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The New Science of Building Great Teams

There are thousands of book on team building.  A quick check of the www.amazon.com  book list will give you approx. 52,000 hits. You could probably narrow that down to a few thousand by focusing on those that relate to leadership and management development, but there are still quite a few.  That’s why I was so surprised to find a great article on team building that provided fresh research on the topic from non-other than Alex “Sandy” Pentland at the world famous MIT Media Lab. 
 
First of all, a word about Sandy Pentland.  Sandy is founder of the Media Lab’s Human Dynamics Group and Director of the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program.  His work focuses on organizational engineering, mobile information systems, and computational social science.  He is at the center of the “internet of things,” “big data,” “privacy” and the related insights about how we interact.  He is the World Economic Forum’s lead advisor for big data and personal data initiatives.  So when Sandy Pentland published something new about team dynamics, it’s worth reading.
 
The research for the article focused on thousands of individuals in different industries with large numbers of people involved in similar team activities. This included call centers, customer facing teams in banks, post-operative wards in hospitals, back office operations teams and similar team environments.  Overall, the article includes insights from over 7,000 individuals at 21 different organizations collected over 7 years. Since this is a media-lab project, there was a significant technology component.  All team members were asked to wear socio-metric badges developed at MIT that collect over 100 data points per minute on behavior including how much an individual talked, whom they talked to, the tone of their voice and their body position.  The conclusion of the study was that patterns of communication behavior were the single biggest predictor of team productivity.
 
The most successful teams shared several characteristics
  • Everyone on a team talks and listens in approximately equal proportions
  • Contributions tend to be short
  • People tend to face one another directly when communicating
  • Conversations and gestures are often energetic
  • Team members communicate peer-to-peer and not just with the team leader
  • Here are significant side-channel conversations between team members outside of the group setting
  • Team members often do outside exploration and problem solving and bring the information back to the team.
 
What are the implications for Learning and Development?
The full article provides a solid foundation for changing the way you look at team dynamics. One important insight is that the subject matter of the communication doesn't matter. Communication patterns generated equally predictive results across industries.  There are additional insights that lead to management actions that can be taught.  Levels of team energy, engagement and exploration represent specific opportunities for managers to improve overall communication.  In essence, there are several ways to improve performance.  There are also illustrations that show how communications patterns look over time that could be used to help teams understand their own behavior.  
 
The value of an article like this is that is uses hard data to provide insights into development activities that are considered “soft” skills.  The fact that it comes from a leading institution like MIT adds credibility to the recommendations.  As L&D departments look to the future, wearable social-metric badges become a potential tool to help solve challenging problems with a promise of clear ROI metrics.
 
Source
  • The New Science of Building Great Teams, Alex Pentland, Harvard Business Review, April 2012, 11 pages.
  • Cost: $8.95 USD from www.hbr.org
  • We found a pre-paid reprint (Free download): http://leaderswheel.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/buildingteams.pdf
  • The author: http://web.media.mit.edu/~sandy/
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