Hierarchies are Not Always the Best Way

Nick Obolensky presents three examples on how distributed hierarchies outperform the linear deterministic way of traditional management. As he demonstrates, carefully analyzing and modifying the patterns that steer our behavior can have impressive results. Even when it comes to re-designing one of the busiest roads in the center of London…
How building high-performance teams is a science involving data and pattern recognition.

It’s a very particular feeling of getting into a company for the first time and feeling this sense of “buzz” going on. It is something intangible. It is “in the air”. It’s a feeling that something “clicks” in this company. And even without understanding exactly what is going on, there is a feeling of purpose all around. A feeling of “this team is successful”. It’s a feeling one gets when entering the lobby, being greeted by the receptionist, when meeting your host for the first time, meeting the team members, engaging in conversations and dialogue…it is everywhere without being somewhere specific. The “buzz” leaves you with energy at the end of the day. You leave these teams a little bit intoxicated, feeling great about having spent some time in this energetic environment.

For the first time, a study has been published that identifies what “it” really is. What is the secret of teams that radiate energy, are high-performing and highly successful? Because successful they are indeed.

Consider this case of a call center at a major bank having various groups of agents working along the same processes and using identical tools and training. The managers were at a loss trying to explain why some teams in the call center got excellent results while other, similar teams struggled. All the traditional metrics like AHT (Average Handling Time), Customer Satisfaction, Cases solved, etc… did not provide evidence of a problem and management was therefore inclined to point towards the vague notion of “team spirit” or “good leadership” as the sole differentiator. In doing so, they reinforced the idea that building a high-performance team was something of an art, a vague notion of applying magical management skills that just a few people seem to possess. The ability of building a high-performance team was -at most- considered to be the end result of putting complementary people together and applying some soft management skills. And definitely not a scientific approach.

Well, the opposite is actually true. In the April issue of Harvard Business Review[1] , Alex Pentland of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory has published his findings on high-performance teams. He has analyzed the dynamics of high-performance teams extensively and has come to the conclusion that these dynamics are observable, quantifiable and measurable. And more importantly, people can be taught how to manage and strengthen them. This reinforces the findings of FACTOR+ over the last few years. Our findings also indicate that the interaction between members of a team is guided by patterns. More specifically: patterns of communication. These patterns can be observed, quantified and measured by analyzing the dynamics of interaction between the individual members of the team. By working on the dynamics of the interaction, the patterns that drive the behavior of the team can be influenced in such a way that they unlock the high-performance potential in a team.

Going back to the case of the call center, Alex Pentland equipped all the members of the teams with special electronic sensor badges that collected data on the communication behavior of the individual. These electronic badges collected data on a series of variables: tone of voice, body language, who people were talking to, how much they were talking or listening, etc… When analyzing all the data and correlating them with success criteria of the teams, Alex Pentland found that “patterns of communication” were the single most important predictor of a team’s success. In fact the patterns of communication were more indicative of a team’s potential success than the more logical notions of intelligence, skills, competences, personality and substance of discussion all combined! The best predictors of success were the teams ENERGY and their ENGAGEMENT outside formal meetings. In addition, Alex Pentland identified another variable, EXPLORATION as a contributing factor for successful teams. Where “Energy” defines the way team members contribute to the team as a whole, “Engagement” is the way team members communicate with one another and “Exploration” is how teams communicate with one another.

The research done by MIT reveals that successful teams share several defining characteristics:

  1. Everybody in the team participates. All members talk and listen roughly the same amount, keeping interventions simple and to the point.
  2. People face each other and keep the dialogue in word and body-language energetic.
  3. People connect with one another; not just the team leader only.
  4. Side conversations within the team happen.
  5. There are regular breaks in the interaction allowing the members to go explore outside the team.

When all of the above happens, MIT found that individual reasoning and personal talent contribute far less to the success of the team than we all tend to believe. If a team really wants to be successful, then the team better select its members on the ability of the individual members to get the most out of the communication patterns rather than on the individual smarts or accomplishments traditionally strived for. The nice thing about Alex Pentland’s work is that is improves on conventional wisdom about energy, exploration and engagement by adding quantitative data. For instance: the data prove that 35% of the variation in a team’s performance is accounted for simply by the number of face-to-face exchanges among team members and also that the ideal number of exchanges is several dozen per working hour. The data also indicate that members of a high-performance team listen or speak to the group as a whole for only 50% of the time and that for the other 50% they engage in one-on-one conversations which are usually quite short. Furthermore, it proves that engagements in social (so called off-time) time represent up to 50% of the positive changes in communication patterns. Even in high-efficiency environments where every operational minute counts….

The study also sheds a new light on the concept of the “ideal team player”. Ideal team players display a strong pattern of circulating actively and engaging people in short yet high-energy conversations. They are very democratic in the use of their time, making sure that everybody has an opportunity to contribute. They are not necessarily extrovert people, although they do feel comfortable around people. They are focused on the engagement and tend to listen as much (or even more) than they talk.

All of the above complements beautifully the findings of the FACTOR+ practice. We have found that patterns do indeed determine the way a team performs. Not just patterns in intra-group communication but also the patterns that set the way companies and teams work together. We also have found that once a team becomes mindful of the patterns that drive the interaction, it is able to learn ways to influence these patterns in the desired, high-performing direction. In other words: in order to make a team reach a high-performance status we need to leave the notion behind that bringing together complementary and highly skilled individuals is the single recipe for success. Instead of this traditional -and outdated- look on team performance, we need to accept that high performance can be reached by any team that is willing to optimize its interaction with the team members individually and the world around it. This optimization is relatively simple and based on easy-to-acquire techniques. There are roughly six components to these techniques that will influence the dynamics of shaping patterns:

1. Just like the MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory researchers discovered, the main component is “energy”. Energy in our definition is the optimal relationship between positive and negative utterance in team interaction. Utterances can be anything from a spoken word, to silence, body language, participation, etc… Utterances can be positive when they show encouragement, motivation, enthusiasm, approval, etc… They are negative when they convey disapproval, cynicism, sarcasm or outright negative remarks or behavior. In his study on flourishing high-performance teams, Marcial Losada determined that the optimal relationship between positive and negative utterances is between 3 and 6:1. Implying that for every negative element, a minimum of 3 positive utterances is required to create an energetic environment.

