Part 3 of a series that explores the effectiveness of individuals, teams, and organizations

The factors that drive team performance are very well researched. This post is based on Richard J. Hackman’s research on team performance.   Mr. Hackman has been a Harvard professor who specialized in organizational psychology.[1]He is recognized today as the most authoritative voice on the topic of team performance. He devoted his academic life to the research of teams. In his 2002 book “Leading Teams” he came up with a list of five conditions that foster team performance. I took the liberty of re-ordering and often re-naming these factors for better understandability.[2]

This re-ordered model of team performance is based on a total of twelve conditions. Nine conditions internal to a team, and three conditions external to it. This effectiveness model aims to be collectively exhaustive and mutually exclusive.

Screenshot 2018-09-06 12.59.18.png

All the twelve factors listed do matter, for any team. There is no weighting given with this model. Weightings depend on the specific performance context the team is in at a certain point in time.

The twelve factors are no menu card. You can’t choose to run a team by, say “a compelling direction “and “small size” only while neglecting the other factors and still expect high performance. In general, all 12 conditions must be there for a team to achieve great things. They are reinforcing one another.

Meaning and Spirit – the Internal Conditions of Effective Teams

The internal conditions are those that held within the team. Some of those might be set externally at the start of the team effort, but once the team effort starts they are the essence of what this team is all about. They become internalized into the fabric of the team.

There are two categories of internal conditions: Meaning and Spirit. The five conditions subsumed under Meaning describe what the team is all about:  The direction of the teams work, the tasks that they are doing, team size, the scope of the effort and its composition and stability. Meaningful work engages people. Meaning does describe why something is to done and what people do. It’s a reason to climb up to a summit and a clear view of the mountain. To be clear on the meaning to a team is a good start to pay off the motivational debt of teams.

The Spirit of a team is describing how the team approaches their work: The impact people they feel their work has, their level of aspiration to do great things, the way they think about their ability to speak up, and the level of transparency and trust.

Let’s start with exploring the five factors that make up teams Meaning first.

Condition 1: A Compelling Direction

A compelling direction has several functions in a team setting:

  • Harnessing the team to the targets of the organization
  • A source of motivation
  • Provide direction for decisions to be made
  • Align the actions of all team members towards the common goal

Setting a compelling direction is more than goal setting. To set goals is a classic, often useful management practice. Goal setting is the art of laying out clear goals, for example by using the SMART criteria that decrees that targets should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-based. Setting a goal implies setting an end-point, a definite location that to achieve.

However, the higher the performance aspiration of a team, the less traditional goal setting will suffice. First, in complex environments where solutions cannot be known at the start of the effort, being too SMART in goal setting, will be limiting for the team. If the problem is complex, it is not wise to be too specific. Goals need to be described on a high level and vague level. Being too specific will determine outcomes in ways that are hard to anticipate before the team gets its hands dirty on the complex matter itself. Second, for a team, it is often crucial to figure things out for themselves. It is tough for any team member to latch her intrinsic drive on to the team’s mission if too much is already defined. By supplying overly detailed goal criteria, the freedom of the team to do what it deems to be best is limited.

It is a better idea to get a team to work itself into the subject matter – to advance in a given general direction. It will find out new things and will over time and decide then what to go for and where to end up. For teams, a direction works better than specific goals.

Let me give you a prime example of how to set directions, but not goals.

Mission Type Tactics

Providing a direction is nothing else than giving a mission. This style of command is known as “Mission Type Command” in military command theory. Its origin is the German “Auftragstaktik” is attributed to the Chief of Staff of the Prussian Army Erich von Moltke. Auftragstaktik and has been a core element of German military thinking, and modern military tactics, ever since.[3]

In mission-type tactics, a subordinate commander is assigned a mission, the resources available to attain it, and a time frame. The subordinate leader then implements the order independently. The subordinate leader is given, to a large extent, the planning initiative and freedom in the execution. Thus, a high degree of flexibility at the operational and tactical levels of command is achieved. Mission-type orders free the more senior leadership from tactical details.[4]

The opposite of Mission type tactic is the Command tactic. People using command tactics give exact orders, SMART orders. Maybe too SMART.  To manage teams effectively, managers need to learn a new trick and refrain from providing precise orders. Instead, they need to be vaguer. They need to point in a direction. Now, this might seem like an ideal excuse to give sloppy orders: “I do not need to be exact in what I am ordering you – go find it out yourself.” Sloppy orders would leave the team wondering what to do, wasting time and possibly never get anywhere.

