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Three Critical Factors for Successful Teams

By Melissa J. Anderson

Why are some teams so productive, while some fail to produce high results? According to research by MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab, it all comes down to how people communicate, or as Alex “Sandy” Pentland, director of the Lab, described it in a recent HBR blog post, “tone of voice, gesticulation, how one faces others in the group, and how much people talk and listen.”

Pentland’s research shows that the interpersonal dynamics of communication account for much of the productivity of teams. In fact, according to the research, 35 percent of variation in a team’s performance comes down to the quantity of face-to-face exchanges between team members. He explains:

“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.”

When it comes to building effective teams, Pentland says, leaders must be sure to account for three critical factors when it comes to communication. Here’s how.

The Three E’s

To find out what makes great teams tick, Pentland and his colleagues, Taemie Kim, Daniel Olguin, and Ben Waber, had study subjects wear electronic sensors, called sociometric badges, which collected data on how they were interacting, who they were interacting with, and how often they were interacting.

The research revealed three dynamics that can predict the performance of a particular team:

  • Energy: the number and nature of exchanges between team members
  • Engagement: the distribution of energy within a team
  • Exploration: communication by members outside of a team

These interactions reveal how productive a team will be, writes Pentland in the HBR Magazine. “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.”

The most productive teams, while they may look different, interact in very similar ways, regardless of industry or function. He explains:

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.”

Managers can take advantage of his research to improve productivity and creativity by reorganizing office space and seating, setting an example of positive interactions, changing policies if necessary, and coaching individuals on the best methods of interaction.

Importance of Gathering Data

Pentland marveled at the ability to quantify interactions – hard data can make all the difference when convincing others to engage in a particular new idea or management technique, particularly in today’s quantitative-driven workplace.

Some people may be uncomfortable with this work, he writes, but embracing the power of data for illuminating softer qualities, like the culture of communications at a company, can produce real results.

“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.”

He adds, “We imagine changing the nature of the space we work in, and maybe even the tools we use to communicate, on the basis of the data. We believe we can vastly improve long-distance work and cross-cultural teams, which are so crucial in a global economy, by learning their patterns and adjusting them.”

By analyzing culture, leaders can work to optimize interactions and create more powerful teams.

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