Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Conditions over causes: towards an emergent approach to building high-performance teams

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Much of the work that goes on in organisations is done by groups of people who work together in order to achieve shared objectives. Given this, it is no surprise that researchers have expended a great deal of effort in building theories about how teams work. However, as Richard Hackman noted in this paper,  more than 70 years of research (of ever-increasing sophistication) has not resulted in a true understanding of the factors that give rise to high-performing teams.  The main reason for this failure is that:

“…groups are social systems. They redefine objective reality, they create new realities (both for their members and in their system contexts), and they evolve their own purposes and strategies for pursuing those purposes. Groups are not mere assemblies of multiple cause–effect relationships; instead, they exhibit emergent and dynamic properties that are not well captured by standard causal models.”

Hackman had a particular interest in leadership as a causal factor in team performance.  One of the things he established is that leadership matters a whole lot less than is believed…or, more correctly, it matters for reasons that are not immediately obvious. As he noted:

“…60 per cent of the difference in how well a group eventually does is determined by the quality of the condition-setting pre-work the leader does. 30 per cent is determined by how the initial launch of the group goes. And only 10 per cent is determined by what the leader does after the group is already underway with its work. This view stands in stark contrast to popular images of group leadership—the conductor waving a baton throughout a musical performance or an athletic coach shouting instructions from the sidelines during a game.”

Although the numbers quoted above can be contested, the fact is that as far as team performance is concerned, conditions matter more than the quality of leadership. In this post, I draw on Hackman’s paper as well as my work (done in collaboration with Paul Culmsee) to argue that the real work of leaders is not to lead (in the conventional sense of the word) but to create the conditions in which teams can thrive.

The fundamental attribution error

Poor performance of teams is often attributed to a failure of leadership. A common example of this is when the coach of a sporting team is fired after a below par season. On the flip side, CxOs can earn big-buck dollar bonuses when their companies make or exceed their financial targets because they are seen as being directly responsible for the result.

Attributing the blame or credit for the failure or success of a team to a specific individual is called the leadership attribution error. Hackman suggested that this error is a manifestation of a human tendency to assign greater causal priority to factors that are more visible than those that are not: leaders tend to be in the limelight more than their teams and are therefore seen as being responsible for their teams’ successes and failures.

This leader-as-hero (or villain!)  perspective has fueled major research efforts aimed at pinning down those elusive leadership skills and qualities that can magically transform teams into super-performing ensembles.  This has been accompanied by a burgeoning industry of executive training programmes to impart these “scientifically proven” skills to masses of managers. These programmes, often clothed in the doublespeak of organisation culture, are but subtle methods of control that serve to establish directive approaches to leadership. Such methods rarely (if ever) result in high-performing organisations or teams.

An alternate approach to understanding team performance

The failure to find direct causal relationships between such factors and team performance led Hackman to propose a perspective that focuses on structural conditions instead. The basic idea in this alternate approach is to focus on the organisational and social conditions that enable the team to perform well.

This notion of  conditions over causes is relevant in other related areas too. Here are a couple of examples:

  1. Innovation: Most attempts to foster innovation focus on exhorting people to be creative and/or instituting innovation training programmes (causal approach). Such approaches usually result in  innovation of an incremental kind at best.  Instead, establishing a low pressure environment that enables people to think for themselves and follow-up on their ideas without fear of failure generally meets with more success (structural approach).
  2. Collaboration: Organisations generally recognise the importance of collaboration. Yet, they attempt to foster in the worst possible way: via the establishment of cross-functional teams without clear mandates or goals and/or forced team-building exercises that have the opposite effect to the one intended (causal approach).  The alternate approach is to simplify reporting lines, encourage open communication across departments  and generally make it easy for people from different specialisations to work together in informal groups (structural approach). A particularly vexing intra-departmental separation that I have come across recently is the artificial division of responsibilities between information systems development and delivery. Such a separation results in reduced collaboration and increased finger pointing.