2. “Connectivity” is the second component of a high-performance team. Connectivity, or “engagement” in the terminology of MIT, is the way that people connect with each other and build on each other’s ideas and input. Good connectivity happens when team members actively listen to the input of other team members and enrich the idea with their own input, experience or opinions. The more an idea is being circulated in a team and being fed with new views and input, the better the result will be. In our practice we aim for 30 connectivity moments in a one-hour interaction.

3. MIT researchers define the way teams communicate with one another as “Exploration”. In other words, the ability of a team to check assumptions, ideas and opinions with other groups and individuals than the own group. In our approach, this component is the relationship between utterances of a team that are either Self-driven or Other-oriented. The ratio between Other/Self utterances, measures the way in which a team is able to maintain a balance between viewpoints and ideas that relate to the team itself and the interests of other individuals and teams that do not belong to the group. Ideally a 1:1 ratio is strived for.

4. An important component in building a high-performance team is directly related to the way the team members communicate with one another. This fourth component is the relationship between Enquiring and Advocating. Team members of high-performance teams have mastered the ability to argue strongly in favor of their own viewpoints, but at the same time listen very attentively to the viewpoints of other team members in order to improve their own arguments. The team members manage to strike an optimal balance between actively listening to the arguments of other team members, assimilating the reasoning and then enhancing their own opinions before trying to convince the rest of the team of their own personal opinion. In the MIT research, Alex Pentland defines team members who are able to listen as much or more than they talk as “charismatic connectors”. They are commonly known to be “natural leaders”. They are a team’s biggest asset because they make sure all the other team members are given a chance to contribute. In the MIT study it was found that the more of these charismatic connectors a team had, the more successful it was.

5. Commitment to a BEHAG. This component is absent in the article by Alex Pentland. Yet, we find time and time again that the passion for a “Big External Hairy Audacious Goal” is critical for maintaining sustained high performance. Sharing a passion that leads to something worthwhile is the N°1 driver and motivation for most job-related activities. Teams that are able to maintain a passionate and almost fanatical focus on a clear goal, are able to reach high-performance status easier than others.

6. Adaptorship. Or the ability to adapt patterns to changing situations. By constantly tweaking the way people use the energy to engage or to explore, team members are able to modify the patterns in their teams. Adaptorship is crucial for not getting into a rut. It protects high-performance teams from thinking “they have it made” and thereby losing the nimble thinking and interaction that allowed them to become high-performance in the first place. The role of an adaptor in any team is to identify recurring patterns that risk lowering the performance level of a team and to suggest ways to overcome them.

This last component is an important one. Reaching high-performance status or becoming an “ideal team” is not the result of doing some-thing right. It is not linear. It is very much a complex mathematical exercise. Just like complex weather patterns, team dynamics do not respond to the “if…then” thinking. Just like weather, human interaction is too complex with too many variables interacting in order to become easily predictable. However, by applying the insights on patterns by MIT and FACTOR+, teams will be able to “mold” the interaction that goes on between team members in groups in such a way that a tipping point into high-performance will emerge. More importantly, by becoming mindful of the patterns that exist in teams, team members will be able to identify the reasons why their performance is at a certain level. And finally, by using these insights managers can be trained to accurately predict the business-related results of the team simply by observing the interaction patterns in a team.

Illustrating this point: FACTOR+ only need 30 minutes of team interaction observation to predict with a high degree of accuracy the business performance of a team they have never met or seen before. In an identical finding, Alex Pentland was able to predict accurately which team will win a business plan contest solely on the basis of the interaction data collected from team members wearing the famous electronic badges in conversations at a cocktail reception.

Building high-performance teams is not an art, but a hard mathematical science. Like any science, getting a team to reach high-performance status starts by careful and detailed observation, analyzing and quantifying the patterns at work and then implementing consistent corrective actions at several levels to move the patterns in the right direction. It sounds complex, but it should not be. Consider the case of the bank again. Observation and analysis showed that the highest-performing teams displayed a pattern of high energy and engagement outside formal meetings. By allowing all of the call center agents to go on their coffee-break together instead of on the traditional “one-team-at-a-time” basis, the energy and the engagement of all the team members were dramatically increased. Some metrics? Following the change in coffee-break policy, AHT (Average Handling Time) decreased 8% overall (20% among the lower-performing teams) and in total $ 15 million a year was forecasted as productivity increase.

How is that for a cup of coffee?

Wouter Van Roost

[1] The New Science of Building Great Teams by Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Harvard Business Review, April 2012.

“High-Performance Teams” are being characterized by the optimization of 6 interaction variables. One of these variables is the “Adaptor”-function. The Adaptor function is important in the dynamics of interaction because it strives to keep things “fresh”. Adaptor activity is on the agenda of every High-Performance team. It protects the team to get into a rut, to accept the obvious or to never challenge itself.
This video-clip narrates the result of such an Adaptor-activity. The featured company continually aims to improve its operational performance. Being in a very competitive and fast-changing IT environment, the team decided that sales needed to be more integrated in the daily management decision cycle. Being a software-development company, they were familiar with the scrum-methodology. At one of the Management Team meetings, it was suggested that this methodology be used to address the sales integration need.

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