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Sunday, April 1, 2012

New Science of Building Great Teams 04-02

The New Science of Building Great Teams

by Alex “Sandy” Pentland

(Courtesy HBR)
Only for MMA (Matured Management Audience)

The sociometric badge, a wearable electronic sensor that measures a team's productivity

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.

Why Do Patterns of Communication Matter So Much?

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.

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%.

Any company, no matter how large, has the potential to achieve this same kind of transformation. Firms now can obtain the tools and data they need to accurately dissect and engineer high performance. Building great teams has become a science. Here’s how it works.
Overcoming the Limits of Observation

When we sense esprit de corps, that perception doesn’t come out of the blue; it’s the result of our innate ability to process the hundreds of complex communication cues that we constantly send and receive.
But until recently we had never been able to objectively record such cues as data that we could then mine to understand why teams click. Mere observation simply couldn’t capture every nuance of human behavior across an entire team. What we had, then, was only a strong sense of the things—good leadership and followership, palpable shared commitment, a terrific brainstorming session—that made a team greater than the sum of its parts.
Recent advances in wireless and sensor technology, though, have helped us overcome those limitations, allowing us to measure that ineffable “It factor.” The badges developed at my lab at MIT are in their seventh version. They generate more than 100 data points a minute and work unobtrusively enough that we’re confident we’re capturing natural behavior. (We’ve documented a period of adjustment to the badges: Early on, people appear to be aware of them and act unnaturally, but the effect dissipates, usually within an hour.) We’ve deployed them in 21 organizations over the past seven years, measuring the communication patterns of about 2,500 people, sometimes for six weeks at a time.
With the data we’ve collected, we’ve mapped the communication behaviors of large numbers of people as they go about their lives, at an unprecedented level of detail. The badges produce “sociometrics,” or measures of how people interact—such as what tone of voice they use; whether they face one another; how much they gesture; how much they talk, listen, and interrupt; and even their levels of extroversion and empathy. By comparing data gathered from all the individuals on a team with performance data, we can identify the communication patterns that make for successful teamwork.
Those patterns vary little, regardless of the type of team and its goal—be it a call center team striving for efficiency, an innovation team at a pharmaceutical company looking for new product ideas, or a senior management team hoping to improve its leadership. Productive teams have certain data signatures, and they’re so consistent that we can predict a team’s success simply by looking at the data—without ever meeting its members.
We’ve been able to foretell, for example, which teams will win a business plan contest, solely on the basis of data collected from team members wearing badges at a cocktail reception. (See “Defend Your Research: We Can Measure the Power of Charisma,” HBR January–February 2010.) We’ve predicted the financial results that teams making investments would achieve, just on the basis of data collected during their negotiations. We can see in the data when team members will report that they’ve had a “productive” or “creative” day.
The data also reveal, at a higher level, that successful teams share several defining characteristics:
1. Everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet.
2. Members face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
3. Members connect directly with one another—not just with the team leader.
4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.
5. Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back.
The data also establish another surprising fact: Individual reasoning and talent contribute far less to team success than one might expect. The best way to build a great team is not to select individuals for their smarts or accomplishments but to learn how they communicate and to shape and guide the team so that it follows successful communication patterns.
The Key Elements of Communication

In our research we identified three aspects of communication that affect team performance. The first is energy, which we measure by the number and the nature of exchanges among team members. A single exchange is defined as a comment and some acknowledgment—for example, a “yes” or a nod of the head. Normal conversations are often made up of many of these exchanges, and in a team setting more than one exchange may be going on at a time.
The most valuable form of communication is face-to-face. The next most valuable is by phone or videoconference, but with a caveat: Those technologies become less effective as more people participate in the call or conference. The least valuable forms of communication are e-mail and texting. (We collect data on those kinds of communication without using the badges. Still, the number of face-to-face exchanges alone provides a good rough measure of energy.) The number of exchanges engaged in, weighted for their value by type of communication, gives each team member an energy score, which is averaged with other members’ results to create a team score.