Last June I graduated from Hyper Island. A school that designs learning experiences that challenge companies and individuals to grow and stay competitive in an increasingly digitised world.
But what learning experiences, you ask? Well, a big part of the education that Hyper Island preaches, has to do with Group Dynamics. Because, like they told us almost every single day;
So how do you build the best team possible? Doesn’t seem like an easy task right? By using a set of methods that focuses on the why as much as the how and the what, on team collaboration instead of individual effort, you challenge participants to grow personally and professionally. Through new ways of thinking and learning, your team can develop themselves into lifelong learners.
And therefore I’d like to introduce you to some of the methods which I thought were the most useful:
Check In-Check Out
Either checking-in or checking-out is a simple way for a team to open or close a process, symbolically and in a collaborative way.
Checking-in/out invites each member in a group to be present, seen and heard, and to express a reflection or a feeling.
Checking-in emphasises presence, focus and group commitment; checking-out emphasises reflection and symbolic closure.
This exercise is useful for bringing groups together, to create interpersonal bonds, and to build trust.
Participants stand opposite each other and have 30 seconds to give appreciative feedback to the other person.
The group rotates until everyone has given feedback to everyone else. It is often used as part of wrap-up activities, to create an energized feeling to leave with.
Start Stop Continue
You divide your answers in three subjects; what you should start doing, what you should stop doing and what you should continue to do.
Giving feedback to your team members can be difficult, but this methods makes it a lot easier to put in words what you want to say. By dividing the feedback into three subjects; start, stop & continue, your feedback can’t be either positive or negative, and will always be useful.
Tip: write this information on a post-it and hand it over after you’ve explained the three subjects. This way the teammember can look back at it and remind itself of implementing the feedback.
The purpose of reflecting as a team is for members to express thoughts, feelings and opinions about a shared experience, to build openness and trust in the team, and to draw out key learnings and insights to take forward into subsequent experiences. Team members generally sit in a circle, reflecting first as individuals, sharing those reflections with the group, then discussing the insights and potential actions to take out of the session. Use this session one or more times throughout a project or program.
The key to reflection is asking: “What does this experience mean to me?” Here’s a simple yet powerful set of reflection questions that can be used in almost any setting for individuals and/or groups.
How did I feel and what were my reactions?
What insights or conclusions can I draw from the experience?
What actions can I take based on what I learned?
It’s the practice of actively reflecting on one’s experiences in order to continuously learn and develop. Reflection is a natural human activity, of course. But by making reflection more intentional and regular, people learn more and develop more quickly. Practicing reflection in teams and organisations helps people learn collectively.
Implementing these methods is not an easy task to do, but from my own experience I can say that it’s definitely worth it. The general working atmosphere improves, you get challenged on a daily basis and you see that your team will grows with every project.
Project managers do a bit of everything. They fill in the gaps as utility players while drawing up plays for the rest of the team. They research tools, craft proposals, and present plans to the higher-ups. And, they manage personalities.
But which of those skills is the most important to the success of a project manager?
We asked individuals who have managed projects—either in a project or product manager role or outside of it—what they’d put at the top of their list, and received some sage advice for newbies and seasoned professionals alike.
Wield the Politician Inside You
Everyone has to learn how to “play ball” in the office; whether it’s breaking bad news to your boss or handling a temperamental coworker. But it takes a certain grace to manage and please workers from every department—something project managers do on an ongoing basis.
Winston Churchill once said, “A good politician needs the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn’t happen.” Heather Henricks, a freelance senior digital project manager who leads Ecology Action‘s marketing efforts, may well agree with him.
“At the end of the day, most highly-motivated project managers can perfect hard skills like technical acumen with systems, networks and platforms—it’s the soft skills that really separate mediocre project managers from the masters,” she says. Henricks spent her first seven years in project management at Microsoft, followed by ten more riding the startup wave at companies like Payscale.com and Allrecipes.com.
“When projects turn chaotic—and it’s inevitable that they will from time to time—how do you rise above it all to get the best possible outcome? Are you a master at using humor and compassion to relieve the tension between teammates? Can you comfortably deliver hard news to those in authority in a way that doesn’t rely on blame? Can you listen to feedback objectively and without ego? Can you lead with the project’s best interest in mind, and not get distracted by your own?
“You’re the real hero when you successfully complete a project and everyone still likes and respects each other,” Henricks says.
“You’re the real hero when you successfully complete a project and everyone still likes and respects each other.”- Heather Henricks, Freelance Project Manager
Sharpening traits like diplomacy, objectivity and affability make for a great project manager when the going gets tough.
Paul Cothenet, who has worked as a product manager at a venture-backed startup for five years, and is now the CTO of MadKudu, an analytics company, says that knowing how to work well with others is especially important when working closely with science-based minds.
“I’ll defer to one of the hardest defenders of project management out there: ‘Most engineers don’t know what a project manager does, and if they do, they usually don’t know what a good one looks like.'”
In his work with engineers, Cothenet feels that most of them won’t understand what it is a project manager does (and will probably dislike whatever he or she does, anyway). “And that’s exactly why you’re not in their shoes and they’re not in yours,” he says.
Since the technically-minded often think and communicate differently than those that don’t, the real value of a project manager exists in engineers’ blind spot.
“Don’t try to convince them that they need you. The fact that they’re not convinced is the reason why they need someone like you. That cognitive dissonance is the reality of the job, so get comfortable with it,” Cothenet says.
With time, if you’re good at what you do, engineers will “recognize it when they see it. Never try to shove it down their throat.”
Henricks says there are many different times when she’s had to bring out her inner politician. No matter what the scenario, though, she stresses one rule: “Don’t put yourself in the situation of fixing people’s conflicts, and don’t engage in conversations that seem emotionally fueled.”
She remembers a time when a designer had put together a wire frame mock-up of a web landing page for a client, but the account manager pushed back on certain design elements. The designer felt very attached to these features, and conflict ensued.
“So I went to the designer and I said ‘Hey, I get why you designed the features that way, and I know it’s hard to let go of. But I want to help you understand what the client wants,'” Henricks says.
She explained to the designer that the account manager was focusing on the client’s best interest—a more simple user interface—and that the web design needed to be put against the goals of the project.
“Keep things factual; it’s all about bringing perspective,” she says. “Citing facts is a way of taking someone by the shoulders and shaking them out of their mind trap. It’s almost cliche now to lead with a positive—but it works.”
