Chapter 2


So what is a team? What is teamwork? What makes a team effective? Why does it matter? Who are the people that made it matter? This chapter lay the foundation of what we talk about when we talk about teamwork.
"Teams are ubiquitous. Whether we are talking about software development, Olympic hockey, disease outbreak response, or urban warfare, teams represent the critical unit that 'gets things done' in today's world" (Marks, 2006, p.i). The literature around teamwork is vast and overwhelming. From internet listicles to academic research spanning fields of management, sociology and psychology, as the academic B. Glass observed: "no problem facing the individual scientist is more defeating than the effort to cope with the flood of published scientific research" (p. 583).
A critical understanding of how teams work is essential for any creative working in teams, but one might be daunted by the sheer volume of information, or feel at loss of where to start. This field guide is designed for the busy creative — organized around leading academic "wisemen" who are the literal and spiritual guides for this volume. They are chosen for their numerous cross-citations and impact. They do not represent the full spectrum of innovators, but are a great few to know for the start of your journey.

leading academics on & around effective teamwork
The Wisemen
Bookended by two wise women
Amy Edmonson
Amy Edmondson is professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard and one of the leading scholars on what makes teams work inside complex organizations and psychological safety. -
J. Richard Hackman
J. Richard Hackman was professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard and influential author on group dyanmics and teamwork. -
Geert Hofstede
Geert Hofstede is a Dutch social psychologist well known for his pioneering research on cross-cultural groups, organizations and developing the cultural dimensions theory. - SAGE

David A. Kolb
David A. Kolb was a professor of Organizational Behavior and Management at MIT, best known for his research on experiential learning and learning styles. - Pearson FT Press
Marshall Rosenberg
Marshall B. Rosenberg authored the bestselling Nonviolent Communication and taught communication and conflict resolution to those in education, management, military, families and governments. - Puddledancer Press
Edgar Schein
Edgar Schein is professor at MIT investigating organizational culture, process consultation, research process, career dynamics, and organization learning and change. -

Donald A. Schön
Donald A. Schön was professor of Urban Studies and Dducation at MIT, making remarkable contribution to the understanding of the theory and practice of learning. -

Bruce Tuckman
Bruce W. Tuckman is professor of Educational Psychology at the Ohio State University, where he carried out seminal research into the theory of group dynamics, including a model of group development. - Rowman & Littlefield
Susan Wheelan
Susan Wheelan was professor of Psychological Studies at Temple University. Her book, Creating Effective Teams builds on group development theory and is a lean, smart update and reference. -
What is a Team?
In "Enhancing Effectiveness of Work Groups and Teams," Kowslowski (2006) looks into 50 years of research on team effectiveness and summarizes a comprehensive definition. A team can be defined as:

(a) two or more individuals who
(b) socially interact (face-to-face or, increasingly, virtually);
(c) possess one or more common goals;
(d) are brought together to perform organizationally relevant tasks;
(e) exhibit interdependencies with respect to workflow, goals, and outcomes;
(f) have different roles and responsibilities; and
(g) are together embedded in an encompassing organizational system

The Creative Team
In the creative industry, the world today is an especially volatile one, full of "wicked problems" — a "class of social system problems" where the information is confusing, decisions makers have conflicting values, and impact unforeseen (Rittel & Webber, 1973). This approach, defined by Horst Rittel in the 1960s, is advocated against a step-by-step linear model for designers to confront. In this world, we also forfeit the myth of the lone genius, but look to teams for a diverse set of skills to bring a project from concept to fruition. The creative team understands that the task at hand faces "enormous uncertainty and requires interdependence" (Edmonson, 2014) and everyone's voice is needed.

What Is Effective Teamwork?
No Easy Task
Effective teamwork is hard. Hackman observed one of the biggest misconceptions of teamwork — teams are often seen as safe places where people can be highly creative and productive, but research consistently show teams underperform their potential (2002). Structural features such as a well-designed team task, appropriate team composition, and a context that ensures the availability of information, resources, and rewards create the circumstance for effective teamwork (1987). Indeed, many team leaders place huge importance on structural features or task-driven factors, and interpersonal relations are often overlooked. The distinction of "task work" and "teamwork" should be noted to provoke practical application for better teamwork.

Task Work vs. Team Work
Whereas "task work involves the performance of specific tasks that team members need to complete in order to achieve team goals, teamwork focuses more on the shared behaviors (i.e., what team members do), attitudes (i.e., what team members feel or believe), and cognitions (i.e., what team members think or know) that are necessary for teams to accomplish these tasks" (Salas, 2014).

