Philippa Lamb: Team creation has always been a tricky business and now that technology allows people to work together regardless of their physical location it can be even more complex to analyse which skills and behaviours you'll need in the mix to turn them into a truly effective team.
Now of course you need expertise but personalities, culture, roles, goals, ways of working and communication, they’re all part of the recipe too. Get the balance right and your team should rise up and cook to perfection, get it wrong and all that effort and expense can go to waste.
Leadership expert and executive teacher Gareth Jones has spent 30 years studying teams in organisations all over the world and he's clear that building and maintaining effective teams all starts with careful groundwork.
Gareth Jones: If you want to build strong teams that's a really important task. It doesn’t happen automatically. Great team builders, whether we’re talking about sport, politics, work, religion, they put effort into it.
PL: Today businesses are often global and their workers are more culturally and geographically diverse than ever before so does that mean that creating truly productive teams is harder than ever?
GJ: Technology is changing almost exponentially. So you’re right technology is enabling interactions between much larger groups of people. Are they teams? Probably not. Human evolution moves very slowly. I think to start talking about teams of 80 or 90 is probably a mistake.
PL: So those are collaborating individuals?
GJ: They could be collaborating individuals.
PL: But not a team?
GJ: They’re not a team. And I think a very good question to ask yourself if you’re an executive facing the issue of teams and team building is, is this really a team? So to what extent do they have shared objectives, overlapping tasks and so on? And if they don’t by the way well don’t put a big effort into team building. So start really with asking yourself the question is this really a team?
PL: Okay. So what is the first thing that managers should think about then when they’re putting together a team, whether it be a short-term team or a long-term team? I think most people jump to skills and expertise.
GJ: Right. I’d go one stage back from that. I’d look at the task or tasks that the team is being asked to address and I would then write down a list of the critical success factors and that list by the way shouldn’t be 27, it should be three or four.
GJ: And then build your team, design your team around the critical success factors. And that might lead you by the way into thinking about what kinds of people you want to have in the team.
PL: Jonny Gifford is research adviser at the CIPD with a specialism in employee relationships and conflict. Here are his thoughts on how to put the best people together.
Jonny Gifford: You've got to think about the diversity of thought and skills and strengths that you have within the team. Diversity I think is an area that some people struggle with even though it’s become a mainstream area of HR. You think that we’ve got equality law so why do we need diversity? But I think it really comes alive when you start looking at team composition because you need that balance, you need people who fit in on the one hand but on the other hand you need enough divergence of thinking, enough of a mixture of strengths and perspectives in the team that you can be pushing the boundaries.
PL: Although diversity is clearly important a big body of research shows that we want to work with those we like and that can often mean those who are somehow similar to us. So building a group of similar individuals can make for easy communication and great collaboration but of course there are pitfalls. Too little conflict and there’s poor scope for innovative thinking; too much conflict and your team can become unhappy, disruptive and unproductive as individuals jostle for position and refuse to collaborate. Here’s Gareth Jones again.
GJ: There’s this conundrum isn’t there? If we like people too much, addressing poor performance becomes difficult. But like doesn’t necessarily mean similar. You see you like can people for their differences. So I sometimes think that the team leader’s role is about encouraging people to understand their differences and to exploit their differences, actually to synergise around their differences.
JG: Yeah, exactly, so the question becomes, what is a reasonable amount of effort that managers should make to integrate different styles of working, different personalities into the team?
PL: According to Jonny the answer to that question is ‘a lot’ because as long as you can manage any conflict that arises, and it’s bound to, you’re more likely to get really great teamwork from a diverse group of people. He argues that managing this sort of inter-team conflict should become a core competency of managers across organisations.
JG: I think that where organisations are currently at is that we tend to be very reactive in the way that we respond to conflict and often see it as a problem to be solved by someone outside the team so we’ll cart in a mediator or someone from HR to arbitrate, but really we need to see a shift. It needs to be seen as a core management competency, not only responding to conflict, containing conflict but building robust teams in the first place where issues can be talked about, people can be challenged, ideas can be challenged, we can push the boundaries, and that will feel safe.
PL: Are you listening to this wondering about your own role in a team? Then ask yourself this: are you a first born, a middle child, maybe the youngest in your family. Well there's a serious body of research looking at how birth order can impact on how we perform in teams. Crazy nonsense? Gareth doesn’t think so.
