A Theory of Team Coaching

When Richard Hackman of Harvard University publishes “A Theory of Team Coaching,” everyone interested in teams should take notice. Hackman has conducted many studies that other teamwork researchers mention in their work. Hackman says in this latest article that a lot of time is wasted trying to coach teams in the wrong way, at the wrong time, and/or in the wrong corporate setting.

The article was co-written with Ruth Wageman of Dartmouth College. The authors define team coaching as “direct interaction with a team intended to help members make coordinated and task-appropriate use of their collective resources in accomplishing the team’s work.” In a study they published last year, the duo found that for many team leaders, coaching is last in priority after leadership tasks such as structuring the team and “running external interference.” That may be because leaders underestimate coaching's importance. “More likely…" Hackman and Wageman write, is that "leaders do not coach their teams because they do not know how to do so, or they have ventured a coaching intervention or two that did not help and thereafter focused their behavior on seemingly more promising team leadership strategies.” The point to this article, they say, is to show which team coaching behaviors do work.

Most team coaching—including almost all “teambuilding” activities—focuses on improving relationships between team members. Although strong team performance and good relationships tend to go together, that does not mean good relations cause good performance. In fact, Hackman and Wageman cite four studies that showed neither causes the other, and two that found good performance caused good relations (instead of the other way around). So, they say, coaching should focus on giving teams the strategies, knowledge, and skills to complete their tasks rather than on relationship building.

Also, the timing of coaching matters. Hackman and Wageman say the research shows coaching is most effective at the beginning of a project, in a transition period most teams go through at the mid-point of a project (both project teams and permanent teams doing projects), and in the lessons-learned work at the end. In between those points, they say, coaching has little impact. The type of coaching matters also, they say. At the beginning, motivational coaching is the most effective (though that was primarily because teams resisted strategizing). At the middle, when frustrations and problems arise, coaching on how to deal with those problems is most effective. And at the end, of course, teaching the team formal lessons-learned processes that result in actions improving the next project is useful.

Coaching teamwork will have no value if the circumstances the team operates in are not conducive to teaming. As Hackman and Wageman write, team coaching will have little effect on group performance if any of the following are true:

In fact, a study by Wageman found that correct coaching only significantly helps teams for which all of those conditions are met. It doesn't the others, but doesn't help much. On the other hand, improper coaching hurts all teams, and really hurts those that are also missing these basic conditions for success.

Application: For the typical team leader, team coaching consists of a single kick-off meeting; a few general teambuilding exercises when they "can afford the downtime” (a term implying that teamwork improvement has no real value); one or more activities to address specific problems after they arise and the damage is done; and perhaps a lessons-learned brainstorming session at the end that rarely results in changes to processes. The first way to apply the advice of experts like Hackman and Wagemen is to rid yourself forever of the idea this approach to coaching is doing any good, much less an occasional teambuilding exercise or social night or one-time consulting intervention. At best these won’t improve performance enough to cover the costs, and they might even reduce performance. The fact that an activity was “fun” or seemed to improve attitudes for a while is not evidence that it was cost-effective.

More specifically, based on Hackman and Wageman’s conclusions:

from  http://www.suddenteams.com/ by Jim Morgan TeamResearch News

Source: Hackman, J.R., and R. Wageman (05), “A Theory of Team Coaching,” Academy of Management Review 30(2):269