to 6 member range tend to far outperform larger teams. Hackman offers the suggestion that charging team members with communicating with assigned colleagues not on the team before or after every meeting can keep teams small enough to be effective, but representative enough to be accepted. Hackman also urges leaders to consider carefully the mix of backgrounds and knowledge of a team and to work with members who struggle with interpersonal skills required of team dynamics. Excluding these members runs the risk of losing a potentially important perspective that is perceived by other group members as interpersonally discordant, but is actually materially discordant due to an unrepresented expertise or perspective. Careful attention to team formation prior to the beginning of work should minimize unproductive conflict but capitalize on healthy differences that can advance the work of the team.

Supportive Context

Where the first three conditions focus on teams themselves, the final two pertain to the organizational context in which teams operate. According to Hackman, research shows that three organizational systems are especially critical to supporting the work of teams: the reward system, the information system, and the education system.

The reward system should provide recognition and reinforcement contingent on excellent team performance. Recognition for good team performance serves to support and reinforce the team concept and sustain the collective motivation of members. To be effective, rewards must be valued by team members and significant enough to affect behavior, they must be based on team performance rather than on individual work, and they must be tied to clearly articulated performance goals.

Hackman also stresses the importance of an organization's information system in a team's ability to do its work. Providing teams access to resources and information can make their focus clearer and their planning more effective. The opposite problem is providing teams with too much information that is not germane to their work. Organizations serve themselves best when they consciously arrange to make readily available key information central to the success of teams.

The final element of a supportive context is an organization's educational system, which should provide training and technical assistance to teams as needed. The key with educational systems, according to Hackman, is to help work teams acquire the full complement of knowledge and skill required for excellent task performance.

Expert Coaching

The final enabling condition for successful teams lies in expert coaching, which involves direct interaction with a team designed to help members use their collective resources to accomplish the work. He cites research that has identified three key coachable areas with the most leverage on team effectiveness: effort individuals give to the collective work, performance strategies used by the team, and the knowledge and skill applied to the work.

Timing of coaching interventions goes hand in hand with the key elements above. Ongoing coaching and support provide important benefits, but research shows that the most critical times for strong coaching are at the beginning, midpoint, and end of work cycles of teams. Coaches can help teams have a good launch at the beginning of a team's creation or work cycle so that they are well bounded and collectively engaged, and coaches can help teams at the midpoint of a cycle reflect on the team's performance strategy on the work completed and the work to come. At the end of a work cycle, a strong coach will help a team "capture and internalize" the lessons that can be learned from the work experience. As a final point, Hackman also stresses that coaching needs to focus on a team's task performance processes and not on micromanaging interpersonal issues, which are often more affected by performance issues than true interpersonal conflict.


By getting these enabling conditions aligned and "pulling in the same direction," Hackman argues, leaders maximize the likelihood of creating powerful and successful teams that satisfy clients, enrich individual members, and improve the organization through continually improving teams.

While Hackman's research on work teams focuses exclusively on the enabling structural conditions described above, organizational learning research emphasizes interpersonal and cognitive factors to explain team effectiveness (Edmondson, 1999). The Internal Coherence framework incorporates both structural conditions and interpersonal process factors including psychological safety, accountability, and the use of protocols in considering the work of supporting teams.

The Internal Coherence Assessment and Protocol was developed by a team consisting of Richard Elmore, Michelle Forman, Elizabeth Leisy Stosich, and Candice Bocala.


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The Internal Coherence project draws heavily from the work of Harvard University Professor Richard Hackman, whose book Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances (Harvard Business School Press, 2002), identifies specific structural features that foster work team effectiveness. His book is designed to help leaders maximize the likelihood that teams in the organization will perform well, by drawing attention to five high-impact conditions for them to focus on as they design and support the work of teams.