Appreciating Richard Hackman: A Pioneer in the Field of Teams

Roger Schwarz

Need to know what’s necessary to create a real team? How to design teamwork so members are motivated by it? The right number of people to have on your team? If you do, thank Richard Hackman for the answers.

J. Richard Hackman, Harvard University Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology, died on January 8, 2013. He was 72. Richard was a pioneer in the field of teams. His work was one of a few that profoundly shaped my outlook on and work with organizations.

Richard was a rigorous researcher who was always concerned with practical questions that made a difference to leaders. In his early work, he pioneered the idea that motivation was something leaders could and should design into team members’ work, not something leaders created by dangling carrots or sticks. Richard’s research showed that when work is designed well, doing the work is itself motivating. When work is well-designed, people experience it as meaningful, feel a responsibility for the outcomes, and get feedback from doing the job itself. Post-it-Effective-Teams

I first met Richard in 1980 as he was preparing to take a sabbatical year from Yale at the University of Michigan where I was earning my doctorate in organizational psychology. Many of my fellow grad students joined Richard to research how to create the conditions for effective teamwork. They interviewed team members using detailed and rigorous protocols and spent many hours watching all kinds of teams in action – top management teams, semiconductor manufacturing teams, the Detroit String Quartet, and airline cockpit crews among others. Although I was already focusing on teams, ironically I wasn’t able to work with Richard; I was headed to study with Chris Argyris at Harvard, the other person who has had the most influence on my career.

Richard cautioned leaders to determine whether they needed a team or only a group before spending the time and energy needed to develop and sustain a real team. His research showed that members of a real team needed a team task, within which they were interdependent. He found that the most effective teams had just enough people to perform the team’s task or solve problems. Any fewer members and the team lacked enough information or effort to accomplish the work. Any more members and the team paid a price in excess coordination costs and team member loafing.

Although Richard won numerous awards for his research and contributions to the field, he was very humble. Talking about Richard in a Harvard Crimson obituary, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert said, “He looked askance at people who spent a lot of time tooting their own horn. Richard had a silencer on his horn, so even when he did remarkable things, he would work to make sure nobody found out about them.” If you read Richard’s introduction to Groups That Work (and Those That Don’t) – the book that resulted from the research he conducted, in part, with some of my fellow grad students – you see this humility. As he reflects on the experience of writing the book as a group (what he would later call a team) he describes the challenges that they faced and his own mistakes and his own learning. When he distinguishes between his greater experience, knowledge, and status and the graduate students who constituted the rest of the team, he does so only to share his concern that the other team members might inappropriately defer to him and that the team product would be less-than as a result.

Richard chose the principled approach over the popular one. In an email eight weeks before his death, he declined to write an endorsement for my new book, saying “Unfortunately I have a personal, long-standing policy of not writing blurbs for books . . . .” At the same time he gave me some kind feedback about the book. I responded that I really admired him for that policy. And I cherished his feedback.

In an age of short attention spans and simplistic solutions, Richard shunned quick fixes. Writing in his latest book, Collaborative Intelligence: Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems, he stated, “There are no ‘one-minute’ prescriptions here – creating, leading, and serving on teams is not that simple.” Fortunately for us, Richard didn’t take short cuts and he made complex issues simple without making them simplistic. As a result, he left us with a wealth of research-based practical wisdom. Richard’s death is a huge loss for the field of organizational behavior and leaders of teams. I will miss him. Thank you, Richard.