(Note: This post can also be found on LinkedIn which you can follow here.)

Is your team designed for high performance?  The research would suggest probably not!  A review of 120 leadership teams conducted by Wageman, Nunes, Burruss, & Hackman (2008) found that 21% performed at a high level, 37% performed at a mediocre level and an staggering 42% at a low level.  This means that your team likely has LESS than a 50/50 chance of being a good, let alone high performing team.  So what differentiates teams that are high performing from those that are low or mediocre performing? And how can we take these poor odds and the role of chance out of the equation?

The answer: design.  Up to 70% of a team’s performance can be linked to how well the team was designed at the beginning of the team’s life cycle (Hackman & Wageman, 2005; Wageman et al., 2008).  While there likely isn’t one best way to design the “chassis” or “shell” of the team that leads to success, the mere act of intentionally choosing to design the team is a good place to start.  More often than not teams are thrown together to run with a task and little attention is paid to how they are designed.  Once the team is off and running it may be too late to focus on the team’s design.  Some elements that leaders and coaches of teams may consider when designing teams are: designing the team’s task in order to unlock collective internal motivation; creating norms, operating principles or working agreements that guide the way the team will work together; considering the composition of the team in terms of both size (ideally less than 6) and heterogeneity; and assessing the interpersonal skills of the team members.  Two resources that I have found helpful for thinking about the design of teams are: Richard Hackman’s (2002) “Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances” and Jacqueline Peters and Catherine Carr’s (2013) “High Performance Team Coaching: A Comprehensive System for Leaders and Coaches.”

In this week’s episode of The Team Coaching Zone Podcast I interviewed Erin Hutchins, the Director of Corporate Client Solutions and Organizational Coaching for the Coaches Training Institute.  The episode, available for free on iTunes and on Stitcher Radio, is entitled “The Relationship Engine: Designing the Alliance in Team Coaching.”  The interview explores four key elements that contribute to effective team design: responsibility, choice, alignment and commitment.  These four elements create a “relationship engine” that provides a safe operating environment and that propels teams forward.  The framework builds on the well-established Co-Active model of coaching and is useful for both leaders as well as coaches working with teams. You can find an outline of the episode’s show notes here as well as additional helpful information and resources including the articles and books referenced in this post here.

While we all want the benefits that come from being part of a high performing team, our chances of achieving that are only about 20%.  Focusing on the team’s design is one “target rich area” that team leaders and team coaches may wish to focus on in order to get into that top 20%.


Hackman, J.R. (2002). Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances(Note: One chapter of this book is dedicated to the topic of team coaching).

Hackman, R.J. & Wageman, R. (2005). A Theory of Team Coaching. The Academy of Management Review. 30(2), 269-287.

Kimsey-House, H., Kimsey-House, K., Sandahl, P. & Whitworth, L. (2011). Co-Active Coaching: Changing Business, Transforming Lives. Nicholas Brealey America.

Peters, J. & Carr, C. (2013). Team Effectiveness and Team Coaching Literature Review. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice. 6(2), 116-136.

Wageman, R., Nunes, D., Burruss, J., & Hackman, J. R. (2008). Senior leadership teams: What it takes to make them great. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School.

About Krister Lowe, Ph.D.

Dr. Krister Lowe is an Organizational Psychologist and the Host of The Team Coaching Zone Podcast.  He has over 15 years of experience providing coaching, training, facilitation and consulting interventions to leading organizations in over 25 countries around the world.

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