Part 1 of a 2 part series by Ruth Wageman, Ph.D. & Krister Lowe, Ph.D.

…research that compares the performance of teams with what is produced by an equivalent number of individuals who work by themselves almost always finds that the individuals outperform the teams… Richard Hackman, PhD

Despite the buzz about “high performing teams” and our desires to build them and to participate in them, in reality they tend to be more the exception than the rule. In fact with the increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) surrounding organizations these days, high performing teams could become an endangered species. The operating environment is making it increasingly challenging for teams and organizations to succeed. Astonishingly, the team you are on has a 5:1 odds of being poor or mediocre performing rather than being high performing. One study conducted by Ruth Wageman, PhD (one of the co-authors of this post) of more than 120 leadership teams across a range of industries around the world found that only 21% were high performing, 37% were mediocre performing and 42% were poor performing (Source: Wageman, R., Nunes, D. A., Burruss, J. A., & Hackman, J. R. (2007). Senior Leadership Teams: What It Takes to Make Them Great Boston, Mass: Harvard Business Review Press).

Let’s pause and reflect on that for a moment: your odds of being on a lousy team are not much better than flipping a coin! We all know what extraordinary achievements can happen when groups of people get their act together and channel their collective energy towards a compelling purpose. We can land a human on the moon; we can develop a means of instantaneous communication that encircles the globe; we can eradicate threatening diseases; and before we know it we

will have self-driving (and perhaps even self-flying) cars and all sorts of other innovations that we can scarcely begin to even imagine. The chances of these next level-innovations coming to fruition improve exponentially with the work of a high performing team. The world is just too complex and too fast moving to rely on individuals working in isolation to solve critical problems and to increase the quality of life. Yet creating a high performing team is no small achievement. It requires effort, discipline and practice.

So if you were going to wager all your money on the conditions that most powerfully result in highly effective teams, where would you place your bets? In this 2-part blog series we share highlights of research conducted by Dr. Ruth Wageman, Dr. Richard Hackman and a number of other scholar-practitioners from Harvard University that shed some light on the answers to this question.  The research is based on studies of teams from around the world in a variety of industries, nations and organizations—some you have never heard of and others that are well known such as IBM, Philips Electronics, Reuters, Sainsbury, Shell, Standard & Poors and Unilever. The research identifies two sets of conditions that hone in on what leads to highly effective teams—3 Essential Conditions (Real Team, Compelling Direction, Right People) and 3 Enabling Conditions (Sound Structure, Organizational Support, Team Coaching). These two sets of conditions explain more than 50% of the variance on three team success criteria:

  1. The team’s performance meets or exceeds quantity and quality standards both inside as well as outside of the organization;
  2. The team gets better and better over time
  3. Both individuals and the team learn and grow over time

The above-mentioned research informed the development of The Team Diagnostic Survey™—a team diagnostic and coaching tool that has been used with thousands of teams around the world and that provides further evidence to support the ideas presented in this and the second article in this series. (Source: Wagman, R., Hackman, J.R., and Lehman, E. (2005) Team Diagnostic Survey: Development of an Instrument. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 2005, 41, 373-398).

In this post (Part 1 of the 2-part series) we will examine the 3 Essential Conditions of team effectiveness. Next week in Part 2 we will examine the 3 Enabling Conditions.

The 3 Essential Conditions – Real Team, Compelling Direction, Right People

Research by Hackman and Wageman identified that three prerequisites were needed in order to unleash a team’s potential. These include a real team, a compelling direction and the right people. When these essential conditions are not in place, chronic collaboration problems and dysfunction are likely to ensue. These conditions are at the root of a solid and basic team design. If you can’t establish these three essentials, you may be better off pursuing a working group approach (i.e. where individual contributors report to a formal manager and are responsible for their individual piece of the group’s output and where they work independently vs. interdependently) than trying to use a team. Each of the 3 essential conditions is briefly described below.

#1 – Real Team

Is this a real team? An amazing number of “teams” are teams in name only—a group of individuals who have nothing in common other than their department or reporting relationship. Not all groups are teams, nor does all work require a team to accomplish it. Interdependence is one of three sub-dimensions of being a real team that is useful to consider.   If the work consists of loosely-aggregated tasks performed independently, then being a team probably isn’t required and attempts to do so may result in worse individual and collective performance. However, if the work is interdependent, then pursuing a team approach may be your best bet. The conscious choice to “be a team” is an often overlooked first step–a step that generates the commitment necessary to fuel the team. Being a real team requires more than merely exchanging information. It requires creating new knowledge, systems and processes together.

A second important factor for creating a Real Team involves the boundaries of the team (i.e. the team’s membership is clearly know to all team members). Only 11% of the leadership teams in the research cited earlier actually agreed on how many members were part of their team! It’s hard to imagine a team performing at a high level when it’s unclear who is part of the group.

The third factor involves stability (i.e. membership doesn’t change too frequently or time is too short to evolve into a team). Trust, norms, and psychological safety take time to develop. Creating real teams requires more than just convening a group of people and calling them a team. It requires thoughtful planning on how the team will launch and develop.

#2 – Compelling Direction

As with most individuals, teams need focus. Left to their own devices, groups of people tend to define fragmented or even conflicting purposes. Teams that have a crystal clear sense of their unique added value in advancing the organization’s strategy or completing meaningful work are more likely to hit their stride and sustain momentum. A compelling direction acts as a north star. It helps with managing competing priorities and with managing the day-to-day crises and interruptions that naturally occur on in a team’s life.