In Education
The emphasis of task work versus teamwork surface often with our first experience in teams — in education. As Kowslowski observed: It is not uncommon for educators from elementary school through college to include assignments organized around group projects in which students may display teamwork and leadership behaviors. However, attention is usually on the group's output (e.g., a report) with little or no attention placed on guiding the nature and effectiveness of the team process (i.e., instructional conditions) (2006).

In the Workplace
This emphasis on task achievement can have a disturbing effect in the modern workplace. As Hackman observed, "In one management team we studied, the team, in a spirit of cooperation and goodwill, embarked on a course of action that was bound to fail — for reason that some member sensed but did not mention as the plans were being laid. One wonders if the crisis in the financial world today would be quite so catastrophic if more people had spoken out in their team meeting about what they knew to be wrongful practices" (2002). This is directly reflected in workplace statistics where 86% of employees and executives cite lack of collaboration or ineffective communication for workplace failures, and less than half of survey respondents said that their organizations discuss issues truthfully and effectively (Stein, 2012).

Output, Process & Learning
Only a combination of task and teamwork conditions can lead to team effectiveness. Which we find in Hackman's (2005) definition:

  1. Output - The productive output of the team meets or exceeds the standards of quantity, quality, and timeliness of the team's clients.
  2. Process - The social processes the team uses in carrying out the work enhance members' capability of working together interdependently in the future.
  3. Learning - The group experience contributes positively to the learning and personal well-being of individual team members.
Conditions of Effective Teamwork
Understanding the importance of application, both academics and practitioners have offered practical advice. Compiled here are five different studies toward building a better team. I picked three from influential academics, and two from organizations that based their findings on a data-driven approach. Three of the research are published in the past five years. The combined conditions or characteristics of effective teams from five studies give us a total of 31 statements, which we can analyze for patterns and overall trends.

I've categorized the 31 statements into specific areas that team members should pay attention to to ensure effective teamwork. They are marked in italics below, and order here in descending order of occurrence: Structure & Design (8 statements), Communication & Trust (8), Expectations (6), Leadership (3), Culture (2), Meaning (2), Implementation (1) and Creativity (1).
J. Richard Hackman - How to Build a Team
Why I picked this: Along with being one of the most cited authors on effective teamwork, Dr. Hackman's extensive research on coaching and facilitation reevaluates "do it all" leaders against someone who can "get a team established on a good trajectory," that is tremendously valuable to today's creative industry.

  1. A stable team - People have to know who is on the team and who is not. (Structure & Design)
  2. A clear and engaging direction - Members need to know, and agree on, what they're supposed to be doing together. (Expectations)
  3. Enabling Structures - Teams that have poorly designed tasks, the wrong number or mix of members, or unenforced norms of conduct invariably get into trouble. (Structure & Design)
  4. A supportive organizational context - The organizational context - including the reward system, the human resource system, and the information system - must facilitate teamwork. (Culture)
  5. Competent coaching - Most executive coaches focus on individual performance, which does not significantly improve teamwork. Teams need coaching as a group in team processes - especially at the beginning, midpoint, and end of a team project. (Leadership)

Source: Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances by J. Richard Hackman.
Additional online reference: Why Teams Don't Work
Susan Wheelan - Ten Keys to (Team) Productivity
Why I picked this: Dr. Wheelan's Creating Effective Teams is one of the core book references at Hyper Island. Its findings, based on years of research and practice, provides clear and precise methodology that is easy to put into practice.

  1. Members are clear about and agree with the team's goals. (Expectations)
  2. Members are clear about and accept their roles. (Expectations)
  3. Tasks require team members to work interdependently. (Structure & Design)
  4. The leadership style matches the team's development level. (Leadership)
  5. Open communication structure allows all members to participate, including regular feedback. (Communication & Trust)
  6. Members spend time planning how they will solve problems and make decisions. (Structure & Design)
  7. The team implements and evaluates its solutions and decisions. (Implementation)
  8. Team norms encourage high performance, quality, success, and innovation. (Expectations)
  9. Groups are small and have sufficient time together. (Structure & Design)
  10. The team is highly cohesive and contains cooperative members. (Communication & Trust)

Source: Creating Effective Teams by Susan Wheelan
Eduardo Salas - 7Cs of a Good Team
Why I picked this: Dr. Salas' "Understanding and Improving Teamwork in Organization: A Scientifically Based Practical Guide" draws on extensive existing research surrounding the topic of teamwork, and delivers critical considerations.

