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

…The most powerful way to build an effective team is to implement team norms (clear rules of engagement) that build constructive interactions and collaborative work processes… -Richard Hackman, PhD

In our first article ( in this two part series we explored 3 Essential conditions—a real team, a compelling direction, the right people—that create the basis for team effectiveness. In that article we also introduced some research on leadership teams from around the world that suggested that the majority of such teams (approximately 80%) tend to be mediocre at best. The conditions for great teams just weren’t present.  In this follow-up article we share insights into 3 Enabling factors that further help to explain team effectiveness so that team leaders, team members and team coaches can gain insights into how to more effectively diagnose and coach teams.

The 3 Enabling Conditions – Sound Structure, Supportive Context, Team Coaching

The three Essentials named above form a solid platform for great teamwork. In addition, three more factors can breathe life into that basic structure and act as catalysts for high team performance: Sound Structure, Supportive Context and Team Coaching. Each of these are briefly described below.

#4 – Sound Structure

Many teams struggle with what to do together and how. Teams require structure to channel their productive energies. The research on the 120 teams found three important elements to consider: Team size, Task Design and Team Norms.

Often, most teams are too large, resulting in a greater opportunity for process losses—inefficiency or internal breakdowns. When teams get larger than 5 members the probability of “process losses” increases exponentially and actual productivity tends to go down. The number of links between members—not just the number of members–increases the chances of miscommunications, coordination problems, and other challenges in team interaction processes (see graphic on right).

Many teams also are asked to perform work that really isn’t a team task. Team tasks should be designed as whole and strategically important pieces of work. The focus then should be on putting only those tasks on the team agenda. Teams should be held accountable for achieving end goals, but given the autonomy to decide how they get the work done, so that their creative energies can be unleashed on the task.

Dr. Richard Hackman’s quote at the beginning of this post alludes to the third essential aspect of a sound structure: “The most powerful way to build an effective team is to implement team norms (clear rules of engagement) that build constructive interactions and collaborative work processes.4” When teams don’t have clear rules of engagement for how to play it creates the conditions for fumbling. Norms can’t be just a list of wished-for habits: they need to be enforced once created in order for them to become virtuous routines. This is a critical role for all team members, but in particular for the team leader.

Team size, task design and team norms then provide teams with the structural clarity on the who, what and how of their work which acts as an accelerant and drives the team forward together. The sub-dimensions in this Enabling condition provide team leaders, members and coaches with a target rich environment for interventions. For example, helping a team identify the main task(s) they need to be working on and keeping them focused on strategic, meaningful, and interdependent tasks is an important potential coaching area. Another is for team members to develop their own set of norms, as well as ways to enforce them, so that all can contribute to holding the team accountable for both the process as well as the outcomes of teamwork.   Finally, many team leaders welcome sound support in reconfiguring the size of their team.

#5 – Supportive Context

No team exists in a vacuum. The organizational context can significantly moderate the team’s effectiveness. While constraints from the environment can spur a team’s creativity, an overly austere or unsupportive organization can really take the wind out of a team’s sails. One of the authors of this post (Dr. Krister Lowe) recently worked with a number of teams in an organization that rated supportive context low on the Team Diagnostic Survey™. As a result, these teams tended to retreat into their own fiefdoms in order to protect their scarce resources, which resulted in significant barriers to cross-silo collaboration. In addition, during the team coaching sessions, where the results of the survey were shared many of the teams mentioned feeling unnoticed and unacknowledged for their contributions to the organization. Teams, just like individuals, need to be witnessed and appreciated and to feel like they are valued partners in what is happening in the company. Four sub-dimensions comprise this important Enabler: rewards/recognition, information, education/technical consultation and material resources. One common challenge for teams and team leaders is being proactive in requesting the supportive resources they need to make great teamwork feasible, rather than hitting roadblocks created by the organizational structures and systems around them. It is not uncommon for teams and team leaders to assume, when needs arise, that the cavalry will emerge from somewhere in the organizational context. By then, it is often too late. Engaging with the team’s organizational context proactively is an important area for coaching in most teams.

#6 – Team Coaching

Just as great sports teams have coaches that both support as well as challenge them to stretch to higher levels of performance, teams in business settings also need coaches. The “function” of team coaching is one than can exist in a formal role (e.g. an external team coach) or can be developed as a competency distributed across the team and its members. The team coach—a leader, a team member, an internal or external team coach—helps the team and its members pay attention to the team’s process and dynamics. It’s important to note that while coaching individuals may help a team, team coaching focuses on the team’s dynamics as a whole and seeks to maximize synergies or process gains while minimizing process losses.

In summary, when the 3 Essential Conditions (Real Team, Compelling Direction, Right) people are augmented with the 3 Enabling Conditions (Sound Structure, Supportive Context, Team Coaching), increased team performance becomes more likely. As the model below depicts, one of the essential factors that links the two sets of conditions is team leadership. Leadership is a function that is required in all teams and that can be embodied in a formal team leader or in a more collective and distributed manner across team members.

Diagnosing & Coaching Teams

The model described in this two-part article series provides team leaders, team members and team coaches with an evidence-based framework of team effectiveness. Whether designing and launching a new team or helping to rebuild and refocus an existing one, having a common framework can be helpful. Practically, the model can be used as a diagnostic tool. For example, it could inform the development of interview questions for a team assessment. It could also be used as the basis of a contracting meeting when designing a team intervention with a client. One of the authors of this post (Dr. Krister Lowe) recently was meeting with a client to explore approaches to developing leaders and managers. A team coaching approach was suggested as means for not only delivering on tangible business results but also using the process to provide a learning vehicle for managers to learn more about leading teams. The 3 Essentials and 3 Enabling conditions were sketched out on a piece of paper for the client. The visual model helped the client envisage what was possible, which led to request for a team coaching proposal for a number of teams in the company.

Team leaders, team coaches and learning and development professionals looking for a more rigorous approach to diagnosing teams may consider using the validated instrument—the Team Diagnostic Survey™—which can be used in a pre and post manner for measuring team development and performance.  (To learn more about The Team Diagnostic Survey™ and an upcoming certification workshop on November 9-11 in New York City, see the recommended resources below).

In addition to aiding in diagnosis, the framework provides a holistic tool for orienting team leaders and team coaches where to focus intervention efforts.   Whether in helping a team assess more clearly why it needs to be a team (i.e. real team), or helping develop a compelling direction that galvanizes it’s members, or assisting the team to develop shared ways of working (i.e. norms), the model reveals many potential entry points for coaching interventions.

In closing, the increasingly complex and dynamic challenges bearing down on organizations, requires collective leadership and action. This can best be achieved through high performing teams. However becoming a high performing team is easier said than done. It requires discipline and focus. This article provides some direction and evidence for where teams can look to begin their journey from being a working group to becoming a real team and to the holy grail of transforming into a high performing team. We hope that in the coming years the odds of being a high performing team become much better than 5:1. The mounting challenges facing humanity won’t wait for us to increase our collective effectiveness one struggling team at a time. Perhaps we can make the transition from the age of the heroic individual leader to the age of collective leadership a bit smoother.   Learning how to collaborate more effectively in teams is, in our view, a great place where immediately we can invest more energy.

We look forward to your comments and feedback on this two-part article series as well as to hearing what you have found that leads to greater team effectiveness in your organization.


  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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