That said, let’s take a look at Hackman’s advice on how to create an environment conducive to teamwork.  Hackman identified the following five conditions that tend to correlate well with improved team performance:

  • The group must be a real team– i.e. it must have clear boundaries (clarity as to who is a member and who isn’t), interdependence (the performance of every individual in the team must in some way depend on others in the team) and stability (membership of the team should be stable over time).
  • Compelling direction– the team must have a goal that is clear and worth pursuing. Moreover, and this is important, the team must be allowed to determine how the goal is to be achieved – the end should be prescribed, not the means.
  • The structure must enable teamwork– The team should be structured in a way that allows members to work together. This consists of a couple of factors: 1) The team must be of the right size – as small and diverse as possible (large, homogenous teams are found to be ineffective), and 2) There must be clear norms of conduct. Note that Hackman lists these two as separate points in his paper.
  • Supportive organizational context– the team must have the organisational resources that enable it to carry out its work. For example, access to the information needed for the team to carry out its work and access to technical and subject matter experts.  In addition, there should be a transparent reward system that provides recognition for good work.
  • Coaching– the team must have access to a mentor or coach who understands and has the confidence of the team. Apart from helping team members tide over difficult situations, a good coach should be able to help them navigate organizational politics and identify emerging threats and opportunities that may not be obvious to them.

To reiterate, these are structural rather than causal factors in that they do not enhance team performance directly. Instead, when present, they tend to encourage behaviours that enhance team performance and suppress those that don’t. 

Another interesting point is that some of these factors are more important than others. For example, Ruth Wageman found that team design (the constitution and structure of the team) is about four times more important than coaching in affecting the team’s ability to manage itself and forty times as powerful in affecting team performance (see this paper for details). Although the numbers should not be taken at face value, Wageman’s claim reiterates the main theme of this article: that structural factors matter more than causal ones.

The notion of a holding environment

One of the things I noticed when I first read Hackman’s approach is that it has some similarities to the one that Paul and I advocated in our book, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices.

The Heretic’s Guide is largely about collaborative approaches to managing (as opposed to solving!) complex problems in organisations. Our claim is that the most intractable problems in organisations are consequences of social rather than technical issues. For example, the problem of determining the “right” strategy for an organisation cannot be settled on objective grounds because the individuals involved will have diverse opinions on what the organisation’s focus should be.  The process of arriving at a consensual strategy is, therefore, more a matter of dealing with this diversity than reaching an objectively right outcome.  In other words, it is largely about achieving a common view of what the strategy should be and then building a shared commitment to executing it.

The key point is that there is no set process for achieving a shared understanding of a problem. Rather, one needs to have the right environment (structure!) in which contentious issues can be discussed openly without fear.  In our book we used the term holding environment to describe a safe space in which such open dialogue can take place.

The theory of communicative rationality formulated by the German philosopher, Juergen Habermas, outlines the norms that operate within a holding environment. It would be too long a detour to discuss Habermas’ work in any detail – see this paper or chapter 7 of our book to find out more. What is important to note is that an ideal holding environment has the following norms:

  1. Inclusion
  2. Autonomy
  3. Empathy
  4. Power neutrality
  5. Transparency

Problem is, some of these are easier to achieve than others. Inclusionautonomy and power neutrality can be encouraged by putting in place appropriate organisational structures and rules. Empathy and transparency, however, are typically up to the individual. Nevertheless, conditions that enable the former will also encourage (though not guarantee) the latter.

In our book we discuss how such a holding environment can be approximated in multi-organisational settings such as large projects.  It would take me too far afield to get into specifics of the approach here. The point I wish to make, however, is that the notion of a holding environment is in line with Hackman’s thoughts on the importance of environmental or structural factors.

In closing

Some will argue that this article merely sets up and tears down a straw man, and that modern managers are well  aware of the pitfalls of a directive approach to leading teams. Granted, much has been written about the importance of setting the right conditions (such as autonomy)…and it is possible that many managers are aware of it too. The point I would make is that this awareness, if it exists at all, has not been translated into action often enough.  As a result, the gap between the rhetoric and reality of leadership remains as wide as ever – managers talk the talk of leadership, but do not walk it.

Perhaps this is because many (most?) managers are reluctant let go the reins of control when they know they will be held responsible if things were to go belly-up.  The few who manage to overcome their fears know that it requires the ability to trust others, as well as the courage and integrity to absorb the blame  when things go wrong (as they inevitably will from time to time). These all too rare qualities are essential for the approach described here to truly take root and flourish.  In conclusion, I think it is fair to say that the  biggest challenges associated with building high-performance teams are ethical rather than technical ones.

Further Reading

Don’t miss Paul Culmsee’s entertaining and informative posts on the conditions over causes approach in enterprise IT and project management.

Written by K

January 29, 2015 at 9:03 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Damn great!
    Now we need not only to care about the strategy – execution gap, but also more specifically the organization – executing teams gap…

    Liked by 1 person


    January 29, 2015 at 10:51 pm

    • Hi Ricardo,

      Thanks for reading. I would argue that if one gets the environment (i.e. the organization-team equation) right, it is quite likely that there would no strategy-execution gap.