Use the Details to Shape the Strategy
Looking at the fine print can save time, money and and frustration. But a good project manager has to accomplish a delicate trifecta: appreciating the weight of the details, maintaining a top-level focus, and fitting everything into a coherent strategy.
Joe Corraro, a project manager with Siemens who oversees construction projects in New York City, says going through the details with a fine-toothed comb has made all the difference in how smoothly a job goes.
“If the engineer says we need 20 temperature sensors, but the documents says we need six, I need to know what the salesman said and what the construction plans say, so that when I’m asked ‘how did this happen?‘ in a meeting, I have my details straight and can give an educated answer—and a solution,” Corraro says.
Relying on your team is one way to make sure things are double- and triple-checked. “I can’t do it all,” Corraro says, “so I know that if I have my team combing through it, we’ll catch all the ‘gotchas’ that could lead to big problems.”
“Your job is to sweat the small stuff and do the stuff other people don’t want to do,” Cothenet says. “That may sound menial to other people. But if you’re reading this, it’s probably what you like to do and one thing you’re really good at.”
“Your job is to sweat the small stuff and do the stuff other people don’t want to do.”- Paul Cothenet, CTO of MadKudu, former Product Manager
But while the small stuff is important, getting tangled up in it can lead to trouble. Niki Gallo Hammond, a senior project manager with technology firm Jackson River, says that the best value a project manager can bring to a team is the ability to maintain the strategic perspective of the stakeholders.
“That doesn’t mean avoiding the details completely,” she says, “but do be wary of getting lost in them.”
Good to know, but what’s the best way a project manager do that? Get organized.
Johan Lieu, a product manager for Wufoo, says being “insanely organized” is a result of his need to know a product inside and out.
“Since it’s impossible to keep an entire product in your head, you have to rely on outside tools like wikis, task trackers, to-do lists, whatever you like to use, to keep all that information,” Lieu says.
But be careful not to drown in your to-do list, either: curating it in a manageable (read: realistically doable) is a great way to keep things on track.
“Maintaining a long backlog or to-do list will use up a lot of mental energy,” Lieu says. “Be very mindful about adding anything and be obsessed about getting rid of stuff that doesn’t matter.”
Cothenet realized how out of control his task list was getting when he started cleaning it up every six months. There were so many unsavable, backlogged items that he started curating it every three months, which kept it much more manageable.
“If an item hasn’t been updated in 3 months, just get rid of it,” Cothenet says. “If it is really important, it will come back.”
The unimportant tasks may be things like small bug fixes or feature requests which, even though they would certainly improve a product, may not be important in the big picture.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
The way Siemens’ Corraro describes his to-do list, it’d seem like it’s the backbone of his project management prowess—but it’s actually the constant communication behind his to-do list that makes it so effective.
“Actually, I call it my punch list,” Corraro says.
New needs are communicated every day, so “you have to be able to adapt.”
He spends the last half-hour of each day sitting down with the entire team to mark off what got done and what needs to be added to the master list. Then they organize everything by priority and who’s responsible for what.
“Look at your timeline; if you need to do something by x date, and you aren’t on target, what do you need to do to get there?” Corraro says.
Corraro also takes the time to see firsthand what might be holding something up. He’ll revise the master list based on what he feels will clear the most roadblocks, then surface concerns at the end-of-day meeting.
Communicating clearly is just part of the process, according to Hammond; a good project manager chooses the right communication tool for the job. (e.g. Would you provide constructive criticism in person, or in an email?)
“Get really good at all forms of communication, and use them. Writing a status report, delivering a verbal presentation, and illustrating a plan may all be ‘communication,’ but each are appropriate at different times, and often those who excel at one could use improvement in others,” she says.
In general, deadlines, assignments and complicated data are best in a written or illustrated form; challenges, bad news, and difficult conversations call for a verbal chat with a written follow-up.
“I once had to address a room full of 50 CEOs and inform them that a software upgrade they were waiting for would be months delayed.”- Niki Gallo Hammond, Project Manager at Jackson River
“I once had to address a room full of 50 CEOs and inform them that a software upgrade they were waiting for would be months delayed,” Hammond says. “While they weren’t happy about it, I think they saw how much I cared and that I wanted to find ways to minimize the impact it would have on their operations. And, they were able to voice their concerns to me immediately and we started brainstorming right there on workarounds. In many ways it ended up strengthening our partnership, which would probably not have happened if the message were delivered via email.”
Never be afraid to over-communicate. It’s better to pick up the phone or walk down the hall and make sure everything’s going ok, than to just trust that things will automatically work themselves out.
Lead by Example
Even if the entire team is up-to-speed, remember that you, the project manager, are still in the lead. That means doing whatever it takes to get the project done, even if it’s outside of your assigned duties.
A good project manager leads by thinking three steps ahead and knows that ultimately, how a project fares will reflect on them.
“Never let the ball drop, but keep a close score of who let it drop and fix the underlying issue as soon as you can,” Cothenet says.
Anticipation of things that’ll come up outside of the to-do list—followed by prompt action—make a project manager indispensable.
Good project managers “do the stuff no one else thought should be done, before they even think about it,” Cothenet says. “Bad project managers try to become indispensable by creating unnecessary bottlenecks and taking knowledge hostage.” Succeed by enabling others, and doing the things needed to push your team forward.
“Do the stuff no one else thought should be done, before they even think about it.”- Paul Cothenet, CTO of MadKudu, former Product Manager
As a product manager, Martin Müntzing, Podio‘s head of product, says his constraints are less about time and money and more about reaching a desired effect.
But even then, Müntzing’s team needs some sort of direction. So they found a way to systemize thinking ahead, which they called “hypothesis-driven development.”
“We formulate a hypothesis about what will happen with product implementation, and we do that before we start making any change,” Müntzing says. “But with that comes a lot of stakeholder negotiations. They want to know what’s going to happen before you even start; what the likely effect will be. But for us, it’s more about the results.”
From there, his team will hypothesize what will likely happen if they make a change, and then measure the results. This way, they’re setting the project track up before changing anything—and they’ve used it for everything from landing page adjustments to pricing tests.
But they don’t send every change through the hypothesis-driven development model.
“There are times when we know already that it’s a good idea, it’s been widely requested by customer, and needs to get done, and we don’t feel the need to test it,” Müntzing says. “With things that have a larger element of risk or uncertainty, we do the hypothesis.”
As the product manager, Müntzing makes the final call about what they work on next, but it’s important to get everyone’s buy-in. “The smaller the organization, the more it’s ‘everyone’s’ team,” he says. “So more people need to agree it’s a good idea. But essentially, the product manager owns the execution.”
