In a team building session I have almost always focused on improving communication skills, no matter what type of team building session it is or what the identified objectives are.  A new study published by the MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory and summarized by Alex “Sandy” Pentland in the Harvard Business Publishing magazine seems to validate this approach.

Pentland says the study uncovered some surprising results: that individual talent and skill matter far less than communication when it comes to building high performance teams.  “The best way to build a great team,” he says “is not to select individuals for their smarts or accomplishments but to learn how they communicate and to shape and guide the team so that it follows successful communication patterns.”

The research was conducted by placing little sensor badges on the members of high performance teams and recording their communication patterns for a period of months.  After analyzing the data points, the researchers identified three themes of communication for great teams:

1.  Energy, which is defined as the number and measure of exchanges between team members.  The most valuable medium of communication in terms of energy is face-to-face, followed by phone and video conferencing.  Email and text are the least valuable media.

2. Engagement, which reflects the distribution of energy between team members.  “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. ”

3.  Exploration, or the willingness of team members to communicate outside of the team and bring fresh perspectives back to the team.

In short, the members of great teams communicate often, informally/socially, and in equal measure.  Some of the interventions the study considered included changing break times so that everyone had the same break, changing the office seating arrangement, and putting long tables in the lunch room so that employees sat together.  These types of interventions were linked to measurable increases in performance.

Some of my standard team building activities were reinforced by this fascinating study:

1.  I ask teammates to practice “skillful discussion,” focusing on a volatile and controversial topic, with the goal to balance the levels of inquiry and advocacy within the group.  I ask members to get out of their comfort zone during this activity; if they usually spend more time listening and observing, they are challenged to do more advocating for their own perspective; if they usually spend more time expressing their opinions, I ask them to practice asking good questions and actively listening to others.  Ultimately what I’m asking them to do is practice having a learning conversation.

2.  Small table groups do an activity in which they list the pros and cons of different communication media, leading to a discussion of the importance of getting as much face time as possible.  For virtual teams, we talk about using technology more effectively to increase face time and decrease email communication.

3. I ask teammates to consider how they might improve team cohesion and creativity by widening the circle of their communication–asking someone different to lunch, for example, or seeking advice from someone other than their usual “go to” person.

What I think the article also reinforces, and a group of techniques I need to use more often, consists in activities like Open Space, World Cafe or Leadership Cafe–activities that maximize the use of open, informal, social communication during the break times of a formal meeting or training session.

Pentland says the science of the sensors used for the study is evolving, and they will eventually be able to capture more and finer data points.  It will be interesting to follow the work of this group as it continues to study team dynamics.

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