Part I: Critical Factor for Creating High Performance Teams

“A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

I am a big believer in Social Science research and not just fly by opinions. For many years, I have been studying and working with teams and was always trying to figure-out what made the difference between poor , average and superior work teams. Now comes some strong support that what makes a difference in separating superior teams from others is how they communicate not what they communicate.

HBR’s April Spotlight on teams describes in detail the ” new science of building great teams. We can summarize those points here. The data in this research provides evidence that great teams:

  • “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.
  • 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.
  • The Coffee Break factor spend time in frequent informal communication. The best teams spend about half their time communicating outside of formal meetings or as “asides” during team meetings, and increasing opportunities for informal communication tends to increase team performance.
  • 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.

You’ll notice that none of the factors outlined above concern the content or messages of a team’s communication. The study was design to capture only how people communicate — tone of voice, gestures, how one faces others in the group, and how much people talk and listen. The researchers did not capture what people communicate.

This is purposeful. From the beginning, I suspected that the ineffable buzz of high-performing teams was more about the how of communication than the what. My hypothesis was that the ancient biological patterns of signaling that humans developed in the millennia before we developed language — which is a relatively recent development — still dominate our communication. We all know how powerful non-verbal communication can be between humans.

According to their data: How we communicate turns out to be the most important predictor of team success, and as important as all other factors combined, including intelligence, personality, skill, and content of discussions. The old adage that it’s not what you say, but how you say it, turns out to be mathematically correct.

Just how powerful these patterns of communication are can be surprising. For example, we can predict with precision whether a team will perform well or not, and we can predict with a high rate of success whether or not team members will report they’ve had a “productive” or “creative” day based solely on the data from the sociometric badges. If this seems like a statistical parlor trick, it’s not. By adjusting group behavior based on this data, we’ve documented improved teamwork.

Many people are uncomfortable with this. It suggests that a kind of biological determinism, that people who naturally display the good communication patterns will “win” and anyone not blessed with this innate talent will drag a team down. In fact, that’s not the case at all. In our work we’ve found that these patterns of communication are highly trainable, and that personality traits we usually chalk up to the “it” factor — personal charisma, for example — are actually teachable skills. Data is an amazingly powerful tool for objectifying what would normally seem subjective. Time and again I’ve seen data become an incontrovertible ally to team members who may otherwise be afraid to voice their feelings about the group dynamics. They can finally say “I’m not being heard” and they have the data to back them up.”

People should feel empowered by the idea of a science of team building, The idea that we can transmute the guess-work of putting a team together into a rigorous methodology, and then continuously improve teams is exciting. Nothing will be more powerful, I believe, in eventually changing how organizations work.

Anyone interested in the full article can go the HBR article located in the Insight Center. After that you can tune-in to other  blog posts about the power of visualization of the data, and where the technology and science are headed. If that isn’t enough information you can learn more by joining the author, Alex “Sandy” Pentland, who is the director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program.