The New Science of Building Great Teams

 

Artwork: Andy Gilmore, Chromatic, 2010, digital drawing

If you were looking for teams to rig for success, a call center would be a good place to start. The skills required for call center work are easy to identify and hire for. The tasks involved are clear-cut and easy to monitor. Just about every aspect of team performance is easy to measure: number of issues resolved, customer satisfaction, average handling time (AHT, the golden standard of call center efficiency). And the list goes on.

Why, then, did the manager at a major bank’s call center have such trouble figuring out why some of his teams got excellent results, while other, seemingly similar, teams struggled? Indeed, none of the metrics that poured in hinted at the reason for the performance gaps. This mystery reinforced his assumption that team building was an art, not a science.

The truth is quite the opposite. At MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, we have identified the elusive group dynamics that characterize high-performing teams—those blessed with the energy, creativity, and shared commitment to far surpass other teams. These dynamics are observable, quantifiable, and measurable. And, perhaps most important, teams can be taught how to strengthen them.

Looking for the “It Factor”

When we set out to document the behavior of teams that “click,” we noticed we could sense a buzz in a team even if we didn’t understand what the members were talking about. That suggested that the key to high performance lay not in the content of a team’s discussions but in the manner in which it was communicating. Yet little of the research on team building had focused on communication. Suspecting it might be crucial, we decided to examine it more deeply.

Why Do Patterns of Communication Matter So Much?

It seems almost absurd that how we communicate could be so much more important to success than what we communicate.

Yet if we look at our evolutionary history, we can see that language is a relatively recent development and was most likely layered upon older signals that communicated dominance, interest, and emotions among humans. Today these ancient patterns of communication still shape how we make decisions and coordinate work among ourselves.

Consider how early man may have approached problem solving. One can imagine humans sitting around a campfire (as a team) making suggestions, relating observations, and indicating interest or approval with head nods, gestures, or vocal signals. If some people failed to contribute or to signal their level of interest or approval, then the group members had less information and weaker judgment, and so were more likely to go hungry.

For our studies, we looked across a diverse set of industries to find workplaces that had similar teams with varying performance. Ultimately, our research included innovation teams, post-op wards in hospitals, customer-facing teams in banks, backroom operations teams, and call center teams, among others.

We equipped all the members of those teams with electronic badges that collected data on their individual communication behavior—tone of voice, body language, whom they talked to and how much, and more. With remarkable consistency, the data confirmed that communication indeed plays a critical role in building successful teams. In fact, we’ve found patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors—individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions—combined.

Patterns of communication, for example, explained why performance varied so widely among the seemingly identical teams in that bank’s call center. Several teams there wore our badges for six weeks. When my fellow researchers (my colleagues at Sociometric Solutions—Taemie Kim, Daniel Olguin, and Ben Waber) and I analyzed the data collected, we found that the best predictors of productivity were a team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings. Together those two factors explained one-third of the variations in dollar productivity among groups.

Drawing on that insight, we advised the center’s manager to revise the employees’ coffee break schedule so that everyone on a team took a break at the same time. That would allow people more time to socialize with their teammates, away from their workstations. Though the suggestion flew in the face of standard efficiency practices, the manager was baffled and desperate, so he tried it. And it worked: AHT fell by more than 20% among lower-performing teams and decreased by 8% overall at the call center. Now the manager is changing the break schedule at all 10 of the bank’s call centers (which employ a total of 25,000 people) and is forecasting $15 million a year in productivity increases. He has also seen employee satisfaction at call centers rise, sometimes by more than 10%.

by Alex “Sandy” Pentland

Harvard Business Review

Alex “Sandy” Pentland is a professor at MIT, the director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program, and the chairman of Sociometric Solutions.