Illustration: Jenn Kwon

9 Facts Every Creative Needs to Know About Collaborative Teams

Look behind any creative success story and you’ll usually find a great team, a group of passionate people who raised each other’s game.  When thinking about productivity we often focus on the individual, yet it’s by optimizing teams that we can truly take our projects to the next level.

How? One secret weapon you have is to appreciate the psychological factors that turn a group of individuals into a cohesive team unit. To help you optimize your team selection and working habits, here are nine facts that can help you get the most out of working with others:

1. The mere presence of other people can boost your performance.

One the earliest findings in social psychology was the “social facilitation” effect – the way the mere presence of other people engaged in the same task as us can boost our motivation. In 1920, social psychologist Floyd Allport showed that a group of people working individually at the same table performed better on a whole range of tasks even though they weren’t cooperating or competing. Allport’s research illustrates how the energy of other people can act as a substitute team even if we’re working solo (this is why many creatives enjoy working at their local café surrounded by industrious strangers).

2. A familiar team has benefits like a home stadium.

Everyone knows that sports teams enjoy an advantage when they compete in the familiar surroundings of their home stadium. Less recognized are the benefits of having familiar faces around you. Consider a 2006 Harvard study that showed the performance of heart surgeons improved over time when working at their main hospital surrounded by their usual team. Crucially, this improvement didn’t translate to other hospitals with unfamiliar personnel when the surgeons would cover for other doctors. The surgeons knew these other hospitals well, but didn’t have the same tacit understanding with the local personnel as they did with their main team.

By working repeatedly with the same people, you get to know their strengths and weaknesses; you have shared experiences to draw on; and you develop unspoken habits and rules that aid your mutual understanding. A related lesson here: take a star performer out of their usual team environment and you might find their performance disappoints.

The mere presence of other people engaged in the same task as us can boost our motivation.

3. Virtual teams can outperform face-to-face teams.

A 2009 survey by Cisco of thousands of teleworkers found 69 percent said their productivity was higher when they worked remotely and 83 percent said their communication with other team members was either unaffected or enhanced by being dispersed. And in 2009, a research team led by Frank Siebdrat assessed the performance of 80 software companies around the world and found that more dispersed teams often outperformed “co-located” teams.

Siebdrat and his colleagues said the most important factor in the success of a remote team was having processes in place to make sure each member contributes fully, including adequate support and communication. Other good practices include scheduling time for virtual camaraderie building, including chatting in an informal context (see point 9).

4. A balance of extroverts and introverts makes for a better team.

When Corrine Bendersky and Neha Parikh Shah at UCLA organised hundreds of MBA students into five-person teams for ten weeks of group assignments, they found that introverts started off with the lowest status: their peers didn’t think they had much influence, nor did they expect them to contribute as much to the team as the bolder, brasher team members. Yet, by the end of the quarter, the students had seen what introverts have to offer – their status had climbed while the extraverts’ status had fallen.

While extroverts will grab your attention and showcase their abilities, you might need to search a little harder to spot the talented quiet types. But don’t go too far the other way and ignore extroverts — a balance of complementary personalities is often the most effective mix.

More dispersed teams often outperformed “co-located” teams.

5. Most good teams have one analytic thinker on board.

Team members with a big picture thinking style are great for brainstorming and creative problem solving but when it comes to idea execution a study published this year suggests it’s a good idea to have at least one focused, analytic thinker on your team — that is, someone who can focus on the details of your project.

Ishani Aggarwal and Anita Woolley at the Tepper School of Business found that teams with an analytic thinker tended to perform better on “execution tasks” because they paid more attention to “process focus” – identifying sub-tasks and the resources needed to complete them. Aggarwal and Tepper warned this benefit needs to be balanced as big picture thinkers and analytical thinkers can disagree on strategic priorities, harming team performance. To avoid this, foster a team-wide appreciation of process focus and get team members to agree explicitly on strategic priorities. Recruiting a rare individual with a mixed cognitive style (big picture and analytic) can also help foster communication between team members with different thinking styles.

6. Teams perform better when they include both men and women.

In 2012, Credit Suisse published an analysis of nearly 2,400 international companies, finding that those with at least one woman on their boards tended to be the strongest performers. The benefits of having both men and women in the controlling team were especially apparent in tougher operating conditions and was attributed by the report authors to issues such as better team diversity (see point 5) and a balance of leadership skills.

What’s the optimum gender balance to aim for? An experiment published in 2011 by European researchers found that teams of business students with a 50-50 mix of men and women performed best at a business venture game. The researchers said this was at least partly due to mixed-gender groups engaging in more “mutual monitoring” – making sure everyone pulled their weight for the team’s benefit.

7. There’s a danger of teams splitting into sub-groups.

It’s inevitable that allegiances and friendships will form within teams. Research with space crews and arctic explorers has shown how these “micro-cultures” can be particularly strong when they’re based on forms of social identity – such as ethnicity or gender – that predate the creation of the team. For multi-disciplinary teams, these divisions can also form along shared professional identities.

A study led by psychologist Doris Fay investigated this problem in the UK’s healthcare system. Fay found that diversity was a bonus – multi-disciplinary teams produced better quality innovations than more homogeneous teams – but only if certain processes were in place to help prevent internal splits. These included making sure all team members were committed to the same cause; ensuring everyone felt listened to; the team reflected on its own performance; and there was plenty of communication between team members (see point 9).

Companies with at least one woman on their boards tended to be the strongest performers.

8. Effective teams depend on “social sensitivity.”

Research has shown that the “collective intelligence” of teams (as judged by their ability to perform well across a range of challenges) is based not on the average IQ of individual team members, but on the way team members take turns during conversations, and having a higher proportion of women in the group (see points 6 and 9).

The research led by Anita Woolley suggests we should road-test our teams for these characteristics — known as “social sensitivity” — just like we assess individuals. If a team flops at this assessment, then adjust the personnel to find a better mix, or train the team in better communication.

9. The best teams communicate outside of formal meetings.

Researchers at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory have found conversations outside of formal meetings are the most important factor that contributes to team success. Their research showed that the energy and engagement of these informal interactions accounts for one third of the differences in productivity between groups.

There are simple steps we can take to increase these valuable encounters, including scheduling coffee breaks so that all team members get to chat with each other and planning social events. Related to this, the most productive creative teams are those that strike the perfect balance between “exploration” and “engagement” – sourcing new ideas from outside the team and integrating ideas within the team.

How about you?

What conditions do you think lead to better collaboration?

More insights on: Collaboration

Christian Jarrett

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Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s blog editor at the design collaboration platform InvisionApp.comcontributor to WIRED, and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology. On Twitter @Psych_Writer.
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