Being a manager who also takes on some grunt work means that you get a bird’s-eye view of every siloed department that’s involved in the project. That’s why most project managers say putting yourself in the other person’s shoes adds perspective to team dynamics.
“As a project manager you are in a unique position of perspective that most members of your project team will not have,” says Hammond. “It can be frustrating as a designer to see your designs mangled out of functional necessity, or as a programmer to see shortcuts taken due to time or budget constraints. Remember that each team member may value and protect their particular corner of the project. Take the time understand their personal goals and priorities for the project and for themselves, and help them understand the organizational or strategic goals of the project.”
Make sure you acknowledge good work and provide positive reinforcement. Your success is the sum of your leadership plus all the work everyone else does, so show your team that what they do matters.
“Remember that each team member may value and protect their particular corner of the project. Take the time understand their personal goals and priorities for the project and for themselves.”- Niki Gallo Hammond, Project Manager at Jackson River
Cothenet says that balancing the short- and long-term performance of your team is one of the toughest parts of project management. “It is your job to fix other people’s mistakes and avoid dropping the ball. But in the long term, your team will be dysfunctional if lazy people rely on you to do their job,” Cothenet says.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is to make my team members feel wanted and treat them like they matter and that I depend on them,” Corraro says. “You can do this without letting people walk all over you. For example, if someone finished their work well and ahead of schedule, don’t deduct a sick day next time they call in.”
Cothenet says that there were many times when his team would take two weeks to plan something, start the sprint, and then see numerous plan changes—which can be a big morale-killer.
“As a project manager, it’s your job to assess the importance of these recurring requests, examine if they really need to be met or not,” Cothenet says. “If you are constantly disrupting your team and changing directions, your team will stop trusting you.”
The Guide to Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), defines project management as “The application of knowledge, skills, and techniques to project activities in order to meet stakeholder needs and expectations from a project.” Project management processes allow management to control project schedules, costs, and risks in order to accomplish deliverables within an established timeframe. Business professionals rely on project management theory to address a variety issues that impact productivity and efficiency. However, a project’s success hinges on cohesive group dynamics and roles that are clearly defined. In this article, we will discuss group dynamics and these defined roles and explain how they are crucial to team development and execution.
Kurt Lewin defined the term field theory, later known as group dynamics, as “How various forces in the psychological environment interact and combine to yield a final course of action.” (To read more about Kurt Lewin or the evolution of the study of group dynamics, please visit the University of Michigan’s Research Center for Group Dynamics).
To qualify, a group must meet the following criteria:
Be comprised of two or more individuals
Individuals share common goal(s)
Members identify themselves as a group
Members are identified by others as a group
Roles Essential to the Project Management Lifecycle
To successfully complete a project on time and on budget, the project manager must establish and cultivate group dynamics and roles that encourage effective communication and mutual respect. As in traditional business and non-business settings, group dynamics refer to how a team communicates or reacts to one another within a team environment. Essentially, these behaviors can positively or negatively influence the team’s ability to accomplish performance objectives. To successfully navigate a project management lifecycle, the following roles must be staffed and fully defined:
The Project Manager is responsible for the completion of project deliverables within the allotted time frame. The project manager develops, implements, and oversees the project charter in conjunction with the team and manages the team’s performance of project tasks. It is also the responsibility of the project manager to secure acceptance and approval of deliverables from the project sponsor and stakeholders. Project leaders are also responsible for managing risk, escalating operations unresolved by the team, and making sure the project is completed within budget, on schedule, and within scope.
The Project Team Members are responsible for executing various tasks and accomplishing project deliverables as identified in the project charter and under the direction of the project manager.
On larger projects, a few project team members may be identified as Team Leads, to provide task oversights per the requirements of the project charter under the direction of the project manager.
The Sponsor is a manager, director, or executive with a stake in the project’s success. They generally have final authority over project finances and other resources necessary for project completion. The executive sponsor is appointed based on project scope and size as this position will act as the project’s champion and communicate the project’s status to the appropriate leadership team. This position will be responsible for approving the project’s scope and any additional scope changes communicated by the project manager. Depending on the project’s size and scope, the sponsor may delegate some or all of their oversight responsibilities to other key leaders within their business unit. In cases where the project’s success directly impacts several departments, a Steering Committee is established to include representatives from key organizations that will be involved in the project’s oversight and control. In these circumstances, the steering committee will serve as the project sponsor.
Stakeholders are all those internal or external individuals, teams, or organizations that may be directly or indirectly impacted by the results of the project. Stakeholders include the project manager, project team, sponsors, board members, management, employees, customers, and vendors.
Vendors are paid to provide additional products or services necessary for the project’s completion and are traditionally included as additional member(s) of the project team.
In project management, group dynamics and roles contribute directly to the success or failure of the team’s ability to meet customer expectations. To learn more about project management planning, please read Bright Hub’s Phases of Project Management – Planning.
You know when you work on a team with poor team dynamics. A good team dynamic, on the other hand, can be harder to characterize than a malfunctioning one, because it is different for each team. Strategies that work for a set of people may not work for others. A small-business leader needs to set up an environment conducive to collaboration, cooperation and productivity. Failure to recognize the importance of team dynamics in project management may limit your team’s achievements.
Establishing an effective team involves defining a clear purpose, goals, dependencies and accountability. Management expert Douglas McGregor observed that companies got better results when they maintained an informal atmosphere, encouraged everyone to participate in team discussions, defined clear objectives, listened to one another, reached decisions by consensus, allowed disagreement and made clear assignments. When teams function cohesively, they aren’t distracted by petty arguments and things that don’t actually matter to the bottom line.
When a team member feels valued by the project manager and other team members, her morale and confidence go up. She tends to feel more commitment to the project and is likely to contribute more discussions, task completion and other project activities. A positive team atmosphere usually leads employees to feel empowered. They’re more comfortable taking calculated risks and seeking out innovative solutions to complex problems. This serves a small business well in the long run.
Team members who disrespect each other tend to focus on their differences, not their commonalities. Varying cultural backgrounds and experiences may lead team members to make judgments and jump to erroneous conclusions. Establishing an environment in which employees can thrive without conflict involves improving the group dynamic so that team members listen to each other, value individual experience and consider other perspectives before making a decision. Effective project managers take the time to organize team-building activities. These enable team members to get to know each other better than they did before the project started and improve communication going forward. This results in fewer confrontations and sets the stage for more efficient dispute resolution, should problems arise.