To specify missions and not end up issuing sloppy orders is hard. Giving an excellent mission to the team requires much thoughtfulness on the part of the one defining the mission. Here is some guidance:

  • Describe the mission as an intent, not end-point[5]
  • Give boundary conditions, that act as guard rails
  • Refrain from determining the ways of getting towards the intent

Mastering the art of mission command might be one of the most crucial things that distinguish an ordinary boss from a great leader, both of military as of business organizations. It takes much humility to accept a variation in methods and a variation in outcomes.[6]  It takes the willingness to accept the risk that one’s intent is misinterpreted. It takes willpower to refrain from being too explicit and not declare once own perception to be the truth. There is a lot of doubt and uncertainty involved in trusting other people to do your bidding to their best of abilities.

These are all reasons why mission-type tactics are seldom used in traditional businesses. Mission type tactics are best used in environments of uncertainty, complex situations where swift action based on local knowledge on the spot of the action is crucial. Alas, traditional businesses and management practices are aiming at eliminating uncertainty, to fence it in, to produce predictable, constant outputs. Things that worked fine in the industrial revolution, but that are deeply problematic for many challenges posed by the digital age.

There is another snatch: Mission-type tactics alone do not work well if used in a traditional business environment. To understand a direction, the intent and not the end-point, in spirit and not only to the letter, the team needs to have a splendid view of the organizations need, with all its various constituents who are invested in or impacted by the team’s efforts. Even more than a genuine understanding of the situation, the team needs to have a view on the dynamics of the situation: Is the stated intent really what a constituent wants? The more complex and dynamic the situation is, the more the team needs to develop, maintain and test a hypothesis how the intent of the organization might be changing over the course of the team effort. This level of visibility needs much more close bonds between people and a level of transparency that is hard to find in most companies. It requires a supportive organizational environment geared towards shaping intense personal relationships and a culture of organizational transparency.

Who set’s the Teams Direction?

The first thing is to be clear about is who is setting the overall direction of the team. This is usually not the teams’ job, but the person or group that want something to be done. The need to get something done is, of course, the very reason why a team exists. A team is a tool at the hands of someone or a group to get something done.

There is just one exception to that rule: In a self-governing team, a form of organization used in highly innovative or egalitarian organizations, which are not bound to conventional hierarchy, a team may choose its own direction. An example is a community of interest, which can work even in hierarchical business, where co-workers are forming teams on their own initiative and waiting for followers to “vote with their feet” and self-assigning them to a cause. While this form of a team is still somewhat exotic in a business environment, its results are often attractive. Organizations employing those teams at scale are Google, Netflix, IDEO, Haier, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Microsoft, and many others. For the overwhelming majority of businesses, most goals need to be set by the hierarchy in a way to serve its needs.

A Mission does not need to be Inspiring

While it is difficult to set a good mission, it is still not enough. The mission needs to be compelling, too. Nowadays we tend to understand the word “compelling” synonymous with adjectives like inspiring, purposeful, or motivating. However, compelling can as well be connected with attributes like coercive, forceful, or void of alternatives. A compelling direction may not at all be a positive one. Take for example the need to close some operations and lay-off people. This can be a compelling target, too, because management has decreed this, and might frame it as a cut necessary for the survival of the whole organization. Most of the time, we tend to think of teams and business of being a growth story, forward-thinking, providing opportunities and winning. This is quite silly, as leading organizations and teams means not only to be starting things but to be ending things, too. An inspiring mission is excellent and much preferable – but a sincere one will do just fine.

