Teamwork is Hard Work

french-riviera-133592Most blog posts I publish here are written from my home office in New York City.  This one is an outlier — I’m writing from the balcony of my hotel room, which overlooks the Mediterranean. What brings me to the French Riviera? Believe it or not, work. (It’s hard work, but someone’s got to do it!) I’m here as a consultant to a wonderful company that is undertaking some impressive and daring projects to keep it at the leading edge of its industry.  We’ll be covering a number of topics this week, but the key topic for today is teamwork.

The company has grown rapidly through acquisition, snapping up smaller companies around the world that are outstanding in their areas of expertise. They each bring their own approach to excellence. In a manner that is not dissimilar to that of law firm partners, they are willing to work together, but are just as happy to be left alone to do the excellent work they do. This leads to a very interesting question: if you want to realize the promised synergies of a global organization, how do you set up and operate teams that work effectively across geographies, languages, cultures and business unit silos?

There are bodies of research and literature on this topic, but I’d like to draw your attention today to the work of Sandy Pentland and his colleagues at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory. By monitoring how people work in teams, they have generated fascinating insights into what makes a group of people become a high-performing team. It turns out that there are two key factors that separate high-performing teams from low-performing teams: the communication patterns within the team (e.g., body language and the flow of ideas, who you talk to and where you talk to them) and the team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings. In The New Science of Building Great Teams (subscription required), Pentland reports that the patterns of communication within the team account more for team success than the substance of their discussions and the combined impact of team members’ intelligence, personality and talent. A team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings “explained one-third of the variations in dollar productivity” among similar teams.

Applying these insights to call center productivity (which is measured by the average handling time (AHT) of customer calls), Pentland and his colleagues suggested some changes at one call center that would enhance the energy and engagement of teams. The results were impressive:

[W]e 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%.

Before you say that while this may be useful in a call center environment, it does not apply to a global company or a law firm, consider the following: Pentland asserts that the complex data of an organization is more likely to be handled in face-to-face meetings or conference calls, rather than via emails or written documents.  In Pentland’s view, these meetings and conference calls require a certain level of teamwork in order to ensure that the complex data is handled correctly. And success depends heavily on the patterns of communication, as well as the energy and engagement of the team members involved.

The next time you’re in a meeting or working as part of a team, take a few minutes to assess the patterns of communication, the flow of ideas, the level of engagement and energy. Are you seeing good things? Is your team operating optimally? If not, be warned that these are early indicators of a low-performing team. The good news is that none of this is fatal, provided you and your colleagues take corrective action.

Later today, I’ll be doing exactly this type of observation with respect to the teams we’ve set up for the company’s project. And, we’ll be intervening as often as necessary to ensure that every one of these teams is a high-performing team. Admittedly, we’ll be doing this from the comfort of a beautiful hotel on a gorgeous coastline. It’s hard work, but someone’s got to do it!

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