Establishing trust takes time. Team members may resist exposing their weaknesses and hide deficiencies. An effective project manager works to assess the team’s strengths and limitations. According to psychologist Bruce Tuckman, teams go through four stages: forming, storming, norming and performing. When team members feel safe, they are willing to help others succeed and accept help when they need it. This benefits the entire project by keeping schedules on track. To get to the performing stage faster, foster a collaborative environment where employees trust each other to get work done.
Tara Duggan is a Project Management Professional (PMP) specializing in knowledge management and instructional design. For over 25 years she has developed quality training materials for a variety of products and services supporting such companies as Digital Equipment Corporation, Compaq and HP. Her freelance work is published on various websites.
Over the years, Google has embarked on countless quests, collected endless amounts of data, and spent millions trying to better understand its people. One of the company’s most interesting initiatives, Project Aristotle, gathered several of Google’s best and brightest to help the organization codify the secrets to team effectiveness.
Specifically, Google wanted to know why some teams excelled while others fell behind.
Before this study, like many other organizations, Google execs believed that building the best teams meant compiling the best people. It makes sense. The best engineer plus an MBA, throw in a PhD, and there you have it. The perfect team, right? In the words of Julia Rozovsky, Google’s people analytics manager, “We were dead wrong.”
Selected to lead the efforts was Abeer Dubey, Google’s director of people analytics (HR). Eager to find the perfect mixture of skills, backgrounds, and traits to engineer super-teams, Dubey recruited statisticians, organizational psychologists, sociologists, engineers, and researchers to help solve the riddle. Included in this all-star lineup was Rozovsky.
Fast forward two years, and Project Aristotle has managed to study 180 Google teams, conduct 200-plus interviews, and analyze over 250 different team attributes. Unfortunately, though, there was still no clear pattern of characteristics that could be plugged into a dream-team generating algorithm.
As described in an article in TheNew York Times, it wasn’t until Google started considering some intangibles that things began to fall into place.
“As they struggled to figure out what made a team successful, Rozovsky and her colleagues kept coming across research by psychologists and sociologists that focused on what are known as “group norms” – the traditions, behavioral standards, and unwritten rules that govern how teams function when they gather… Norms can be unspoken or openly acknowledged, but their influence is often profound.”
With a new lens and some added direction from a research study on collective intelligence (abilities that emerge out of collaboration) by a group of psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Union College, Project Aristotle’s researchers went back to the drawing board to comb their data for unspoken customs. Specifically, any team behaviors that magnified the collective intelligence of the group.
Through Google’s Re:Work website, a resource that shares Google’s research, ideas, and practices on people operations, Rozovsky outlined the five key characteristics of enhanced teams.
Team members get things done on time and meet expectations.
2. Structure and clarity.
High-performing teams have clear goals, and have well-defined roles within the group.
The work has personal significance to each member.
The group believes their work is purposeful and positively impacts the greater good.
Yes, that’s four, not five. The last one stood out from the rest:
5. Psychological Safety.
We’ve all been in meetings and, due to the fear of seeming incompetent, have held back questions or ideas. I get it. It’s unnerving to feel like you’re in an environment where everything you do or say is under a microscope.
But imagine a different setting. A situation in which everyone is safe to take risks, voice their opinions, and ask judgment-free questions. A culture where managers provide air cover and create safe zones so employees can let down their guard. That’s psychological safety.
I know, not the quantitative data that you were hoping for. However, Google found that teams with psychologically safe environments had employees who were less likely to leave, more likely to harness the power of diversity, and ultimately, who were more successful.
Engineering the perfect team is more subjective than we would like, but focusing on these five components increases the likelihood that you will build a dream team. Through its research, Google made the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle proud by proving, “The whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.”
At Return Path, an email data solutions company, the vast majority of work is done on teams (like so many other organizations). And like many organizations, Return Path’s performance management system was focused exclusively on the individual. There was a clear disconnect between the lived experience of work and the management structures set up to supervise and incentivize that work.
Return Path’s leadership wanted to shift the focus to the team and maintain the openness, trust, and care that define the Return Path culture. Leaning heavily on external research and methods, Return Path anchored on Lencioni’s five dysfunctions of a team to help it understand, build, and maintain highly effective teams. They defined effective teams as ones that have strong trust across members, productive conflict, commitment to goals, great results, and people who hold each other accountable for results.
In order to accomplish all of this, Return Path’s leadership and People Development group set up their “Team Effectiveness” program which reoriented a number of traditional HR processes to focus on and empower teams including peer feedback (long a cornerstone at Return Path), personal development planning, talent reviews, and ad hoc team development.
The team started by identifying measurable attributes of effective teams and having all team members, including leaders, take Lencioni’s simple survey. Using Lencioni’s five behaviors of a cohesive team, the semi-annual team effectiveness survey used a five-point Likert scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” and had questions around:
Trust – “Team members openly admit their weaknesses and mistakes.”
Productive Conflict – “During team meetings, the most important and difficult issues are put on the table to be resolved.”
Commitment to a Common Goal – “Team members know what their peers are working on and how they contribute to the collective good of the team.”
Accountability – “Team members are deeply concerned about the prospect of letting down their peers.”
Attention to Results – “Team members are slow to seek credit for their own contributions, but quick to point out those of others.”
The team added questions focused on team effectiveness and overall engagement, including:
Team effectiveness questions:
I feel I am part of a team.
The people I work with cooperate to get the job done.
My team holds ourselves accountable for results.
I am proud to work at Return Path.
I rarely think about looking for a job at another company.
I see myself still working at Return Path two years from now.
I would recommend Return Path as a great place to work. Return Path motivates me to go beyond what I would in a similar role elsewhere.
Each team in the program also had their leader, team members, and team coach (a partner from HR) assign assessment scores of the team’s effectiveness based on Lencioni’s five behaviors and how they think the team is performing relative to their best performance. By looking at the potential different scores from these assessments, gaps and communication barriers can be identified. These results are shared back with the team leaders along with a strong suggestion to share the results with the team and tools to facilitate a peer feedback session.
The goals of a peer feedback session are to build trust, get more comfortable giving and receiving feedback, and build self-awareness of strengths and development areas. Sessions start with an assessment of the leader, and then of each individual contributor. Assessments are broken into a spoken two-minute self-assessment followed by eight minutes of feedback from the team. The session ends with an assessment of the full team. Team leaders are well supported by their team coach, knowing that these can be challenging, but crucial, conversations to hold.
Tips for leaders leading peer feedback sessions:
Give an honest self-assessment of your own strengths and development areas. Write these down beforehand.
