What you say is not important!

20 Apr 2012

I recently had the pleasure of attending an HBR webinar by Prof. Pentland on the new science of building great teams. The professor and his students have come to rather unique conclusions

  1. “It's how, where, and who you say it to; not what you say."
  2. “You can look at the flow of information as a summary of what's really happening in your organization. You can engineer that flow and dramatically improve results."
  3. “When you can actually show people hard numbers about what they're doing, they change."
What I found non-intuitive was that the content of the conversation did not come out as important! They found that the "pattern" was much more indicative of an effective team than the experience, IQ or age of the members in the team.

Immediately I jumped to the conclusion that of course the patterns would naturally be the result of a team comprising of star people and by default their communication pattern would be the one reflected by the effective teams. However the second and third points that Prof. Pentland draws appear to contradict my surmise. If just changing the communication patterns could result in more effective teams, nothing has actually yet been done to enhance the other factors.

I still believe that more research needs to be done on whether certain compositions of teams have this effective communication pattern innately, but I guess in the meanwhile any team can improve just by communicating in favorable patterns.

The three metrics (equation based) that Prof. Pentaland came up with that account for 40%- 60% of performance variance across groups were:

  • Energy (10-20%) : Which is an equation reflecting the total interactions between the team
  • Enagagement (30%) : This in a way reflects how participatory the whole team is in interactions. The factor increases when no one person dominates. It also weighs favorably back channel signals, like acknowledging what someone just said with a "Really?", "Are you sure?" e.t.c.
  • Exploration (10%) : This factor is indicative of the propensity of group members to communicate outside the group for additional interactions
The research found that these three factors mattered more than the team member's job titles, degrees, intelligence or personalities! Now I guess there is no need to go for that MIT degree. :-)

When we look critically at these factors I guess one can say that the words themselves are obvious for a great team, what is interesting about Prof. Pentland's research is that his team has put in equations behind each of those words, now you can actually measure the engagement of the team. The HR departments of quite a few organizations would probably kill for this data. The caveat being of course that the employees need to wear sociometric badges, these are name badges with electronics to record interactions but not the content, as apparently what you say is unimportant!

All in all it was a very interesting webinar, which unfortunately HBR has not yet put up for general consumption, but the article for this can be found here.

After the webinar I am really looking forward to reading the book. The book I think talks more about these back channel signals and not the actual research. Those looking for more details could visit the MIT Human Dynamics webpage.

So all those of you talking a lot and taking a lot of breaks, rejoice, research now says you would make an effective team. :-)