      February 1, 2015 at 9:32 pm

  2. Two outstanding points:
    “In other words, it is largely about achieving a common view of what the strategy should be and then building a shared commitment to executing it.”

    “The point I would make is that this awareness, if it exists at all, has not been translated into action often enough. As a result, the gap between the rhetoric and reality of leadership remains as wide as ever – managers talk the talk of leadership, but do not walk it. Perhaps this is because many (most?) managers are reluctant let go the reins of control when they know they will be held responsible if things were to go belly-up.”

    Talk about Heresy! 🙂 Yes, that’s the right word, because so many believe they are doing those things, and sometimes work in opposition to those beliefs. Calling it out is necessary; calling it out tactfully takes an unbelievably artistic touch. The more and more I encounter such issues, the less tactful I want to become. Certainly not a great prospect for career longevity at a particular company, but at some point, dancing around it does not solve the problem.

    Liked by 1 person

    Dave S

    January 31, 2015 at 5:24 am

    • Hi Dave,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and for your thoughtful comments.

      Indeed, I think most managers truly believe they are walking the talk of leadership when they actually aren’t…especially in difficult situations. It is easy to fake leader-like behaviour when the stakes are trivial, it’s much harder in situations that pit organisational imperatives against personal values. Most of us (myself included!) end up justifying indefensible actions by blaming the situation or the job. A true holding environment is one in which such dilemmas would simply not occur. Nice thought, but probably unrealistic since the difficulties are ethical rather than technical ones.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting – it’s hugely appreciated.





      February 1, 2015 at 9:29 pm

  3. HI Kailash,

    I can’t help but think that I’ve experienced (and perceived elsewhere) a significant difference in the structural aspects between large and small organizations. Working as a manager within a smaller organization, as would be expected there was a large degree of autonomy. This didn’t mean that the managers in the company always did what was best (far from it!), but they truly owned their results. There were not many times when their directions were dictated to them beyond the common-sense, such as staying within budget. However within a larger organization the managers were straight-jacketed by policies, many but not all HR-related. My understanding is that many of these policies were meant to encourage an environment of fairness, ethical behaviour and transparency. However, I think the real outcome was that those who were inclined to the opposite were simply driven to work harder and in more cunning ways to achieve their goals. In the meantime, it was not possible to arrange meaningful performance bonuses in a timely way (although they might follow 10 months later) or make other changes without having them diluted and dithered into meaningless half measures. A possible exception to this is small sub-organizations, teams assembled for so called sneaker projects.

    In this respect, I could see an argument that larger, established organizations need to depend upon a greater degree of consistency. Can high-performance teams really be tolerated in large corporations, or perhaps only with very well-defined, hard boundaries? With potentially more at stake, there is a lower tolerance for risk; think Barings Bank and Nick Leeson! Perhaps creating a holding environment in which contentious issues can be discussed without fear extends to the degree to which the executive culture is truly willing to consider strategies put forth that don’t adhere to the expected playbooks? Could an AOL have ever been expected to direct a portion of it’s capital to develop a Facebook unless the directions had been published in/blessed by the Harvard Business Review first? Does head office listen to suggestions from the branch offices or the Not From Here?

    On a different note, one qualifier that I would attach to the notion of the creation of a “holding environment” is that it needs to be a holding environment for a group a people that care about the issues or objectives. Putting together a safe environment for a team of people that are willing to accept what they cannot change doesn’t change the inertia. Perhaps high performance teams start with assembling people that in at least some small way are career masochists in a sense that their motivation is to do something that others said couldn’t be done?


    Liked by 1 person

    David Turnbull

    February 3, 2015 at 1:42 pm

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for reading and for your comments

      My experience is in line with yours with respect to differences between large and small organisations. Policies hatched at the corporate level, though possibly well-meaning, often end up making it harder to do things. The reason skunkworks projects succeed is that they bypass these policies.

      The argument that policies are required in order to ensure order and consistency is a valid one. The problem is not so much policy but psychological safety. Most managers simply do not feel safe enough to volunteer opinions or take stances that they know will not endear them to their managers. In this day of economic rationalization, the fear is ever-greater.

      Your point about the specificity of a holding environment is absolutely right. The group must care about the central issues / objectives – they are what binds the group together. This is the “compelling direction” condition in Hackman’s list… and it is true that there are enough career masochists around who would find a suggestion that “it can’t be done” a compelling reason to try 🙂

      Thanks again, I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment.





      February 4, 2015 at 4:58 pm

  4. […] “Conditions over causes” – Eight to Late […]


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