Give honest, well-intentioned, and meaningful feedback to every member of your group on their strengths and development areas. Write these down beforehand.
Discuss how your team works as a whole including team dynamics, operating system, stakeholder relationships, and more.
Be a role model: be the first to do your self review in the session — ask for feedback, be open when you receive it, and thank people.
When other team members are receiving feedback, be the last to contribute. Only give feedback if you have something to add that hasn’t yet been covered by other team members.
Give at least one piece of constructive feedback for each team member. Ideally, most constructive feedback is shared in the team setting so that the rest of the team knows that performance issues are being addressed. However, sometimes very personal feedback is best shared privately.
The last step of a peer feedback session is to to schedule a follow-up development planning session, usually about two weeks later. The goals of a development session are to help individuals understand their current skills, identify gaps between where they are and where they want to be, and determine the three most important developmental areas for the individual and the team.
During development sessions, Return Path has the team break into pairs. The pairs help identify a development gap for one another and develop a plan to bridge the gap. They spend about 15 minutes on each individual’s development plan and then each team member shares updates with entire team at the end. By sharing with the team, everyone knows what they’re trying to work on and can be held accountable.
It’s important to have separate, dedicated conversations for feedback and development, at least when the model is new, to ensure that all relevant feedback is surfaced. Feedback and development then factor into the manager’s assessment of performance and potential for each individual, which then factor into compensation decisions. Return Path is still a pay-for-performance company, and still has pay based on individual performance. The team does have more input into measuring that performance, but they haven’t yet moved to a true team-based compensation model.
Return Path started piloting the program in 2014 and has tracked team effectiveness scores quarter-over-quarter. Their data showed that teams that had peer feedback sessions and development planning sessions have improved by an average of 13%.
Return Path’s data also validated this team-based approach to coaching and development. They could see that individuals were members of different teams, and now they had the data to show these teams could have vastly different effectiveness scores. So by giving feedback and coaching at the team level, Return Path could focus where the challenges and opportunities actually cropped up. And this does mean individuals may go through multiple sessions with the different teams they’re part of, although most people are only part of one or two teams.
The data has also been revealing about Return Path’s company structure. They found that the most engaged teams are the ones that are flatter and more transparent. And the insights have been helping them shape future teams. For example, they found that the ideal team size is 6-8 people, so they’re using this as they build future project teams.
Perhaps the most validating outcome has been the fact that teams are asking for more support; being part of an effective team is not just seen as a checkbox being pushed by the People Team. Teams of all stripes — sales, product, and technical teams — are seeking out team effectiveness diagnostics, tools, and development opportunities. There is now a cultural expectation around team effectiveness. While a team may be flagged due to lagging performance scores, people are calling out dysfunctional teams, whether their own or others.
Pod. Work group. Committee. Autonomous collective. Whatever you call it, you’re part of one at Google and probably wherever you work: a team. So if we know what makes managers great, why don’t we know what makes a team great?
A group of us in Google’s People Operations (what we call HR) set out to answer this question using data and rigorous analysis: What makes a Google team effective? We shared our research earlier today with the Associated Press, and we’re sharing the findings here, as well.
Over two years we conducted 200+ interviews with Googlers (our employees) and looked at more than 250 attributes of 180+ active Google teams. We were pretty confident that we’d find the perfect mix of individual traits and skills necessary for a stellar team — take one Rhodes Scholar, two extroverts, one engineer who rocks at AngularJS, and a PhD. Voila. Dream team assembled, right?
We were dead wrong. Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions. So much for that magical algorithm.
We learned that there are five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams at Google:
Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?
If you answered “yes” to the five questions above, congrats! You’re probably on a high-performing team. And if not, not all hope is lost. This is a shortcut to help you figure out where to focus, how to get better, and a way to talk about this concept with your teammates in a structured way.
Psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five dynamics we found — it’s the underpinning of the other four. How could that be? Taking a risk around your team members seems simple. But remember the last time you were working on a project. Did you feel like you could ask what the goal was without the risk of sounding like you’re the only one out of the loop? Or did you opt for continuing without clarifying anything, in order to avoid being perceived as someone who is unaware?
Turns out, we’re all reluctant to engage in behaviors that could negatively influence how others perceive our competence, awareness, and positivity. Although this kind of self-protection is a natural strategy in the workplace, it is detrimental to effective teamwork. On the flip side, the safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles. And it affects pretty much every important dimension we look at for employees. Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.
Googlers love data. But they don’t want to sit idle with it. They want to act. So we created a tool called the gTeams exercise: a 10-minute pulse-check on the five dynamics, a report that summarizes how the team is doing, a live in-person conversation to discuss the results, and tailored developmental resources to help teams improve. Over the past year, more than 3,000 Googlers across 300 teams have used this tool. Of those Google teams, the ones that adopted a new group norm — like kicking off every team meeting by sharing a risk taken in the previous week — improved 6% on psychological safety ratings and 10% on structure and clarity ratings. Teams said that having a framework around team effectiveness and a forcing function to talk about these dynamics was missing previously and by far the most impactful part of the experience.
From sales teams in Dublin to engineering teams in Mountain View, we’ve seen that focusing on this framework helps all types of teams improve.
Update: Check out the re:Work guide Understand team effectiveness for the full story on Google’s team effectiveness research as well as tools to help teams foster psychological safety.
A sound understanding of group dynamics, and the role it plays in business, is a critical component of successful management. When a good dynamic exists within a group working toward a common goal, each individual member will perform effectively and achieve goals set by the group. Poor group dynamics can adversely affect performance, leading to a negative outcome on the common goal or project. Many variables contribute to a good work dynamic. Below are 4 key points to understanding group dynamics, and how to create and maintain a positive, productive dynamic in any group. You can increase your group dynamics in the workplace through Maryville’s Online MBA program.
Strong leadership is important within a group. This does not mean that a manager needs to bully or strong-arm the team to maintain control. A leader should guide the development of the group and the path to the goal that needs to be reached. He or she can do this by defining specific roles and responsibilities for members of the group, as well as a timeline for the common project so members can understand the place of their role within the timeline.
