The New Science of Building Great Teams

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.

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Artwork: Andy Gilmore, Chromatic, 2010, digital drawing

How teams function has long been a fertile area for study.  With good reason.  It’s hard enough to understand how just one person manages to function well balancing all the competing forces – DNA, upbringing, financial pressures, peer pressure, egos, ethics and the list goes on.  Now put a group of us together – and it’s amazing we survive, let alone get anything done.  Some teams don’t.  But the ones that do – it’s a thing of beauty.

People from coaches (Coach K, Vince Lombardi) to business gurus (Peter Drucker, Patrick Lencioni) to generals (George Patton, Douglas MacArthur) have reflected on the secrets of great teams.  So, it’s reasonable that scientists would join in.  In a 2012, Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, did a study to “understand good teamwork as a hard science” that is relevant today.

“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.”

The badges captured “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.”

The data showed 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.

These four points led the researchers to also conclude:  “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.”

It’s also “correct” for relationships, too.

Here is the link to the full article, The New Science of Building Great Teams.

Contact us and we can help you better understand how to develop high-performing, successful teams.