Collaborative Intelligence – Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems (Book Review & Summary)

This book review is about a book by J. Richard Hackman. Collaborative Intelligence guides leaders in building the right types of teams, putting in place enabling conditions for success, and monitoring team performance proactively.

Two main strategies can be used for effective leadership of teams:

1. Leaders should first address the six enabling factors of team building and creation: create a real team; with a compelling purpose; comprised of the right people; with clear norms of team conduct; proper organizational supports; and competent coaching.

2. Teams should be assessed for their effectiveness in: the team’s level of effort, the appropriateness of its performance strategies, and how well it is using the team’s knowledge, skills, and experience. These three key processes should be monitored and assessed regularly.

Using these strategies, the team leader should put the six enabling conditions in place, launch the team, and then track the three key processes to help teams avoid process losses and to exploit potential process gains.


In Collaborative Intelligence, scholar and researcher J. Richard Hackman uses his experience as an intelligence community consultant to present strategies for creating an environment that supports the success of a team. To begin, Hackman suggests that leaders should first consider the important question of whether a team approach is necessarily the best answer for the task at hand. Next, with the team in place, Hackman defines the six enabling conditions that contribute to and support the team’s effectiveness in achieving its tasks and objectives. Using concrete examples of teams in action, Hackman illustrates how leaders can properly and effectively design their teams, and ensure that the proper organizational supports are in place to allow them to navigate or avoid the inevitable challenges faced by all teams.

Teams That Work and Those That Don’t

Using the example of a simulation experience, which is well-known in the intelligence community as “Project Looking Glass (PLG),” Hackman illustrates the two basic types of teams found in intelligence: red teams, or teams that are on the offensive, and blue teams, teams that are on the defensive.

In the simulation, the blue team must prevent an attack by the red team. Time and again the same finding is replicated: the offensive team surprises and the defensive team is surprised. There are four possible explanations for the consistent results:

1. It is inherently easier to be on an offensive team than a defensive team since offensive teams generally have a well-defined goal or measure of success.

2. Offensive teams are generally better at identifying and utilizing each team member’s expertise and the expertise of outside experts.

3. Defensive teams can often be blocked by stereotyping, thereby missing the reality of the situation.

4. Because of their clear objective, offensive teams utilize more task-appropriate strategies.

Teams that are on the defensive are generally in a reactive stance and must learn to develop an effective, shared performance strategy as opposed to merely reacting with their pre-possessed knowledge and experience norms. On the other hand, offensive teams can easily rally around their clearly defined goal or objective.

When Teams, When Not?

There are many ways organizations can structure work in order to meet collective goals. Teams are not always the most efficient method of accomplishing a task. The first question that should be asked when beginning a new project is whether a team is the best approach at all. For example, if a project is small and not easily divided into parts for team members to concentrate on, it may become a power struggle for a team to feel they are contributing to the project’s success. Conversely, a large, intricate, long-term goal will lend itself much easier to a team’s attentions as it can be broken into various tasks and short-term goals for each team member’s attention.

If a team approach is deemed appropriate, then it is important to choose the type of team that will best accomplish the goals. Two questions can be asked to help determine team type:

1. Will responsibility and accountability lie with the team as a whole or with individual members?

2. Will team members need to interact synchronously or asynchronously, perhaps in separate locations?

Hackman identifies five common types of teams, based on differing levels of responsibility, accountability, and the required levels of interaction among team members. Types of teams that may be appropriate for various types of tasks include:

1. Surgical teams. Responsibility and accountability lie mainly with one person (i.e., the surgeon); however the work must be performed collaboratively, by the team as a whole, synchronously.

2. Coaching groups. Team members are each responsible and accountable for their own subparts of the work and work asynchronously.

3. Face-to-Face teams. Face-to-face teams are generally co-located and work together in real-time on a task for which the team is collectively accountable.

4. Distributed (virtual) teams. The team is collectively responsible and accountable for the project however they are not co-located and do not need to interact in real-time.

5. Sand dune teams. These types of teams continuously form and re-form as requirements change. These dynamic teams work best with a somewhat stable membership.

Teams are not always the answer when presented with a business task. An ineffective or ill-formed team can be devastating to a business. Managers and leaders should carefully review the business goals and objectives, the organizational structure, and the technological capabilities that are readily available before forming a team. Deciding on which type of team to create will help to define the team’s interactions and ultimately their choice of processes to achieve the goals.

You Can’t Make a Team Be Great

One of the most critical functions of a team leader is to provide ongoing assessments of team effectiveness.

Before assessing the completed work, three key team processes can be assessed in real time to measure how a team is functioning:

1. Level of effort. Is the team avoiding process loss such as “social loafing” and excessive overhead or are they building team synergy and shared commitment?

2. Appropriateness of its performance strategy. Is the team avoiding reliance on habitual routines or is it fostering innovation and original approaches to team tasks?