Recognize how personalities affect team dynamics. Obviously each person working within a group brings to that group his or her own individual personality and skill set. Recognizing each person’s style of work, motivation, and level of aptitude can help a manager understand how that person fits within the group as a whole. This can also provide an opportunity for managers to note any gaps in experience or behavior that need to be filled with additional team members in order for the group to successfully accomplish its goal. Along with members who contribute positively to the group, there may also be those whose behavior, attitude, or work style negatively affects the dynamics of the overall group. Some may be obvious- an aggressive personality dominating and bullying other group members, or a distracting person who is constantly off-task. Some disruptive roles may be less easy to pinpoint, but can have an adverse effect on group dynamics as well. For example, “social loafing” may occur, meaning some members of the group may exert less effort than they would if working alone. A manager who recognizes and reacts quickly to these roles can influence the dynamic of the group in positive ways. A dominating or distracting member of the group may benefit from a separate conversation with the manager, addressing expectations of roles within the group. If each member of the group sees his or her contribution as valuable and accountable to the larger group, then social loafing is less likely to occur among group members.
Understand the life cycle of a group. The way a group comes together as one can be demonstrated in 5 steps:
Forming- The coming together of a group.
Storming- Members of the group seek out like-minded members. At this stage, conflicts between different sub-groups may arise.
Norming- Members become invested in the group as a whole and the common goal of the group.
Performing – The Members of the group now function as a whole, contributing to complete the task within the standards that have been defined in the previous steps.
Adjourning- if the group has formed to meet a specific goal, then the group will disband after the completion of the task and any subsequent needed evaluation.
Consideration of where the group is within this cycle can provide perspective to all members of the group as they move through it.
Communication is key. – How effectively a group communicates can determine the overall success or failure of the group in reaching its goal. Many methods of communication may be used within groups working toward a common business goal. Emails, project management software, group documents, and video/telephone conferencing are some of the many ways that the traditional face-to-face group meeting is becoming less prevalent. It is imperative for all members of a group to fully understand and utilize the chosen methods of communication. Open and transparent communication through the group’s chosen methods of communication builds and maintains a sense of trust within the group as a whole, and keeps the group working together toward the goal. Side conversations via separate emails or “IM” chat features can be detrimental to the group’s overall trust. Additionally, the manager of the group should assure that all members can effectively communicate needed information to the group. This could require additional training on programs, or assistance in clearly presenting information so all members have the benefit of full understanding of information.
A proven way to build a successful business team is to assemble a group with a stellar mix of knowledge and expertise. Get to know the strengths and personalities of existing team members to create an effective dynamic. If necessary, seek out new team members to strengthen your lineup.
Team dynamics are those psychological forces influencing the direction of your team’s performance and behavior. Those dynamics are created by the personalities involved and how they interact. Understanding a team’s dynamics can alert you to how successful it might be.
Kurt Lewin, a social psychologist and change management expert, first described group, or team dynamics in 1939.
The term means to understand the individuals that make up a team, a method of exploring behavior and the reasons for that behavior, Lewin explained.
In group dynamics, he said, we recognize the abilities of an individual and how they will interact with a group. His work is considered central to good management practices.
Positive team dynamics occur when team members trust each other, work collectively, and hold each other accountable. When a team has a positive dynamic, its members are more successful and there is less chance of conflict.
A team with poor dynamics includes people whose behavior disrupts work flow and results in wrong choices, poor decision-making or no decision-making at all. Poor dynamics leave the team more vulnerable to conflicts.
Be an effective leader
An effective manager must also be an effective team leader who gets to know employees well enough to pair them successfully for projects, University of Notre Dame Professor Michael Crant teaches. “When you get these types of people together… you get the magic of teams.”
Crant, the Mary Jo and Richard M. Kovacevich Professor of Excellence in Leadership Instruction at the Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, is an expert in proactive business management. One of the classes he teaches online is Critical Management Skills.
Find out if that magic exists among your team by asking previous supervisors or colleagues about your team members to gain insight in to their work ethics and personality traits. Looking at past performance reviews also helps gather insights about how the individual team members can cohesively work together toward a common goal.
Another quick way to gain such knowledge is to have team members complete a background and interest survey.
Half of the survey can be work-related and the other half personal. It can include career goals, ways to improve a team and previous business experience, along with favorite vacation spots, pets and hobbies.
Meet with your team
Set up a meeting to review and discuss the surveys with the team. A manager can interact with a team by providing his or her own answers.
Celebrate with your team to create a culture of inclusion. Get to know them personally and celebrate often with them. During those celebrations, update the team on company milestones and allow them to share personal achievements.
Give your team space and allow them to ask questions of each other to avoid miscommunication, personality clashes and build team performance.
Address issues early on
“It’s important to address as many of the issues that arise together as a team, rather than singling people out,” says Ashira Prossack, a millennial and Gen Z engagement expert who writes about leadership trends for Forbes. “This will reinforce the fact that the team functions as a unit and working together as one is a priority. Sometimes teams require more structure in place to prevent conflicts from happening over power struggles. Remind the team that conflict is healthy and encouraged, as long as it’s productive.”
Still, teams can have their weaknesses, Crant warns. Social loafing, for example, is where one member of the team doesn’t act, thinking another member will pick up the slack. Being vigilant about this will help you avoid over-rewarding the slacker and under-rewarding the team member who hustles.
Another thing to watch out for with teams is that they are more likely to take risky positions because responsibility is defused. Individuals are less likely to take a risky position because if something goes wrong, that individual must shoulder all the responsibility.
Remember, getting to know your team members’ personalities and strengths can assist you in determining how they will interact. Learn their goals and previous business experience and share your own. Celebrate both professional and personal successes with them. Encourage team interaction and act on conflicts quickly.
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.
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 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
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.
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
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.
looking at the sociometric data, we’ve been able to foretell which teams will
win a business plan contest.
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
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.
Energy levels within a team are not static.
For instance, in my research group at MIT, we sometimes have meetings at which
I update people on upcoming events, rule changes, and other administrative
details. These meetings are invariably low energy. But when someone announces a
new discovery in the same group, excitement and energy skyrocket as all the
members start talking to one another at once.
The second important dimension of
communication is engagement, which reflects the distribution
of energy among team members. In a simple three-person team, engagement is a
function of the average amount of energy between A and B, A and C, and B and C.
If all members of a team have relatively equal and reasonably high energy with
all other members, engagement is extremely strong. Teams that have clusters of
members who engage in high-energy communication while other members do not
participate don’t perform as well. When we observed teams making investment
decisions, for instance, the partially engaged teams made worse (less profitable)
decisions than the fully engaged teams. This effect was particularly common in
far-flung teams that talked mostly by telephone.
most valuable form of communication is face-to-face. E-mail and texting are the
The third critical dimension, exploration, involves
communication that members engage in outside their team. Exploration
essentially is the energy between a team and the other teams it interacts with.