GJ: We know for example that first born children tend to develop quite high power drives. So my wife for example is the eldest of nine, so imagine what my marriage is like. Middle children, the evidence is not quite so clear on this but if we take a simple example, middle of three, they tend to develop quite high relationship drives and, surprise, surprise, quite high relationship skills because they’ve been making alliances from their very early life.
PL: Up and down, yes.
GJ: So I mean it’s a factor to consider. So if I've been putting together really complex team in the pharmaceutical business for example I do sometimes look at birth order, it would be one of the things I would look at for key people in the team.
PL: So it’s vital to focus on building the right team from the beginning and according to research by Noam Wasserman most start-ups fail because of failings in their team. Here’s one start-up CEO who believes he succeeded because he's focused so intensely on creating highly effective teams.
Ryan Notz: My name is Ryan Notz and I founded and run MyBuilder.com and we’re a marketplace that connects tradespeople and homeowners. So we have about 10,000 tradespeople on the site and we’re getting close to 40,000 jobs a month posted and the team is sort of divided into three big sections, broad sections. One is the tech, so tech and product, that's developing the website. The other is marketing. And then we have a customer service team. So I think in terms of building the team from the early days it was easy to see that the only thing we really had was the people and the company and the product was going to change, the customer base was small. I learned very quickly around problems with the technology that having a really solid tech team was the real key to success because at the end of the day it is a technology business. If our website isn’t running we’re not trading at all.
PL: Ryan spends a lot of his time recruiting and maintaining his teams and this might be why after a long, hard slog, MyBuilder.com is now a successful company. But building good teamwork into the organisation hasn’t been easy.
RN: I guess I learned the hard way. So I started the company back in 2004 so we’re now a good ten years in and the first few people I hired the interviewing process was poor. I didn’t necessarily know what I wanted. I’d come from a trade background myself and before that I was an artist so I hadn’t had any experience hiring and managing. So yeah I hired some people that didn’t work out and had to get rid of them and that's a very painful thing. So in making mistakes over and over and over again and then realising I must find a better way to screen, vet, interview, all of that, to help ensure you get the right people.
PL: Team building is an art and people often talk about gut instinct and alchemy. Now though algorithms are being used to build models that can read people and their potential in a more scientific way. Meet Alistair Shepherd founder of Saberr who’s using algorithms to try and create perfect teams.
Alistair Shepherd: It works by trying to identify the mathematical elements that make a team work and we think that behaviour and your preference towards certain behaviours can be measured. And we also believe that values can be measured and more specifically value alignment can be measured. And so we try to quantify those two elements under the preface that what gets measured gets managed.
PL: Okay so this is analysing the individual members of teams?
AS: Yes as part of the whole. So our goal is to end up measuring the entire team but in order to do that you need to understand its constituent parts.
PL: Okay. So what sort of things are you asking?
AS: So we ask non-conventional questions, things like, “Do you like horror movies? Do spelling mistakes annoy you?” through to the more sort of familiar, “How well does the word ‘shy’ describe your behaviour in group settings?”
PL: When you’ve analysed people, their behaviours, their values, how does that then feed into arriving at a perfect group that will work really well together?
AS: So what we’re trying to understand is the nature of the relationships between individuals and whether they will end up having an effective long-term relationship. And I say ‘relationship’ because that's what it is. By ‘effective’ I mean the ability to still perform under varying degrees of stress over a period of time.
PL: Can we just kind of go back to defining how you would establish the values in an individual team?
AS: Right so we looked for, and this is I guess the sort of fairly novel approach that we’ve taken, we looked to build this model for patterns in online dating and the fundamentals of a romantic relationship are actually the same as the fundamentals of any good relationship. And we defined a successful online match as two people who had met online and then closed their account. That's a significant step, it’s saying, “You are the best person I've met, significantly better than anyone else I've met already,” and so when we looked at those successful matches we found really clear patterns in the way that they behaved online and certain questions that they answered. “Do you like horror movies?” is a classic example. I don't know why this question is so important I just know that it is.
PL: Okay. And you know this how?
AS: It was very predictive in that successful long-term match.
PL: Defining precise values is very difficult so this tool aims to discover whether people have complementary values.