But if the direction of a team is not inspiring, how can a team member ever give her or his best? She might be compelled or even coerced to do things, but surely her intrinsic motivation will take a hit and limit her performance, right? Perfectly right, an uninspiring (but still compelling) direction results in intrinsic motivation taking a hit at the start of the project. However, it is just the start of the project. This debt can be recouped. People are terrific to find their sense of purpose once the team progresses. One of the most potent biases there is, the confirmation bias, lets people reinterpret their world in a way to see their actions and the actions of others in a more positive light over time. Individual autonomy enables people to find their purpose even within a compelling but uninspiring setting. This personal purpose might not be felt at the start, but a good team context might enable every team member to find her or his purpose while working towards the goal of the project.

The quest to come up with an inspiring, instead of just a compelling direction is morally laudable, and it is beneficial for team performance. However, it is not needed to achieve high performance in teams. Think of it this way: What is an inspiring target for one person, might have little attraction for another. What can be inspiring on a high level, might be lost entirely in the daily struggle to get things done.  Motivation is a very individual thing. To come up with an inspiring direction that motivates everyone, independently of personal idiosyncrasies, is hard. Not every company is there to save the world. There is a job to be done, and it needs to be done for a compelling reason. That’s good enough. Inspiration is laudable, but it also is optional, often unrealistic and therefore usually ends up existing in shallow corporate slogans only.

To seek congruence between the direction of a team and the motivation of individuals often means to fight a losing battle. Instead, come up with a sincere direction, and let the group dynamics their individual motivational dispositions to the overall direction over time, while working towards the target. A sincere direction is often more practical and meaningful than sending people on an inspired mission invented by someone else or during a group “visioning workshop.”

 Warning: Directions release Energies

The more compelling the direction of the team is for its members the more energy will be released. Surely, releasing energy is a good thing to get things done, but releasing energy is dangerous. Usually, if given a choice between an under-energized and an over-energized team, most managers and organizations would choose an over-energized “squad”. The over-energized team might break things, in its push to get things done, but it gets things moving. But there are problems.

If the organization is not mobilized to a sufficient level for the change that the team is supposed to bring into life and the team is not able to pace its enthusiasm to what the organization can absorb, clashes will occur. These clashes might destroy the team’s energy level and burn significant relational capital that the team needs to succeed. A team’s effort is a lot about pacing. A team leads a change effort inside a company. Therefore, it needs to be visible to the other co-workers and not disappear out of sight of the rest organization. Enthusiasm is a virtue but might lead to frustration. A measured pace is often preferable over short-term euphoria. After all, most really significant changes are rather marathons than sprints.

Next post will take a look at Condition II:  “A True Team Task”. I hope you enjoyed this post. Let me know what you think!

Key points

  • Effective teams require 12 Conditions: 9 internal and three external to a team
  • Two types of internal Conditions can be identified:   Meaning & Spirit
  • The first condition is: A Compelling Direction
    • Mastering the art of mission command might be one of the most crucial things that distinguish an ordinary boss from a great leader
    • Mission-type tactics alone do not work well if used in a traditional business environment
    • To seek congruence between the direction of a team and the motivation of individuals often means to fight a losing battle
    • A team’s effort is a lot about pacing

Sources and Footnotes

[1]Hackman, Richard (2002) ‘Leading teams’

[2]According to Prof. Hackman there are 5 factors that driving team performance: 1. A Real Team 2. A Compelling Direction 3. An Enabling structure 4. A Supportive Context and 5. Coaching. All these factors and not more are represented in the model I give here. Just that I extended those factors to 12, as I think there is too much of importance hidden underneath some factors, especially in factor 3 “enabling structure”.

[3]Mission type tactics has been at the heart of German military doctrine ever since the three successful campaigns for German unification against Denmark, Austria and France at the end of the 19thCentury. A large part of the successes of the World War I’s “Sturmtruppen” (Small team tactics) or World War II’s “Blitzkrieg”, can be attributed to the vast discretion given to commanders at the front. For more an Moltkes command style see Barry, Quintin (2015) ‘Moltke and his Generals – a Study in Leadership’.

[4]Paraphrased from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mission-type_tactics

[5]In western military this is known as “Commanders Intent”. It is the second item on any mission briefing, just behind a description of the situation.

[6]Does anyone remember the “Fuzzy” Movement in the 2000’s? A hype term borrowed from electronics (“fuzzy logic”) that has been used in business to praise the virtues of vagueness and heuristics.

Posted by Frank Thun

Management. Systems. Liberation

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