There are three ingredients of a Compelling Direction: challenge, clarity, and consequence. A compelling direction should be challenging and stretch the members’ capabilities just as much as the individual challenges they may face in other areas of work. It should be clear so that team members can visualize what success looks like. And it should be consequential—it must be important in the overall strategy of

the organization and resonate with the values of the team members. In the research on the 120 teams cited earlier, poor and mediocre teams tended to have a clarity to challenge ratio that was skewed towards having more challenge than clarity. Meaning that senior executives tended to demand a lot of their leaders and managers—without providing a true north star that guides just what the team contributes as a collective.

#3 – Right People

A third and critical essential condition for team effectiveness is having the right people on the team. Getting the right people on board comes down to two important elements: skills and diversity. A seat at the table is not an entitlement that comes with one’s position in the organization. Team members should be invited to the table based on what they can contribute to the purpose and to the substantive work of the team. This also includes teamwork skills. Not all subject matter experts make good team players. In addition to skills, it is important for teams to have a mix of diverse perspectives in order to foster creative thinking and problem-solving. When members are too alike there is a risk of thinking too narrowly and with insufficient complexity vis-a-vis the task. Diversity of mindset can also go to the other extreme where members are so different in their backgrounds and experiences that they struggle to understand each other’s perspectives. In such cases dysfunctional conflict is likely to ensue.

In summary, having a real team, with a compelling direction and the right people goes a long way to building a vehicle that can transport the team to its final destination. If you can’t get these three basically right, it’s best not to try to use a team at all.

In practice, the 3 Essentials provide team leaders, team members and team coaches with a useful framework for designing, diagnosing and coaching teams. For example, when pulling a new team together, team leaders can use the 3 factors as a checklist to guide high-quality team design. Thinking through the essentials has to occur prior to the team’s formation, in consultation with the team’s stakeholders, and then be brought to life during a team launch. During the launch, all the team members can explore the three factors in more detail and begin to make them their own. The 3 essentials provide an overall structure for the team, which can then be forged into a more refined and detailed team charter.

Team coaches also may find the 3 Essentials useful when diagnosing a team that is already underway. A coach can run the checklist, perhaps through one-to-one interviews with team members and stakeholders of the team, or through a more structured and rigorous process using the Team Diagnostic Survey™—a valid and reliable online team diagnostic instrument (see end of this post to learn more about the TDS) designed to measure the Essentials and Enablers for any kind of team.

As the team’s work unfolds, it will likely be necessary for the team to revisit the essentials and to ensure alignment as inevitable changes in the operating context occur. The 3 essentials then are best viewed as dynamic conditions rather than as static or fixed elements that once in place can be checked off on a to-do list. The 3 conditions can be the focus of coaching interventions by the team leader, team members themselves, as well as by internal and external professional team coaches.

Now that the basic chassis and engine of team effectiveness has been identified through the 3 Essentials, we can turn our attention to the factors that will ignite the engine and accelerate the team vehicle down the road to success. In Part 2 of this blog series on Diagnosing and Coaching teams, we will explore those factors—the 3 Enabling Conditions of a Sound Structure, a Supportive Context, and of the availability of Team Coaching.


  1. Hackman, J.R. (2001). Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances. Harvard Business School Press.
  2. Wageman, R., Nunes, D. A., Burruss, J. A., & Hackman, J. R. (2007). Senior Leadership Teams: What It Takes to Make Them Great. Harvard Business Review Press.
  3. Wagman, R., Hackman, J.R., and Lehman, E. (2005) Team Diagnostic Survey: Development of an Instrument. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 2005, 41, 373-398
  4. Hackman, J.R. (2011). Collaborative Intelligence: Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems. Barrett-Koehler Publishers.


Ruth Wageman, PhD

Ruth Wageman, PhD

Director at ReThink Health and an Associate in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University

Ruth Wageman, Ph.D .is a Leading Scholar, Advisor, and Educator in Organizational Behavior and Collaborative Leadership. She is the lead author of the essential book Senior Leadership Teams: What It Takes To Make Them Great and the author of numerous articles including “A Theory of Team Coaching” in the Academy of Management Review as well as ”Team Diagnostic Survey: Development of an Instrument” in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Sciences. She is a co-creator of the Team Diagnostic Survey—among the most rigorously researched and well-validated team assessment and coaching instruments. Dr. Wageman is currently a Director at ReThink Health and an Associate in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.

Krister Lowe, MA, PhD, CPCC

Krister Lowe, MA, PhD, CPCC

Organizational Psychologist & Host of The Team Coaching Zone Podcast

Dr. Krister Lowe is an Organizational Psychologist, a Leadership and Team Coach, and the Creator of The Team Coaching Zone Podcast and Website ( Dr. Lowe is a specialist in team coaching, conflict resolution and performance management and has more than fifteen years of experience consulting to diverse organizations in more than 25 countries throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas. His coaching, consulting, facilitation and training interventions have reached more than 25,000 people globally. He is the Host of The Team Coaching Zone podcast–a weekly interview show that explores the art and science of team coaching–and that has a listenership in more than 90 countries around the world.

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