AS: It’s less important to actually know what those values are, because it’s very difficult to quantify values. If you ask me what my values are I’ll tell you every value ever, you know, do I value trust? Yes of course I do. Do I value freedom? Yes. Do I value trust more than freedom? I don't know, maybe. It’s difficult to think about and we don’t do it naturally. But when you meet somebody and you go, “Yes I like you, I don’t really know why but I've only met you for five seconds and I like you,” we’re subconsciously picking up all the sorts of cues about shared values and we try to do that from a more objective or quantified standpoint.
PL: Over the last year Ryan has been using this algorithmic model for teambuilding at MyBuilder.
RN: We have our whole team and we’ve asked everybody on the team to fill out the survey so then you can see, you know the people and you can see what Saberr says and what you know to be true and most of the time it’s very accurate. So for example there's a chart that shows who works well together or who’s likely to be able to resolve conflicts well or have difficulty and then we can look at them and say, yes, these two people do have difficulty resolving issues, or these people work very well together, and it can be very dramatic. So we have two guys who have 100% score and then we have people who like an eight. And so it’s interesting that the two guys that have this 100% score they do get into conflict but when they do it’s always resolved really easily, even if it’s a big disagreement because it’s the designer and one of our developers, one of our software engineers.
PL: Okay so passionate, smart people?
RN: Yes, so they work together a lot on projects and they have disagreements about how things should happen and both of them might get into difficult positions where they can't resolve issues with other people but with themselves they always resolve them. And then when we’re recruiting if we’re thinking about offering someone the job we’ll give them the questionnaire, they’ll fill it out and then we’ll see their scores next to the existing team and pay close attention to who they might work with and see if that's likely to be an issue. Now you can't rely on it 100% but if we have doubts and it reinforces those doubts we won't hire them. If we’re really sure and Saberr says something different then we just dig a little bit further, maybe we do a little trial and we say why don’t you come in and do some freelance work, or depending on what they do. So it’s just another kind of, data point is not exactly the right word, but another piece of insight that we have that helps us decide who to hire.
PL: It sounds impressive and Ryan’s obviously satisfied but how well does Saberr’s model work elsewhere?
AS: It works surprisingly well, we’ve managed to predict things like the attrition rate of individual employees very precisely. We’ve managed to predict key performance indicators of employees. So to give you a tenable example our very first experiment was to see if we could predict which team would win a business plan competition. It was a business plan competition at the University of Bristol, there were eight teams with about eight people in each team and the competition was a week long. We asked our strange questions like do you like horror movies, to every individual before they arrived at the event and once we knew who was in which team we ranked from best fit to worst fit and made a prediction on day one of the event. We didn’t know anything about their skills, their experiences, their demographic or the ideas that they were working on, all we knew was the measure of their dynamics within the team. And we were correct in predicting the winning team but more interestingly we were precisely correct in the ranking of all eight teams come the final.
PL: According to Alistair’s research through Saberr a key mistake managers can make is to put too much focus on individual performance over the performance of the team as a whole, so while it might seem clever to put your smartest people in a team together research by Linda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, found that the higher the number of experts in a team the more difficult team collaboration can become. So your star performers won't necessarily make a star team.
RN: We’ve interviewed people, I can think of a few where we’ve looked at them and we’ve said, “Wow this is a really outstanding software engineer, but they're not right for us.” So we have had…
PL: Because you just can't see them working with the people you've got?
RN: Yeah, they wouldn’t work well with them or maybe they want to occupy a role that someone else has as well and so you don’t want too many cooks in the kitchen, you might say, well this would be a good lead developer or a CTO, or whatever, and they’re going to be at odds with somebody else who’s in that role.
PL: So you’re really clear about defining roles and making sure your role is complementary?
PL: Gareth agrees, up to a point. For him creating teams made up exclusively of top performance isn’t necessarily a mistake but it definitely does potentially present a much bigger management challenge.
GJ: Now that doesn’t mean to say that you can't put together high octane teams. So if you think about the pharmaceutical business by the way, I'm thinking of a company I really admire, Novo Nordisk, which is the world’s largest producer of insulin. They have a research team called the Diabetes Research team, I have done some work with them. You’re in a room of ten or 11 really clever, obsessive people and the team leader luckily is a highly gifted team leader but keeping that high octane team on the road is really tough but it’s absolutely critical for the future success of Novo Nordisk. So I'm not against putting together high octane teams, I'm just being realistic about what they're like, you need to know that they will be difficult to lead, they’ll be full of cognitive conflict, certainly in the music business I've had to step between executives who are about to have a fist fight over which single to take off an album. It doesn’t make them a dysfunctional team by the way it means they really, really care about these artists!
PL: Here’s where effective communication comes in and many studies have concluded that it is patterns of communication that are the vital factor here when it comes to high team productivity.
GJ: Friendship is a very, very complex concept. Friendship is the most commonly occurring human relationship and yet it’s probably the one we understand the least. If you just think for a moment about your own friendship network it’s complicated isn’t it – old friends, new friends, male friends, female friends, work friends, sports friends, political friends and friends you’d like to get closer to, friends you're definitely not likely to get closer to. It’s complicated. Now friendship at work is also complicated and you need, as the team leader, to think about how friendly do you want this team to become? Do they need to share informal information, do they need to chat? If so you need to create a kind of social architecture in which those informal conversations take place.
PL: And build like it.
GJ: And build like it. You need to put time into that by the way. You need to put time into it. Building friendship takes time. I used to say to one of the previous chief executives at Unilever that they should close down Unilever House on Blackfriars Bridge and send people straight to the Black Friar which is the pub across the road because I said that's where all the interesting conversations take place. Now I was being provocative of course.
PL: But it’s key?
GJ: But it’s key.
PL: Research at MIT proved that taking measures as simple as organising the day around a group coffee break had a marked positive impact on the team productivity. Ryan Notz agrees the MyBuilder office is very busy but he likes to keep the atmosphere informal and collaborative.
RN: My kind of philosophy is that work shouldn’t be horrible and then you get off work and you can go and get drunk together and make it all better, it’s throughout the day we try to have fun doing the work. We’re kind of creating an environment where people can enjoy what they do and I think if you start out getting the right people, and we always say about especially the tech team that these guys would be doing this in their spare time if it wasn't a marketable skill.
PL: Because they just love it.
RN: They just love it and that's the great thing about finding people who love what they do. The hard part is getting the right people in and then it’s just about just a little bit of finessing and getting them focused on the same goals and communicating the business vision and then they naturally do the right things.
PL: So we know that good communication is vital but as business is increasingly done at a distance communication can't always be done in person so does that matter and what does it mean for team success?
AS: So the key is in communication patterns and there's been a lot of research around this, Alex Pentland from MIT wrote a lot about communication patterns being the biggest indicator of performance. And communication is now being made easier and easier via the digital media.
PL: Yes, so I think some of the MIT work was very heavily focused on the face-to-face, the gestures, how close you are, so is seeing people really, actually whether it’s on a screen or person-to-person really key to a team working well do you think?
AS: It’s undoubtedly a real benefit but it’s not crucial. But there are things that you just can't capture at the moment through digital mediums, things like gestures, facial expressions, small things that you just pick up when you’re in a room together that get lost, even through a video call. So it’s helpful but it’s not mandatory.
PL: Here’s Gareth Jones’ checklist for effective long distance teamwork.
GJ: One – face-to-face first. You see the idea that human relationships are mediated by technology is not new; Napoleon conducted a love affair with Josephine for 30 years, mainly by letter! But he'd met her first so face-to-face first. The second thing is when you do meet people you have to intensify your social interactions. So you have to get closer quicker. So hang around with people, spend time, go for dinner, take them to the theatre, go to a show, listen to a lecture together. Then the third point is to defend you against the finance department, the costs of a dysfunctional virtual team are greater than the costs of bringing them together.
PL: Alistair sums up the key point, individual talent and reasoning contribute to a relatively limited degree to team success while successful communication patterns are far more crucial.
AS: When you’ve got people who have got very similar CVs how do you choose who to hire and how do you know in advance who will have the best performance? We think that comes down to fit and by fit I mean the right behavioural balance and the right value alignment.
PL: So an effective team seems to rest on a trinity of excellent group communication, shared values and just the right degree of difference and diversity to inject a little grit into the oyster – easy! Take a look at our page on Team Building for links to more research and factsheets.