The Hard Science of Teamwork

In this month’s Harvard Business Review, there is an excellent article by Alex Pentland, a team director at MIT´s Human Dynamics Laboratory, on new scientific methods of measuring team success. Using wearable electronic sensors called sociometric badges, they capture how team members communicate in real time, and not only have they verified the characteristics that make up great teams, but can also describe those characteristics mathematically.

The study’s conclusions confirm the key characteristics of successful 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 the structure of formal 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.

According to the data, it’s as true for humans as it is for bees that 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.

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. Pentland insists that this is not the case at all, that these patterns of communication are highly trainable, and that personality traits we usually chalk up to abstract factors like “personal charisma”, for example, are actually learnable skills.

Pentland concludes: “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.”

For more information, see the complete article at:

http://hbr.org/2012/04/the-new-science-of-building-great-teams/ar/1

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