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The design of work teams

Modern work is all about teams. They are at the core of agile development.

To help better understand how design effective work teams, it is worth reading through J. Richard Hackman’s 1987 research paper: The design of work teams.

The paper is dense reading, so I extracted some relevant sections for future reference.

Background research

From the summary of earlier research, I found this interesting:

In sum, research findings regarding process interventions suggest that structured techniques that minimize process losses (or reduce their effects) can be helpful. On the other hand, interventions that attempt to improve the quality of interpersonal relations among members to promote synergistic “process gains” appear not to yield reliable improvements in group task effectiveness.

That is, there is more improvements to gain from the lean approach to reducing waste, and less from the common soft approaches to improving team interactions.

A Normative Model of Group Effectiveness

The goal of the paper is to create a model of group effectiveness, based on research, such that:

  1. The variables used in the model make non-trivial difference to group performance
  2. It is feasible to change them in an organization
  3. People can understand and use them.

To be effective, the model is restricted to work groups in organizations. Fortunately, this is the circumstances most of us find ourselves in.

Hackman goes on to propose that the overall effectiveness of work groups in organizations is a joint function of:

These are the hurdles a group must surmount to be effective, however don’t provide clear ways of modifying group behaviour. Instead, he goes on to examine the impact of the following classes of variables:

Conditions that support effort

To expect a group to work hard on the group task, the following should be met:

If a group task meets these criteria, it is likely that members will experience their work as meaningful and feel collectively responsible. Improving the design of a group’s work is usually a better way to foster high collective effort than directly addressing group norms about productivity.

Organisational context

Providing a supportive environment for teams becomes the key responsibility of an organisation.

Reward systems that support high effort by teams tend to have the following three features:

The destructive effects of rewarding individual rather than team performance can be considerable.

Group synergy

Group synergy can contribute in two ways, either by avoiding process losses or by finding ways to create new internal resources that can be used in their work — capabilities that did not exist before the group created them.

It is not clear that building a great “spirit” in the team is sustainable or if that commitment is sustainable if performance conditions remain poor.

Some other considerations:

Design of the group

A group’s composition is the most important condition. Well-composed groups have the following characteristics:

Task appropriate performance

To support a task appropriate performance strategy, some other factors to consider:

Excellent group performance requires both a good design for the team and a supportive organisation. Group synergy then acts as an amplifier to tune the impact of design and context.

An Action Model for Improving Group Effectiveness

The normative model (above) helps understand what conditions should be present. The next step is a theory of action as to how to create teams that fit the model.

Diagnosis of existing teams

The approach to diagnosis depends on the organisational structure, particularly the distribution of authority, and the tasks assigned to the team.

Most agile teams are self-managing work groups, where the team members themselves are responsible for monitoring and managing their own processes as well as executing on the task.

Their performance depends on the quality of team design, the organisational context, and on the competence of teh group in managing and executing its work.

Some teams are self-designing, where management’s role is limited to the team’s organisational context.

Creating new teams

The short version is that you should create teams that rank high on each of the variables in the model. There is much more detail in the article, broken down into four stages:

  1. Prework
  2. Creating performance conditions
  3. Forming and building the team
  4. Providing on-going assistance

Once a group is functioning as a social system, it will largely control its own destiny. Managers can assist the group by making it easy for members to re-negotiate situations that impede performance, by ensuring members get on-going assistance to operate as a team, and by helping the group learn from its experiences.

Management of teams

On leadership

Most research has focused on what leaders do within groups, however in this context, leadership has the most influence in how to frame the groups task, structure the group, its context, and to help get the group up and running.

It is not required to have an explicit leader within the group, although this may make sense if substantial co-ordination is required. This is something that should arise from within the group rather than be decided in advance.

On Creating Redundant Conditions

There are many ways for a group to be effective, and even more for it to be ineffective. Thus, it is impossible to specify in detail specific behaviours managers should adopt to help groups perform effectively.

Based on the model and research, the key to effective group management may be to create redundant conditions that support good performance, leaving groups room to develop and enact their own ways of operating within those conditions.

Group performance does not have clean, unitary causes. To help a group improve its effectiveness involves doing whatever is possible to create multiple, redundant conditions that together may nudge the group toward more competent task behaviour and, eventually, better performance.

On Managerial Authority

Given the increase in autonomy and empowerment of teams, this suggests that management attention be re-directed towards improving organisational conditions that foster and support effective group behaviour.

Managerial authority should also be used to establish and enforce standards of group behaviour and acceptable performance. Being vague can be as bad to a group as traditional hands-on supervision. To enable groups to use their authority well, managers must not be afraid to exercise their own.

On Knowing Some Things

This approach to managing effective teams may require unfamiliar and seemingly awkard management behaviours. To manage teams well, one needs to know some things, have some skills and have opportunities to practice.

Investment in training, mentoring and coaching of managagers will result in those who are expert in creating work teams, developing them, and harvesting the considerable contributions they have to make to organisational effectiveness.

Further reading

Thank you to Peter Antman for the recommendation to look into Hackman’s work.