Sunday, January 13, 2013

Richard Hackman and Scrum

A guest post from Jens Meydam (@jmeydam) on the death of Richard Hackman. 

A few days ago, on January 8, a man passed away who may be considered one of the patron saints of Scrum, even though he had never heard of Scrum and few in the Scrum community know his name.

Richard Hackman
Richard Hackman was quite simply the most eminent and influential scholar of teamwork. Where others were content to publish plausible-sounding ideas and anecdotes, Hackman, whose first degree was in mathematics, conducted rigorous research for what seems like decades before writing his masterpiece, Leading Teams.

As one of his former students remembers:

"He took his task very seriously and he showed us all how important it was to be both rigorous and practical in the pursuit of knowledge that could affect how well groups perform and how they can uplift people's lives."

I first came across his name in a tweet by Bas Vodde, who seemed enthusiastic about Hackman's work. Since then I have read Leading Teams twice, as well as two sequels, one on senior management teams and one on intelligence teams (Hackman was advisor to the CIA). There is so much to learn from his work.

After the jump, I will just quote a few passages from Leading Teams. I encourage you to read the book; a few quotes are in no way a substitute. If you are familiar with Scrum you may agree that the parallels between how Hackman describes the role of team leaders and how we see the Scrum Master and the Product Owner role are striking. Hackman can also help us understand some of the deeper benefits of working in sprints. I have described this book to others as "Scrum, the Missing Manual". While Scrum is not the only way to create the enabling conditions Hackman writes about, it is certainly one way. I regret that I didn't try to get in touch with him. Now, sadly, it is too late.


Leading Teams - Setting the Stage For Great Performances (Hackman 2002)


Conditions For Team Effectiveness

To view team leadership as creating conditions that increase the chances that a team will evolve into an effective performing unit is somewhat unconventional. Both practicing managers and writers about management commonly view the actions of leaders as "causes" and the responses of teams as "effects." (31)
  1. A Real Team
  2. Compelling Direction
  3. Enabling Structure
  4. Supportive Context
  5. Expert Coaching
The five conditions [...] are easy to remember. The challenge comes in developing an understanding of those conditions that is deep and nuanced enough to be useful in guiding action, and in devising strategies for creating them even in demanding or team-unfriendly organizational circumstances. People who are natural team leaders seem to know intuitively how to do these things. (ix)

Compelling Direction

Great direction fully engages team members' talents. It is not just that members work harder when what they are doing is important. It is more than that - it is that they pursue collective purposes using every scrap of knowledge, skill, and experience that the team can scoop up. (71)

To harvest the benefits of compelling direction, a team's purposes actually have to be challenging, clear, and consequential. Words alone do not suffice, not even if they are inspiring words personally delivered to the team by a charismatic leader. (72)

Enabling Structure

The evidence suggests that it is quite unlikely that members will establish norms that support active environmental scanning and strategy planning, or that they will explicitly set and enforce specific "must always do" and "must never do" constraints on team's task behaviors. Instead, the norms that members import or evolve are much more likely to focus on keeping interpersonal relations within the team and with clients smooth and conflict free, on keeping members' anxieties low, and on making sure that all inputs received are converted into outputs in a timely fashion with a minimum of fuss. [...] The two core norms are unnatural, and the behaviors they support often raise rather than lower anxieties within a work team. (112)

Is there an optimum team size [...]? A study conducted by Neil Vidmar and myself is at least suggestive of an answer. [...] the optimum group size was 4.6 members. That conclusion, of course, was just an exercise done on data from a not-very-important study, but it does remind us that most of the time, smaller really is better. (118)

Expert Coaching

[...] Gersick found that each of the groups she tracked developed a distinctive approach toward its task as soon as it commenced work, and stayed with that approach until almost exactly halfway between its first meeting and its project deadline. At the midpoint of their lives, all teams underwent a major transition. In a concentrated burst of changes, they dropped old patterns of behavior, reengaged with outside supervisors, and adopted new perspectives on their work. Following the midpoint transition, groups entered a period of focused task execution, which persisted until very near the project deadline, at which time a new set of issues having to do with termination processes arose and captured members' attention. (177-179)

People do not learn well when they are preoccupied, anxious, or hurried. [...] Team learning requires, at minimum, some protected time and at least a moderate level of collective safety, conditions that are hard to create when members are right in the middle of task execution. Because anxieties and arousal dissipate somewhat once a piece of work is finished, post performance periods offer an especially good time for coaching interventions aimed at helping members capture and internalize the lessons that can be learned from their work experiences. Even then, however, team members may be disinclined to exploit the learning opportunities that are available to them. (184)

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