Like many people, I’ve encountered teams that are “clicking.” I’ve experienced the “buzz” of a group that’s blazing away with new ideas in a way that makes it seem they can read each others’ minds. We think of building teams that operate on this plane as an art, or even magic. It’s not something you can plan; it’s lightning-in-a-bottle stuff that you just embrace when you’re lucky enough to come across it.
But to me, the buzz was so palpable, I decided that it must be a real, observable and measurable thing. I was motivated to find a way to document that buzz, and understand good teamwork as a hard science.
The team I lead at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory has done just that. Using wearable electronic sensors called sociometric badges, we capture how people communicate in real time, and not only can we determine the characteristics that make up great teams, but we can also describe those characteristics mathematically. What’s more, we’ve discovered that some things matter much less than you may suspect when building a great team. Getting the smartest people, for example.
My feature article in HBR’s April Spotlight on teams describes in detail the new science of building great teams. We can summarize those points here. Our data show 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.
- Engage 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 substance of a team’s communication. As I said, our badges only capture how people communicate — tone of voice, gesticulation, how one faces others in the group, and how much people talk and listen. They do not capture what people communicate.
This is purposeful. From the beginning, I suspected that the ineffable buzz of high-performing teams wasn’t 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. I was buoyed in this idea by research on just how sophisticated non-verbal communication can be across the animal kingdom. Bees, for example, use a marvelous system of dancing competitions to decide where to get their pollen.
According to our data, it’s as true for humans as for bees: 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 eerie 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 team 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.
Want CitySolve Team Building to come and rescue you from your cubical? For more information, call CitySolve today at 800.277.1552 or email Jason Hofsess at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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