Richard Hackman on Teamwork

15 Apr

I will be interviewing Profesor Richard Hackman, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard. Hackman conducts research on the secrets of effective teamwork, “ranging from airplane cockpit crews to musical ensembles.”

Hackman suggests five conditions that must be met to foster successful teamwork.  These conditions are: (1) the team must be a real team, rather than a team in name only; (2) the team must have a compelling direction for its work; (3) the team must have an enabling structure that facilitates teamwork; (4) the team must operate within a supportive organizational context; and (5) the team must have expert teamwork coaching.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Hackman identifies many different types of teams.  For example, production and service teams are composed of members who must work together to create an outcome for which the entire team is held accountable.  In coaching groups, the members work independently with the group produce later spliced together.  In distributed teams, the members are geographically dispersed and rely mainly on electronic means of to communicate and coordinate with each other.  In leadership teams, the members “collectively set and implement the strategic direction of the enterprise.”  I imagine that this teamwork framework could be applied to any team based area in law, ranging from law school to law firms.  I will ask Professor Hackman where he thinks these categories of teams are found in law related fields, and how identifying the type of team dynamic can be used to facilitate team effectiveness.

In this HBR article, his focus was on a newly emerging type of team: Sand Dune Teams.  While research suggests that teams are more effective when the membership is clear and stable over time, the contemporary workforce often presents a type of team that defies this general trend. Hackman calls this type of team the sand dune team.  As Hackman describes it: “Just as sand dunes alter in number and shape as winds and tides shift, so teams of various sizes and kinds form and re-form within an organization as external demands and requirements change.”  Sand dune teams are well suited for fast-changing context “in which surprise is the rule” or in settings where the members do not work together on a regular basis.  The sand dune teams must assume various forms for the different tasks they confront.  Hackman suggests that sand dune teams  could be well suited for intelligence work such as dealing with terrorist threats.  I will ask Hackman how sand dune teams fit into the legal profession. I would guess that many lawyers are often collaborating in sand dune teams – from negotiations to court rooms, lawyers are constantly working with different clients and partners trying to solve different types of problems and cases.

I will also ask Professor Hackman how on can foster an effective sand dune group when faced with the situations in which sand dune teams are required. He has suggested that sand dune teams have proved most effective when they are in organizational units with a size of around 30 or fewer members and relatively stable over time. This allows the group to develop norms and routines within the group, which fosters smooth work. While Professor Hackman has identified the five conditions that must be met to foster successful teamwork in general (discussed above), he admits that currently, we have not identified the minimum conditions that must be met for sand dune teams. Additional research will focus on what features and technologies will help foster effective sand dune teams, perhaps especially when the members are dispersed. He stated that answering these questions are high on his research agenda.  I will ask him what he has discovered in his research about these questions, and what other questions his current researching is focusing on.  So far, I have found Hackman’s work fascinating and am looking forward to reading more of his publications and getting to know his work.

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One Response to “Richard Hackman on Teamwork”

  1. Michael Lieberman April 4, 2011 at 2:27 am #

    To go along with the basketball photo and the poetry I offered last week, here’s a poem by Rudyard Kipling which demonstrates what I take as the overarching theme of Hackman’s five conditions. I am pulling this from Phil Jackson’s (head coach of the Lakers) book “Sacred Hoops”, in which he goes into detail about his own theory of teamwork and team-building, which shares many characteristics with Hackman’s; Jackson stresses the subordination of the individual for the goals of the team.

    Now this is the Law of the Jungle–
    as old and as true as the sky;
    And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper,
    but the Wolf that shall break it must die.
    As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk,
    the law runneth forward and back–
    For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf,
    and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

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