3. How well the team is using its member’s skills, knowledge, and experience. Is the team appropriately utilizing each member’s special expertise so that all team members are contributing at their highest potential and are working synergistically towards the common goal?

Rather than focusing on the team leader as the main influence of a team’s performance, Hackman argues that there are six enabling structural and contextual conditions:
1. Create a team with each member assigned a specific role and/or duty.
2. Specify a compelling direction or purpose.
3. Put the right number of the right people on the team.
4. Specify and clarify any expectations of conduct for team behavior.
5. Provide a supportive organizational context.
6. Make competent team-focused coaching available.

The six enabling conditions do not guarantee the success or failure of a team. However, each contributes to the formation, growth, and success or failure of a team. The absence of one condition does not doom a team to failure either—but when working together, these conditions create a supportive environment that gives a team the best chance for succeeding.

Create a “Real Team”

The creation of a “real team” lays the foundation for its success. Challenges such as competently managing geographically dispersed team members using technology; stabilizing teams despite company promotions; transfers or reassignments; and overcoming organizational policies that inhibit teams must be overcome.

A few of the characteristics of real teams include:
1. Members work together for a common purpose.
2. Members are clearly distinguished from nonmembers.
3. Members are able to work interdependently.
4. Members have a collective, rather than individual, accountability.
5. Members have at least moderate stability.

The creation of a reasonably stable and well-defined team can be challenging given today’s fast-paced, constantly shifting organizational environment. Managers and leaders may need to become creative in attempting to overcome organizational policies and procedures that inhibit the effectiveness of forming and performing as a team.

However, this important step in the team creation process must be taken with care. If attention is not paid to creating a solid foundation for the work team, future attempts at correcting issues will be even more challenging, if not impossible.

Specify a Compelling Team Purpose

Specifying a team’s purpose is a key to the success of a team because so many basic team decisions depend upon it. An effective team purpose should help to determine the type of team structure that works best, as well as the organizational supports and the potential coaching needs that will be necessary. A well-defined team purpose serves a team and its members in several ways, including:
• Energizes team members.
• Orients the team towards its objective.
• Fully engages each member’s talents.

The most effective statements of purpose clearly state the ends but let the team decide the means. Focusing on the outcomes, rather than the process for achieving the outcome, allows team members to feel more confident about their own abilities as well as those of the team as a whole. Additionally, allowing process to be defined by the team allows for a broader range of potential solutions that draw on the knowledge and experience of all team members and not just that of the team leader.

Effective team purposes are comprised of three key features that create a compelling focus for the team. A good team purpose is:
1. Clear: It orients the team.
2. Challenging: It energizes the team.
3. Consequential: It engages team member’s talents.

The most effective team purposes allow a team to clearly see the work to be done and the direction to take while at the same time energizing the members around a clear goal.

Put the Right People on the Team

Well-formed teams have a mix of members with varying levels of expertise and skill. While a team should be as small and diverse as possible, often teams are chosen without careful consideration.

At times, the sole criteria may be who is available at the time.

To give a team a fighting chance of performing well, members should be chosen based on certain, wellresearched characteristics.
• Task capabilities. Successful teams match member’s skills with the tasks that require those specific skills.
• Teamwork skills. The innate ability to collaborate with others is a skill that is not possessed by everyone.
One destructive team member who cannot collaborate well with others can ruin the performance of a team if not properly managed.
• Training and experience. The differences in each team member’s history of training and experience can bring valuable learning to the team. However, care must be taken to respect those differences during team performance.

When composing a team, leaders should take special care to identify the kinds of knowledge and expertise that will be essential to performing the tasks successfully, and then deliberately seek team members to cover these critical areas.

Establish Clear Norms of Conduct

Clearly established rules for team behavior can save time and allow the team to focus on objectives rather than on managing behavior. Norms and expectations agreed upon by the group, such as when a certain task needs approval from another team member and when it does not, can keep teams from wasting time on managing behavior and keep the team focused on accomplishing its tasks.

Two types of norms that can be especially critical to a team’s ultimate success are:

1. Using members expertise well. Establishing and following norms that require and encourage members to use the talents of the team appropriately can keep a team from wandering off track from objectives.
2. Formulating appropriate performance strategies. Norms that create a safe environment for team members to formulate novel approaches to team objectives can help the team proceed with the most appropriate and effective processes for accomplishing objectives.

Team leaders should guide the creation of team norms, preferably as early in the team life cycle as possible. In addition, norms can be established when new tasks are undertaken or when an unforeseen event occurs.

Leaders can reinforce norms by watching for and acknowledging situations in which team members are using the norms to its advantage. Leaders should acknowledge examples of the efficient use of members talents and expertise and highlight examples of innovative or particularly effective performance strategies.

