Why are some teams smarter than others? A recent article in the New York Times aims to tackle this quandary with a thorough review of some recent scholarly articles. I confess I have not looked up the scholarly articles referenced there, so I’m trusting the NYT to have accurately captured the gist of them. The characteristics of good and effective teams are, IMHO, accurate. Leaving out the one about team diversity (I’m not a fan of genderizing these kinds of things), here’s the three that characterized the most effective teams.
Team member communicate a lot. Implicit in this must be that they communicate well, as I know lots of people who communicate A LOT without it being effective. Communication in any circumstance needs to be clear, concise and complete to be most effective. While this can be challenging in a team, where you have to account for multiple perspectives and backgrounds, it still requires that individuals stick to the 3C principle to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio in their communications. Lots of noise in a team can lead to some members tuning out, compromising the next factor.
Team members participate equally. This factor also should consider the quality of the contributions as well as the volume. Some team members will have subject matter expertise that is essential to success of the work, but is only required in a narrow or specific part of the project, and so the amount of work that they do is small but it’s contribution is a critical success factor. While there’s a risk here of having “elite” team members, sometimes individuals are needed only for their unique skills, and to have them involved in other aspects of the work could be detrimental to the outcomes, if their knowledge or style would inhibit rather than enhance the work. That’s not to say that team members shouldn’t be allowed or encouraged to contribute in a multidisciplinary way, or that more junior team member should be limited in their involvement. But each individual’s involvement should balance the needs of the work, the efficiency and effectiveness of their contributions, and the opportunities for each to learn from the work experience.
Related to the point about communication, keeping the noise down is important to allow team members to contribute. If team members can’t be heard above the rambling contributions of others, they may minimize or withdraw their efforts, resulting in only the squeakiest wheels contributing. And the squeaky wheels are not typically the most useful.
Team members possess good-emotion reading skills. This is the hardest to learn and to evaluate. Perhaps also known as intuition or instinct (or in some circles, “spidey-senses”), the ability to read people is not something that can be taught effectively. It can be learned, and that learning supported by coaching and mentoring, but since both the individuals and the circumstance play such a large role in reading and responding to these, people develop these skills with time and experience, not from teaching or training. These are related to communication skills, but are more implicit and have more to do with personality than any specific project or work.
One missing element from this list is a good team leader – perhaps it doesn’t fit in with the organic nature of the teams and work studied. A good leader can enable these team characteristics by modelling these behaviours and mentoring team members in their development, as well as checking and correcting things when they get off track. For example, if there is a team member who’s not contributing equally, an effective leader will identify and work to correct that before it becomes something that undermines the team’s success.
I found it interesting that the research showed these characteristics were the same for both live and virtual teams. I think this is something that often gets missed when people work remotely or virtually, in that it gets assumed that good communication and team relations (among other things) are less important when you’re not co-located – that somehow getting to know your team mates is less critical when you don’t ever meet them. I think quite the opposite is true – when you don’t have the opportunity to meet and interact live with your team mates, these things can be even more important, and require more effort BECAUSE you don’t have the opportunity to meet live.
I would be interested in additional research in this area to understand if there’s a “bad apple” effect – can you really ruin a good team with just one person not communicating or contributing well? I think this is possible, especially if the person intentionally ruins things by withholding effort, or uses communication and emotion to manipulate team mates. Can a really good team overcome this effect? I think they can, if they are strong in these characteristics, have experience working together, and have a strong and effective team leader.
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.