Working with other people is inevitable in nearly every industry. With the exception of a lucky few, the rest of us will at one point or another, have to collaborate with someone else to get a job done. Happily, my experience over the past semester with my team members has been largely positive! Everyone has adhered to deadlines and the workload has remained fairly evenly distributed. Best of all, everyone has managed to remain calm and respectful to each other. In this case, my gut feeling was pretty accurate. But was this just by chance?
Teamwork is based the wild card of other people. Will everyone get along? Will they get their work done? Sadly, many of my teamwork experiences have been negative. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat with my group members and had my heart sink, before anyone has even spoken! I get a feeling in my gut that I’ve just jumped on a sinking ship and only been given a teaspoon to bail myself out. This led me to think: is there a way to predict the success or failure of a team apart from the cruelness of experience?
Turns out that there is a whole area of scientific study dedicated to quantifying and predicting the success of a team by measuring members biological data produced through communication. By using electronic sensors, the scholars at the MIT Human Dynamics Lab have managed to turn this data into a model for successful teamwork. Their findings, as reported by head researcher Alex Pentland in a recent Harvard Business Review blog article, are quite surprising:
According to our data…How we communicate turns out to be the most important predictor of team success, and as important as all other factors combined, including intelligence, personality, skill, and content of discussions. The old adage that it’s not what you say, but how you say it, turns out to be mathematically correct. (emphasis his)
In the case of my team, I can think of examples to both support and contest this fact. For instance, the diverse cultural background of my team members has had a strong affect on how they communicate and this has caused some tension. I have found in difficult during group discussions to listen to what a team member is saying because I find myself reacting to how they are saying it. This has also contributed to some personality clashes, as group members have misinterpreted passion with anger or criticism of their work or ideas with a personal attack. In order to avoid this issue in future, I think that we should have established a simple list of communication guidelines in our preliminary meetings. These rules would’ve helped us to avoid the frustration of miscommunication so as to assure that we were hearing a person’s ideas instead of their tone of voice.
Harvard Business review cites that a common misconception about successful collaboration is that it depends on group harmony. In fact, one of our group’s main issue arose from personal conflict. Different interpretations of what counts as a ‘sufficient’ piece of work in the design process also caused a rift in our team. We all come from different backgrounds, with some having stronger aesthetic skills. While we tried to use the assignments as our guiding principle, our individual interests and experience level had an effect on how we judged each other’s work. Since we all had different benchmarks for what we consider to be a ‘successful’ wireframe, we got caught up in what looked good versus what aligned with our design strategy. Our team members got so caught up in their subjectivity, that they lost sight of the fact that they were saying the same thing. Since we didn’t have a benchmark for good design, this was more a personality conflict and so was much more challenging to resolve. It also didn’t help that the team members involved were both stubborn in their assurance that their way was the best way.
So how would I do it differently? Pentland describes the four essential practices of successful teams as: frequent communication; equal distribution speaking and listening across all members; frequent informal communication and exploration of ideas and information outside the formal group structure. I would add: the creation of a set of rules to determine appropriate and inappropriate communication behaviour. Another would be a tougher approach to selfishness and stubbornness. While I realize that its important assure that everyone’s contribution is being acknowledged, sometimes you have to sacrifice your idea for the good of project as a whole. We’re in a learning environment where we’re actually encouraged to experiment and nothing is going to be perfect on the first try. And that’s OK!