A Summary of the Book – Leading Teams by J. Richard Hackman

by Chima Ihebuzor

Leading Teams: Setting The Stage for Great Performances is a book by J. Richard Hackman. Published in 2002, the book examines what make a good team leader and how teams can function well to achieve their goals. The book is divided into three parts, each once covering one or more chapters.

Part one is titled “Teams” and features only one chapter called “The Challenge”. This section of the book explores how teams can be picked and trained to consistently provide satisfactory services to customers while still being motivated and energetic. For this chapter, Hackman provides examples in the form of how senior leaders at two different airlines structured and supported teams of flight attendants. One airline achieved a great deal of control over flight attendant behavior, but at a considerable cost in motivation and creativity. The other airline achieved nearly the opposite outcomes; its customer service teams were overflowing with innovation and enthusiasm to solve problems, but their managers expressed concern of their stability and trustworthiness. Hackman surmises that there must exist a balance between a motivated workforce and a predictable, manageable one. The chapter ends by identifying the five conditions a leader can use to create and nurture an effective team. They are:

  • A real team (rather than a team in name only)
  • A compelling direction for the team
  • An enabling direction that facilitates rather than impedes teamwork
  • A supportive organizational context for the team to operate within
  • And finally, expert coaching in teamwork

Part two is titled “Enabling Conditions” and is composed of chapters 2 through 6. It can be considered the core of the book, as it focuses on the five conditions mentioned in chapter one. Each condition is the subject of its own chapter.

In “A Real Team”, Hackman looks at the tendency to assign blame or credit depending on how poorly or admirably the team has performed. A team’s success is often attributed to its leader, while a team that has performed poorly often looks to find a convenient scapegoat. However, a true team is one in which both leader and team members contribute.

There a four features of a real team; a task, team members knowing each other well and understanding boundaries, delimited authority and stability over time.

In “Compelling Direction”, Hackman looks at the direction a team needs. The chapter also looks at the benefits a compelling direction has for team members. It energizes by giving them purpose and meaning. Hackman sites a real life example in the form of John F. Kennedy galvanizing speech regarding the US space program in 1961 and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech, which inspired countless people. Establishing a clear direction is a powerful motivator.

A compelling direction can also orient a team in that it leads to a positive outcome that wasn’t even intended or considered. An example would be how Pfizer scientists discovered sildenafil citrate could also be used to treat erectile dysfunction while testing to see if the drug could be used to treat blood pressure.

Finally, a compelling direction keeps a team engaged in pursuing their goals even in their “off time”. If the team feels fully invested in accomplishing their task, they are more likely to succeed with flying colors.

“Enabling Structure” is the third chapter and third condition. This refers to the arrangement of the organization’s hierarchy and how well it is designed to allow the teams to do their job properly. Hackman sites feminist political scientist Jo Freeman, who argued that feminists could not get anywhere if they did not learn to adapt to and use structures for feminist goals. An enabling structure also requires designing work for team, which comes with pros and cons. For instance, if a team is given autonomy, they may excel. However, there is also room for such a team to fail, and their failure will be quite noticeable.

We then move on to the fourth chapter, “Supportive Context”. According to Hackman, a good organization supports its teams with the following three systems: the reward system (to provide recognition and reinforcement contingent on excellent team performance), the information system (to provide teams, at their own initiative whenever possible, the data and projections that members need to competently plan and execute their work) and the educational system (to make training and technical assistance available to work teams for any aspects of the work in which members are not already sufficiently knowledgeable or skilled).

The fifth and last condition is “Expert Coaching”. Appropriately, Hackman opens this chapter with an anecdote about a high school basketball coach. This is the chapter most focused on the role and importance of the leader to a team. Expert coaching can significantly enhance team performance processes as managing member effort, selecting and implementing its task performance strategies and in utilizing members’ talents. What can coaches do and when can they do it to help a work team manage the three key performance processes efficiently and well. The chapter also points out that a good leader, or “coach”, should also know when to step back and let things be sorted out rather than trying to control every minute aspect of their team.

The third and final part of the book is called “Opportunities” and consist of chapters 7 and 8. Chapter 7 is titled “Imperatives for Leaders” and is focused on what effective leaders do and don’t do. Effective leaders are smart enough not to rely on one single strategy and create all five of the aforementioned conditions needed for effective teams to thrive. An effective leader must know how to make good decisions and negotiate. There is no one single way to achieve these goals, but any leader who can achieve them is a good leader.

“Thinking Differently About Teams” looks at the various obstacles to team effectiveness and root causes of these obstacles. Hackman puts forth that the main obstacles to teams are co-op members spending too much time debating their values, purposes and directions, and organizational structures having rules and limits too focused on managing employees on an individual level rather than a collective. According to Hackman, the root cause of this issue is an inability to establish the conditions that allow teams to perform to maximum efficiency. Defeating these obstacles requires looking the four “whos”: who decides how the work is carried out, who is responsible for outcomes, who gains something from a team’s work and who is learning among organization workers.

Leading Teams is a rich look into what makes a good leader and the importance of teamwork. It is a must read for those in the corporate world and its lessons can also be applied in other areas of life.

Published by chimaspeaks

I am a graduate of the Nile University of Abuja and a published writer with a collection of poems titled "The Power of Dreams: A Century of Poems". Reading and writing have long since been my hobbies and I enjoy sharing my passion with the world. I look at the words I create as a way of establishing a dialogue with my audience and I believe that I will have much to tell with this blog.

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