Higher-performing teams seek more outside connections, we’ve found. We’ve also
seen that scoring well on exploration is most important for creative teams,
such as those responsible for innovation, which need fresh perspectives.
To measure exploration, we have to deploy
badges more widely in an organization. We’ve done so in many settings,
including the MIT Media Lab and a multinational company’s marketing department,
which comprised several teams dedicated to different functions.
Our data also show that exploration and
engagement, while both good, don’t easily coexist, because they require that
the energy of team members be put to two different uses. Energy is a finite
resource. The more that people devote to their own team (engagement), the less
they have to use outside their team (exploration), and vice versa.
But they must do both. Successful teams,
especially successful creative teams, oscillate between exploration for
discovery and engagement for integration of the ideas gathered from outside
sources. At the MIT Media Lab, this pattern accounted for almost half of the
differences in creative output of research groups. And in one industrial
research lab we studied, it distinguished teams with high creativity from those
with low creativity with almost 90% accuracy.
A skeptic would argue that the points about
energy, engagement, and exploration are blindingly obvious. But the data from
our research improve on conventional wisdom. They add an unprecedented level of
precision to our observations, quantify the key dynamics, and make them
measurable to an extraordinary degree.
For example, we now know that 35% of the
variation in a team’s performance can be accounted for simply by the number of
face-to-face exchanges among team members. We know as well that the “right”
number of exchanges in a team is as many as dozens per working hour, but that
going beyond that ideal number decreases performance. We can also state with
certainty that in a typical high-performance team, members are listening or
speaking to the whole group only about half the time, and when addressing the
whole group, each team member speaks for only his or her fair share of time,
using brief, to-the-point statements. The other half of the time members are
engaging in one-on-one conversations, which are usually quite short. It may
seem illogical that all those side exchanges contribute to better performance,
rather than distract a team, but the data prove otherwise.
The data we’ve collected on the importance of
socializing not only build on conventional wisdom but sometimes upend it.
Social time turns out to be deeply critical to team performance, often
accounting for more than 50% of positive changes in communication patterns,
even in a setting as efficiency-focused as a call center.
Without the data there’s simply no way to
understand which dynamics drive successful teams. The managers of one young
software company, for instance, thought they could promote better communication
among employees by hosting “beer meets” and other events. But the badge data
showed that these events had little or no effect. In contrast, the data
revealed that making the tables in the company’s lunchroom longer, so that
strangers sat together, had a huge impact.
A similarly refined view of exploration has
emerged in the data. Using fresh perspectives to improve performance is hardly
a surprising idea; it’s practically management canon. But our research shows
that most companies don’t do it the right way. Many organizations we’ve studied
seek outside counsel repeatedly from the same sources and only at certain times
(when building a business case, say, or doing a postmortem on a project). The
best-performing and most creative teams in our study, however, sought fresh
perspectives constantly, from all other groups in (and some outside) the
Apply the Data
For management tasks that have long defied
objective analysis, like team building, data can now provide a foundation on
which to build better individual and team performance. This happens in three
In raw form the data don’t mean much to the
teams being measured. An energy score of 0.5 may be good for an individual, for
example, but descriptions of team dynamics that rely on statistical output are
not particularly user-friendly. However, using the formulas we developed to calculate
energy, engagement, and exploration, we can create maps of how a team is doing
on those dimensions, visualizations that clearly convey the data and are
instantly accessible to anyone. The maps starkly highlight weaknesses that
teams may not have recognized. They identify low-energy, unengaged team members
who, even in the visualization, look as if they’re being ignored. (For
examples, see the exhibit “Mapping Teamwork.”)
Concerned about uneven performance
across its branches, a bank in Prague outfitted customer-facing teams with
electronic sensors for six weeks. The first two maps below display data
collected from one team of nine people over the course of different days, and
the third illustrates data collected on interactions between management and all
By looking at the data, we
unearthed a divide between teams at the “Soviet era” branches of the bank and
teams at more modern facilities. Interestingly, at the Soviet-era branches,
where poor team communication was the rule, communication outside teams was
much higher, suggesting that those teams were desperately reaching out for
answers to their problems. Teams at the modern facilities showed high energy
and less need to explore outside. After seeing initial data, the bank’s
management published these dashboard displays for all the teams to see and also
reorganized the teams so that they contained a mix of members from old and new
branches. According to the bank, those measures helped improve the working
culture within all the teams.
When we spot such people, we dig down into
their individual badge data. Are they trying to contribute and being ignored or
cut off? Do they cut others off and not listen, thereby discouraging colleagues
from seeking their opinions? Do they communicate only with one other team
member? Do they face other people in meetings or tend to hide from the group
physically? Do they speak loudly enough? Perhaps the leader of a team is too
dominant; it may be that she is doing most of the talking at meetings and needs
to work on encouraging others to participate. Energy and engagement maps will
make such problems clear. And once we know what they are, we can begin to fix
Exploration maps reveal patterns of
communication across organizations. They can expose, for instance, whether a
department’s management is failing to engage with all its teams. Time-lapse
views of engagement and exploration will show whether teams are effectively
oscillating between those two activities. It’s also possible to layer more
detail into the visualizations. We can create maps that break out different
types of communication among team members, to discover, for example, if teams
are falling into counterproductive patterns such as shooting off e-mail when
they need more face time. (For an example, see the exhibit “Mapping
Communication over Time.”)
Communication over Time
The maps below depict the
communication patterns in a German bank’s marketing department in the days
leading up to and immediately following a major new product launch. The
department had teams of four members each in customer service, sales, support,
development, and management. Besides collecting data on in-person interactions
with sociometric badges, we gathered e-mail data to assess the balance between
high-value face-to-face communication and lower-value digital messages.
We did not provide iterative feedback
in this project, but if we had, by the end of week one, we would have pointed
out three negative trends the group could have corrected: the invisibility of
customer service, overreliance on e-mail, and highly uneven communication among
groups. If these issues had been addressed, the problems with the product might
have surfaced much earlier, and the responses to them would probably have
read these maps
With maps of the data in hand, we can help
teams improve performance through iterative visual feedback.
Work we did with a multicultural design team
composed of both Japanese and American members offers a good example. (Visual
data are especially effective at helping far-flung and multilingual groups,
which face special communication challenges.) The team’s maps (see the exhibit
“Mapping Communication Improvement”) showed that its communication was far too
uneven. They highlighted that the Japanese members were initially reluctant to
speak up, leaving the team both low energy and unengaged.