Provide Organizational Supports for Teamwork

Even well-formed teams can be doomed to failure should they encounter a lack of organizational support. Highly successful teams have the critical combination of the right resources and the right support at just the right time. To enable the success of a team, four aspects are critical from an organizational point of view:

1. The appropriate information and tools needed to perform the work are available.
2. Educational and technical resources and assistance available.
3. Availability of any resources, both material and personal.
4. Rewards for team performance.

Teams can struggle, or even fail, if these contextual supports are not available, arrive too late, or take an inordinate amount of time or effort to obtain.

The responsibility of the team leader then is to provide a team environment with these contextual supports in place. To do this, team leaders must use their managerial and interpersonal skills to gather organizational support that will allow the team to flourish.

Provide Well-Timed Team Coaching

While the absence of coaching does not doom a team to failure, as some of the other enabling conditions can, providing competent coaching can only boost a team’s results from adequate to exceptional.

Helpful coaching depends on defining the following criteria for a team:

• The target of coaching—An individual vs. the whole team
• The focus of coaching—Team relationships vs. tasks/processes
• The timing of coaching—Avoiding too early and too late scenarios

There are five important guidelines to coaching:

1. Pay attention to timing.
2. Generate multiple possible explanations for unexpected events.
3. Let anxiety-arousing patterns play out for a while before dealing with them.
4. Coach in a personal, idiosyncratic way.
5. Actively encourage team members to help.

Coaching can help to minimize a team’s process losses and to maximize its process gains. However, the previous five guidelines must be in place in order for coaching to be effective.

Leading Intelligence Teams

The 60-30-10 rule suggests that 60 percent of the difference in how well a team performs in the end depends on the quality of the prework, 30 percent depends on the launch of the team, and only 10 percent is determined by the actions of the leader after the team is underway.

The team leader’s choices, when creating a team, such as the team’s purpose, the composition of the team and the team’s design shape the eventual performance of the team. The prework then sets the foundation for how the team will measure up against the three criteria for effectiveness.

The launch of the team is critical to the eventual success of the team. Team leaders, who have assembled a well-designed team, should have clear objectives for the launch meeting and circle back to any unresolved issues as quickly as possible.

The 10 in the 60-30-10 involves the coaching of the team. Proper and timely coaching can improve the effectiveness of an already performing team. However, a badly designed, launched, or supported team will likely not improve even with highly competent coaching.

Intelligence Teams in Context

Certain assertions about teams can highlight the obstacles faced by teams in performing effectively.

However, as is often the case, obstacles can also present opportunity for constructive change:

• ”We can’t let that happen again!” Often, when something unfortunate or unforeseen happens to a team, it can lead to change that is good for the whole organization or the public. Airplane crashes lead to new safety procedures or food-borne illness leads to new FDA regulations; the obstacles faced by one team can lead to growth and learning for individuals and the organization as a whole.

• “Expertise is overrated.” Recently, particularly in the intelligence community, there has lately been a backlash against the heavy reliance on “experts.” Studies show that even seasoned experts are vulnerable to biases in their critical thinking. Over-reliance on experts has swung the pendulum to the aggregate approach of collaborating members working together to provide a broader range of knowledge and experience.

• “What drives motivation is competition.” Competition can be an obstacle but can also motivate team members towards the objective while at the same time fostering learning among team members.

• “Let the best team win.” Intergroup competition can lead to performance strategies that foster non-cooperation and a focus on winning rather than meeting the objectives. Fostering intergroup dependencies can lead to the same sharing and coaching behaviors seen among members of effective teams.

• “It’s hard to dance under an umbrella.” When command and control is centralized under a layer of bureaucracy, autonomy and accountability are removed from the team level. While the overall direction should be set at the highest level, teams will be more effective if given the resources and supports to achieve their stated objectives autonomously.

• “Sorry, that’s compartmented.” When teams do not have the ability to gather data and information critical to the attainment of their goals and objectives, it may be time to rethink organizational policies on security and sharing of data.

• “She’ll be gone soon.” Teams can survive frequent changes in leadership by creating multi-year plans that transcend specific leaders.

• “Let’s put together some people to look into that.” Overreliance on teams can hinder an organization.

Leaders and managers should carefully consider their choice of a team approach over an individual approach.

Estimated Reading Time for this book: 3-4 hours, 198 pages 

Business leaders, particularly those in the intelligence community, will benefit from reading and applying the concepts presented in Collaborative Intelligence. J. Richard Hackman is a respected scholar and researcher on the role of teams in the intelligence  community. The author uses many examples from the intelligence community, with its often unique requirements for urgency and security, to illustrate the different types of teams, and team dynamics, as well as the social, organizational, and personality issues facing teams. Although the book relies heavily on the use of government intelligence teams for examples of the ideas presented, the key concepts can be applied to business teams, or any team, in general. The book is designed to be read from cover to cover as the concepts build on each other. However, it is well organized and can also be used a reference when forming or assessing teams.

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