Why Teams Don’t
Muhammad Saad Mazhar
An Interview with:
J. Richard Hackman
by Diane Coutu
• Hackman, a professor of organizational psychology at Harvard
and a leading expert on teams.
• Why teams underperform despite all their extra resources?
• interview taken by senior editor Diane Coutu
• Hackman explores other fallacies about teams
• Leaders can’t make a team do well.
• Historically, leaders are quick to assume that teams are the best
way to get the job done.
• An Interview with J. Richard Hackman, the Edgar Pierce Professor of
Social and Organizational Psychology
• HBR senior editor Diane Coutu interviewed Hackman in his Harvard
• His research shows, Mostly, team members don’t even agree on
what the team is supposed to be doing
• Also, leader isn’t disciplined about managing who is on the team
and how it is set up
You begin your book Leading Teams with a pop quiz:
When people work together to build a house, will the job
probably (a) get done faster, (b) take longer to finish, or (c)
not get done?
• That multiple choice question
• People tend to think that teams are the democratic
• Research consistently shows that teams underperform,
despite all the extra resources they have.
• problems with coordination and motivation
• it’s often in competition with other teams
You’ve said that for a team to be successful,
it needs to be real. What does that mean?
• It means that teams have to be bounded
• Make sure that you know who’s on it.
• Every senior team we studied thought that it had set
• The chief executive frequently creates a dysfunctional team,
citing political reasons.
• Top executives like CFO are mostly not included in teams.
You also say that a team needs a
compelling direction. How does it get one?
• No right way to set a direction
• Responsibility can fall to the team leader or to someone in
• A leader sometimes encounters resistance so intense that it
can place his or her job at risk.
• Setting a direction is emotionally demanding because it
always involves the exercise of authority, and that inevitably
arouses angst and ambivalence
What are some common fallacies about
• teams that work together harmoniously are better and more
productive than teams that don’t.
• bigger teams are better than small ones
• at some point team members become so comfortable and
familiar with one another that they start accepting one
another’s foibles, and as a result performance falls off.
• He refute all the aforementioned fallacies with logical
So newness is a liability?
• The research confirming that is incontrovertible.
• The National Transportation Safety Board found that 73% of
the incidents in its database occurred on a crew’s first day of
• 44% of those took place on a crew’s very first flight
• a NASA study found that fatigued crews who had a history of
working together made about half as many errors as crews
composed of rested pilots who had not flown together before.
So why don’t airlines stick to the same
• it isn’t efficient from a financial perspective.
• To maximize their utilization.
• The counterexample, by the way, is the Strategic Air
Command, or SAC
• which would have delivered nuclear bombs had that become
necessary during the Cold War years.
• When you’re working together in real time and there can be
no mistakes, then you keep your teams together for years
and years rather than constantly change their composition.
If teams need to stay together to achieve the best
performance, how do you prevent them from
• Deviant comes in.
• Deviant thinking is a source of great innovation.
• The deviant veers from the norm at great personal cost.
• Many team leaders crack down on deviants and try to get
them to stop asking difficult questions, maybe even knock
them off the team
• They are willing to say the thing that nobody else is willing to
What makes a team effective, and how can
a team’s leader make it perform better?
• A good team will satisfy its internal or external clients
• But even the best leader on the planet can’t make a team do
• A team will be great by putting into place five conditions:
1: Teams must be real.
2: Teams need a compelling direction.
3: Teams need enabling structures.
4: Teams need a supportive organization
5: Teams need expert coaching.
• He studied teams performing diverse tasks in 27
• Things that happen the first time a group meets strongly
affect how the group operates throughout its entire life.
• Establishes not only where the group is going but also what
the relationship will be between the team leader and the
Off and Running: Barack Obama Jump-Starts
• Obama appointed his administration’s top officials much
faster than most presidents do.
• Although, some of his choices didn’t work out
• Obama has certainly brought onto his team people of strong
temperaments and contrasting views
• It shows his eagerness to harness the talent of his former
• Opposite with the record of George W. Bush;
• This is what happened with Franklin Roosevelt, who also
brought strong-minded figures into his government.
• FDR temperamentally loved the infighting.
• believing that competition evoked the best performance from
• However, most presidents prefer a happy ship.
• Richard Nixon fired his interior secretary, Walter Hickel
• “Better to use the Roosevelt-Obama model”
• The reappointment of Bush’s defense secretary, Robert Gates,
• This decision has the historical echo of John Kennedy’s nearreappointment in 1961
• Kennedy was a young president with little national security
background and thought it might reassure people to have the
previous defense secretary stay on at the Pentagon.
• Obama who can convey his view of the country and the world and
why he thinks his plans will work.
• Hillary Clinton’s biggest criticisms
• But his speeches done a lot to gain acceptance for his programs
from skeptical Americans.
• I once asked Christopher Hogwood, the distinguished
conductor for many years of the Handel and Haydn Society in
• , how important the first rehearsal was when he served as an
orchestra’s guest conductor.
• .” He went on to explain that there’s nothing he pays greater
attention to than the way he starts the first rehearsal
• orchestra members will make a very quick assessment about
whether or not they’re going to make great music together, or
whether he is just going to get in their way.
• One has to embrace his own quirkiness.
• Each leader brings to the task his or her own strengths and
• Don’t try to ape any leadership model or team
• There are many different ways to create the conditions for
effectiveness, sustain them, and help teams take full
advantage of them.
How good are companies at providing a
supportive context for teams?
• Best human resource departments often do things that are
completely at odds with good team behavior
• coaching individual team members did not do all that much
to help executive teams perform better.
• For the team to reap the benefits of coaching, it must focus
on group processes. And timing is everything.
• Team coaching is about fostering better teamwork on the
task, not about enhancing members’ social interactions or
There’s a lot of talk about virtual teams these days. Can
they work, or are they falling victim to what Jo Freeman
once called the “tyranny of structurelessness”?
• He doesn’t believe they differ fundamentally from traditional
• virtual teams need the basic conditions for effectiveness to be
in place just as much as face-to-face teams
• He said, “I don’t think for a minute that we’re going to have
effective online teams if we don’t know who’s on the team or
what the main work of the team really is, and so far that’s
still a problem with virtual teams.”
Given the difficulty of making teams work, should
we be rethinking their importance in
• There are many things individuals can do better on their
own, and they should not be penalized for it.
• There are many cases where collaboration, is a hindrance
rather than a help.
• The challenge for a leader, then, is to find a balance between
individual autonomy and collective action.
• underperform despite all their extra resources.
• The interview with Hackman, a professor of organizational
psychology at Harvard and a leading expert on teams.
• All the interviewing questions
• How to Build a Team
• Off and Running: Barack Obama Jump-Starts His Team
• To find a balance between individual autonomy and
Feedback is welcome