Our data show that far-flung and
mixed-language teams often struggle to gel. Distance plays a role: Electronic
communication doesn’t create the same energy and engagement that face-to-face
communication does. Cultural norms play a role too. Visual feedback on
communication patterns can help.
For one week we gathered data on a
team composed of Japanese and Americans that were brainstorming a new design
together in Japan. Each day the team was shown maps of its communication
patterns and given simple guidance about what makes good communication (active
but equal participation).
Day 1: The
two Japanese team members (bottom and lower left) are not engaged, and a team
within a team seems to have formed around the member at the top right.
Day 7: The team has improved remarkably. Not only are the
Japanese members contributing more to energy and engagement (with the one at
the bottom becoming a high-energy, highly engaged team member) but some of the
Day 1 “dominators” (on the lower right, for example) have distributed their
Every day for a week, we provided team members
a visualization of that day’s work, with some light interpretation of what we
saw. (Keep in mind that we didn’t know the substance of their work, just how
they were interacting.) We also told them that the ideal visualization would
show members contributing equally and more overall contributions. By day seven,
the maps showed, the team’s energy and engagement had improved vastly,
especially for the two Japanese members, one of whom had become a driving
The notion that visual feedback helps people
improve quickly shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has ever had a golf swing
analyzed on video or watched himself deliver a speech. Now we have the visual
tools to likewise improve teamwork through objective analysis.
We have seen that by using visualizations as a
training tool, teams can quickly improve their patterns of communication. But
does that translate to improved performance? Yes. The third and final step in
using the badge data is to map energy and engagement against performance
metrics. In the case of the Japanese-American team, for example, we mapped the
improved communication patterns against the team’s self-reported daily
productivity. The closer the patterns came to those of our high-performance
ideal, the higher productivity rose.
We’ve duplicated this result several times
over, running similar feedback loops with teams aiming to be more creative and
with executive teams looking for more cohesiveness. In every case the
self-reporting on effectiveness mapped to the improved patterns of
Through such maps, we often make important
discoveries. One of the best examples comes from the bank’s call center. For
each team there, we mapped energy and engagement against average handling time
(AHT), which we indicated with color. (See the exhibit “Mapping Communication
Against Performance.”) That map clearly showed that the most efficient work was
done by high-energy, high-engagement teams. But surprisingly, it also showed
that low-energy, low-engagement teams could outperform teams that were
unbalanced—teams that had high energy and low engagement, or low energy and
high engagement. The maps revealed that the manager needed to keep energy and
engagement in balance as he worked to strengthen them.
Communication Against Performance
Visualizations can be used to compare energy and engagement with
established performance metrics. The map below plots the energy and engagement
levels of several teams at a bank call center against the center’s metric of
efficiency, average handling time (AHT).
The expected team efficiency is based on a statistical analysis of
actual team AHT scores over six weeks. Blue indicates high efficiency; red low
efficiency. High-energy, high-engagement teams are the most efficient, the map
shows. But it also indicates that low-energy, low-engagement teams outperform
teams that are out of balance, with high energy and low engagement, or low
energy and high engagement. This means the call center manager can pull more
than one lever to improve performance. Points A and B are equally efficient,
for example, but reflect different combinations of energy and engagement.
The manager wanted to raise energy and engagement in lockstep.
We suggested instituting a common coffee break for each team at the call
center. This increased the number of interactions, especially informal ones,
and raised the teams’ energy levels. And because all team members took a break
at once, interactions were evenly distributed, increasing engagement. When we
mapped energy and engagement against AHT afterward, the results were clear:
Efficiency in the center increased by 8%, on average, and by as much as 20% for
the worst-performing teams.
If a hard metric like AHT isn’t available, we
can map patterns against subjective measures. We have asked teams to rate their
days on a scale of “creativity” or “frustration,” for example, and then seen
which patterns are associated with highly creative or frustrating days. Teams
often describe this feedback as “a revelation.”
The obvious question at this point is, Once I
recognize I need to improve energy and engagement, how do I go about doing it?
What are the best techniques for moving those measurements?
Simple approaches such as reorganizing office
space and seating are effective. So is setting a personal example—when a
manager himself actively encourages even participation and conducts more
face-to-face communication. Policy changes can improve teams, too. Eschewing
Robert’s Rules of Order, for example, is a great way to promote change. In some
cases, switching out team members and bringing in new blood may be the best way
to improve the energy and engagement of the team, though we’ve found that this
is often unnecessary. Most people, given feedback, can learn to interrupt less,
say, or to face other people, or to listen more actively. Leaders should use
the data to force change within their teams.
ideal team player.
We can also measure individuals against an
ideal. In both productivity-focused and creativity-focused teams, we have
discovered the data signature of what we consider the best type of team member.
Some might call these individuals “natural leaders.” We call them “charismatic
connectors.” Badge data show that these people circulate actively, engaging
people in short, high-energy conversations. They are democratic with their
time—communicating with everyone equally and making sure all team members get a
chance to contribute. They’re not necessarily extroverts, although they feel
comfortable approaching other people. They listen as much as or more than they
talk and are usually very engaged with whomever they’re listening to. We call
it “energized but focused listening.”
The best team players also connect their
teammates with one another and spread ideas around. And they are appropriately
exploratory, seeking ideas from outside the group but not at the expense of
group engagement. In a study of executives attending an intensive one-week
executive education class at MIT, we found that the more of these charismatic
connectors a team had, the more successful it was. Team building is indeed
a science, but it’s young and evolving. Now that we’ve established patterns of
communication as the single most important thing to measure when gauging the
effectiveness of a group, we can begin to refine the data and processes to
create more-sophisticated measurements, dig deeper into the analysis, and
develop new tools that sharpen our view of team member types and team types.
The sensors that enable this science are
evolving as well. As they enter their seventh generation, they’re becoming as
small and unobtrusive as traditional ID badges, while the amount and types of
data they can collect are increasing. We’ve begun to experiment with apps that
present teams and their leaders with real-time feedback on group
communications. And the applications for the sensors are expanding beyond the
team to include an ever-broader set of situations.
We imagine a company’s entire staff wearing
badges over an extended period of time, creating “big data” in which we’d find
the patterns for everything from team building to leadership to negotiations to
performance reviews. 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. We are beginning to create what I call the “God’s-eye view” of
the organization. But spiritual as that may sound, this view is rooted in
evidence and data. It is an amazing view, and it will change how organizations
A version of this article appeared in the April
2012 issue of Harvard Business Review.
Alex “Sandy” Pentland
is the director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab