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.
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:
- The variables used in the model make non-trivial difference to group performance
- It is feasible to change them in an organization
- 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:
- The level of effort group members collectively expend carrying out task work,
- The amount of knowledge and skill members bring to bear on the group task, and
- The appropriateness to the task of the performance strategies used by the group in its work.
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:
- The design of the group as a performing unit: the structure of the group task, the composition of the group, and the group norms that regulate member behaviour
- The organizational context of the group: the reward, education, and information systems that influence the group, and the material resources that are put at the group’s disposal
- Group synergy resulting from members’ interactions as they carry out the task
Conditions that support effort
To expect a group to work hard on the group task, the following should be met:
- The group task requires members to use a variety of relatively high-level skills.
- The group task is a whole and meaningful piece of work, with a visible outcome.
- The outcomes of the group’s work on the task have significant consequences for other people (eg. other organisation members or external clients)
- The task provides group members with substantial autonomy for deciding about hwo they do the work — in effect, the group “owns” the task and is responsible for the work outcomes.
- Work on the task generates regular, trustworthy feedback about how well the group is performing.
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.
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:
- Challenging, specific performance objectives
- Positive consequences for excellent performance
- Rewards and objectives that focus on group, not individual, behaviour
The destructive effects of rewarding individual rather than team performance can be considerable.
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:
- Minimise inappropriate weighting of member contributions
- Foster collective learning
Design of the group
A group’s composition is the most important condition. Well-composed groups have the following characteristics:
- Individual members have high task-relevant expertise
- The group is large enough to do the work (but no bigger)
- Members have interpersonal as well as task skills
- Membership is moderately diverse (enough diversity to cover needed talent, yet similar enough to allow understanding and co-ordination)
Task appropriate performance
To support a task appropriate performance strategy, some other factors to consider:
- Design of the group
- Group norms support self-regulation
- Group norms suport situational scanning and strategic planning
- Organisational context
- Clarity about the parameters of the performance situation
- Access to data about likely consequences of alternative strategies
- Group synergy
- Minimizing slippage in strategy implementation (eg. get to value quickly)
- Creating innovative strategic plans
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:
- Creating performance conditions
- Forming and building the team
- 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
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.
Leading Teams — Hackman’s continued refinement of his model, including examples.
The book distills the enabling conditions down to: A Real Team, Compelling Direction, Enabling Structure, Supportive Context, Expert Coaching
60% of the variation in team effectiveness is attributable to the design of the team, 30% to the way the team is launched, and 10% to leader coaching once the team is underway.
Thank you to Peter Antman for the recommendation to look into Hackman’s work.