The Science of Successful Teams – Past the Mystery – Part 2

In last weeks blog, we looked at the importance of communication and how we exchange information with individuals on our team. MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory showed us with the data they retrieved from badges worn by people on teams, that successful teams had some defining characteristics regardless of the intellectual abilities of the team members. These would be actions such as team members talking to each other in approximate equal measure, or members temporarily leaving the team to explore outside it for new information.

communication-1461378In this blog, we’ll look a little bit further into these ideas of successful teams, focusing on 3 elements of communication that affect team performance. The first element found by the MIT research group was energy, or the quantity and nature of exchanges among the members. Whether a simple nod or a vocal “yes” for acknowledgement, and whether exchanges are face-to-face on one end or email/texting on the other, the higher energy a team has the more exchanges there will be, paralleled with more face to face interactions.

The second critical element to communication is engagement. This is the distribution of energy between team members, observed as successful if there is roughly equal distribution of high energy to the different members. This can be the classic scenario though of the weakest link. The teams that had everyone performing at high energy rates performed at greater levels than those who had some members partially engaged.

The final element is exploration, or the communication members are involved in outside of their team. This has to do with energy exchanges of members of one team reaching out to other teams to seek guidance, fresh perspectives, or new information. The research group found that teams who had higher ratings of energy with outside teams were more successful in accomplishing its goals. The conclusion led the research group to believe that seeking communication outside gave them a creative edge in solving problems and accomplishing tasks.

The group mentioned that these three elements may come across as blindingly obvious parts of team communication, but the group found some rather precise data on the importance of these pieces. For instance, they know for a fact that 35% of the variation in a team’s performance can be accounted for simply by the amount of face-to-face interactions among team members. Or, they identified that the “right” number of exchanges in a team is as many as dozens per working hour, but going beyond that decreases performance.

The exciting thing to us about this information is that it is based on data, so its hard to argue against it within the confines of its context. Our takeaway then, and the reason we wanted to share this information, is to extend our understanding of the importance of information exchange from all angles. How much we communicate with our team, what type, and who we are communicating to outside of it all play a part in the overall effectiveness of school district operations. Especially in times of change, the ability to extend ourselves to others to create a more seamless transition will not only improve the performance of our immediate goals, but will also help students achieve goals more readily.


Pentland, Alex. “The New Science of Building Great Teams.” Harvard Business Review. April 2012: pages 60-68. Print.
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