  1. Cooperation – Even today's independent knowledge workers must like being on the team they work with and trust each other to contribute. (Communication & Trust)
  2. Conditions – The policies, incentives, resources, and directives provided by the organization must all support team interactions. (Culture)
  3. Coordination – Effective teams have systems in place which allow them to adapt to changes and support mutual goals. (Structure & Design)
  4. Communication – Protocols exist to help team members share information in a timely manner. (Structure & Design)
  5. Conflict – Conflict happens on every team. Truly successful 21st century teams provide psychological safety to deal with conflict. (Communication & Trust)
  6. Coaching – Leaders act as coaches, promoting teamwork, setting goals, and communicating care for each member of the team. (Leadership)
  7. Cognition – Each member of the team has the same understanding of what is expected. (Expectations)

Source: Salas, E. et all. (2014) Understanding and Improving Teamwork in Organization: A Scientifically Based Practical Guide. Human Resource Management. 54(4) pp. 599-622.
Google: The Five Keys to a Successful Google Team
Why I picked this: Google's People Operations (commonly known as the Human Resources) has been making waves recently with their data-driven approach to create culture. This list is in order of importance, with psychological safety being the most important.

  1. Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed? (Communication & Trust)
  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time? (Expectations)
  3. Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear? (Structure & Design)
  4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us? (Meaning)
  5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we're doing matters? (Meaning)

Source: The five keys to a successful Google team
Additional online reference: What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team
MIT's Human Dynamics Laboratory: The Hard Science of Teamwork
Why I picked this: MIT's Human Dynamics Laboratory uses wearable electronic sensors called sociometric badges to capture how people communicate in real time — not only do they determine the characteristics that make up great teams, but can also describe those characteristics mathematically.

  1. Communicate frequently. In a typical project team a dozen or so communication exchanges per working hour may turn out to be optimum; but more or less than that and team performance can decline. (Communication & Trust)
  2. Talk and listen in equal measure, equally among members. Lower performing teams have dominant members, teams within teams, and members who talk or listen but don't do both. (Communication & Trust)
  3. Engage in frequent informal communication. The best teams spend about half their time communicating outside of formal meetings or as "asides" during team meetings. Increasing opportunities for informal communication increases team performance. (Communication & Trust)
  4. Explore for ideas and information outside the group. The best teams periodically connect with many different outside sources and bring what they learn back to the team. (Creativity)

Source: The Hard Science of Teamwork
While key areas tend to be interdependent of each other, it is clear from our summary that:
  1. Both scoring eight counts, a combination of task work-driven conditions (Structure & Design) and teamwork (Communication & Trust) is key to team success.
  2. Within Communication & Trust, trending key words include "feedback" and "psychological safety." It's interesting that MIT's findings focused only on communication, with suggestions of communicating frequently, equally, informally, and outside work.
  3. "Coaching" stood out in Leadership.
  4. Meaning emerged from Google's insights, perhaps an indicator of the knowledge economy and millennials' proclivity toward doing good and making impact.
  5. There are two mentions in the key area of Culture — or the organizational context that support team interactions — that take us to our next inquiry. How do all these of effective team work fit within the context of China?

Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked problems in design thinking. 8(2), pp. 5-21.

Edmonson, A. (2014). Building a psychologically safe workplace. Video, TEDxHGSE. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 27 Feb 2015]

Glass, B. (1955). News and notes. Science, 21, 583–596.

Hackman, J.R. (1987). The Design of Work Teams. Handbook of Organizational Behavior: 315–42.

Hackman, J. R. (2002). Leading teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

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

Kowslowski, S. (2006). Enhancing the Effectiveness of Work Groups and Teams. Association for Psychological Science. 7(3) pp. 77-124.

Marks, M. A. (2006). The science of team effectiveness. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 7(3), i.

Pentland, A. (2012) The Hard Science of Teamwork. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 27 Feb 2015]

Rittel, H & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences 4, pp.155-169.

Rozovsky, J. (2016) The five keys to a successful Google team. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 27 Feb 2015]

Salas, E. et all. (2014) Understanding and Improving Teamwork in Organization: A Scientifically Based Practical Guide. Human Resource Management. 54(4) pp. 599-622.

Stein, N. (2012) Is Poor Collaboration Killing Your Company? [Online] Available from: [Accessed 27 Feb 2015]

Wheelan, S. (1999). Creative Effective Teams. London: SAGE Publications.

Made on