Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

5 Evidence-Based Ways to Optimize Your Teamwork

You’re at the table with the rest of your team, ready to brainstorm new ideas or plan the next product launch. Looking around, their faces are reassuring – you know this is a bunch of talented and experienced individuals. Working together you have the potential to achieve so much more than you ever could alone.

And yet … so often group work fails to deliver. Or worse, it leads to calamity.

History is littered with examples of disastrous group decisions leading to banking collapses, political crises, and commercial meltdowns. Thankfully, important research has been published over the last decade highlighting ways to avoid the pitfalls and maximize the promise of working together.

1. Note everyone’s initial ideas.

A fundamental strength of teams is that each person brings their own unique knowledge and perspective to the table. This is the crux of the classic “wisdom of crowds” effect first documented early in the last century – that is, the judgment of a group of people will usually be superior to the judgment of any individual in that group.

In a creative setting, this could apply to problems like estimating product sales or predicting project timelines. But crucially, this group wisdom effect only applies when each person’s input is kept independent and free of outside influence. A team of Swiss and Hungarian researchers showed this in 2011 – group wisdom was undermined when team members were given the chance to modify their initial answers based on feedback about what others had said.

Too much early interaction can also compromise idea generation in a group setting. Vocal, overconfident team members have a disproportionate influence while shy contributors lose faith in their own proposals. Whether seeking predictions or brainstorming ideas, you can largely overcome these problems by making sure team members write down and share their initial thoughts and ideas before group discussion begins. With everyone’s ideas or predictions on the table, only then start the interactive group work.

Group wisdom was undermined when team members were given the chance to modify their initial answers.

2. Test drive the team.

Individual assessment is such a fundamental part of working life, yet we often take it for granted. If you want the best person for a job, you put the candidates through their paces to see who comes out on top. The basic assumption is that if they do well in the test context, they’ll also excel on future projects. It turns out the same principle applies to groups – U.S. researchers showed in 2010 that a team that does well in one situation will tend to do well on other challenges too.

This suggests you should test drive your creative teams, much as you would an individual. Related to this, it’s a mistake to think that putting together a bunch of skilled individuals will automatically create a gifted team. The same US study showed that a team’s average performance is not necessarily related to the individual intelligence of each member. Rather, group ability was enhanced by having team members who scored highly in “social sensitivity” (they were better at reading other people’s emotions). The research also found that groups with more female members performed above average, simply because women tended to be more socially sensitive.

It’s a mistake to think that putting together a bunch of skilled individuals will automatically create a gifted team.

3. Mix up group membership.

Although effective teams have certain qualities that make it likely they’ll be successful on future challenges, there is a balance to be struck. If the same personnel always work together, there’s a risk of the group becoming insular and detached from reality – part of a process known as “Groupthink.” Often, instead of the group context leading to a balancing of opinions, a team’s judgment will become progressively polarized. Dissenters are sidelined and enthusiastic team members rally around an outspoken flag-bearer, one who holds a more extreme version of their own views.

In business, this can lead to unrealistic optimism and a dangerous stifling of skepticism within the group. A sure way to stop these processes from taking hold is to ensure there’s a periodic influx of fresh blood into the team. This is also good practice for sustaining creativity. Research shows that familiar teams feel friendlier and more creative, but it’s newly formed teams that often generate more and better ideas.

4. Conduct a pre-mortem.

After a failed product or expansion plan, it’s a familiar experience to read that the relevant company is conducting in-depth inquiries to find out how their experts could have made such misguided, unrealistic judgments. A common cause is that the companies’ project group grew so isolated and inward-looking, they forgot to factor in the effects of other competing companies making their own ambitious plans.

Newly formed teams that often generate more and better ideas.

To help safeguard against the unrealistic optimism that often bedevils creative teams, decision-making expert Gary Klein recommends a technique called the pre-mortem – a form of “ritualized dissent”. Team members (working on their own initially) are asked to assume that their project has already met with disaster and to come up with reasons why. This fosters an atmosphere that values the input of those who have doubts and reservations. Most importantly, the technique highlights ways to strengthen the project plan before lift-off.

5. Pay attention to when.

Time spent on team activities doesn’t come free. All the while that your top people are sat around talking, planning and brainstorming, they’re obviously not at work busy doing what they do best – executing the ideas that are going to turn your project into a success. This means it’s vital to schedule intelligently and punctually. When US researchers surveyed 367 employees across a range of industries for a 2011 study, they found that perceptions of meeting quality weren’t related to the length of the meeting or the number of breaks, but to whether or not meetings started and ended on time.

If you only have one team session a week, consider Tuesdays at 3 p.m.: in 2009, the events-scheduling service When Is Good published an analysis of its client data, which showed people’s flexibility peaked at this time. Also, pay attention to your agenda – a study from the 90s found that decision-making groups allocated more time to earlier items, meaning that important items lower on the agenda were neglected.

If time is short, one sure way for keeping meetings efficient is to conduct them standing up. Research by management scholar Allen Bluedorn found that stand-up meetings were on average 34 percent shorter than the seated variety, with no cost in terms of decision quality.

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Much of the evidence-based advice available for improving teamwork and group decision-making seems intuitive. Yet, in so many walks of life, from board meetings to jury deliberations, the five principles above are ignored, allowing pushy personalities to dominate and bad reasoning to thrive. Teamwork can lead to shrewd decisions and flourishing creativity, but only if you pay attention to the social psychology that comes into play in a group setting.

What’s your take?


How does your team work best?

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 editor of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blogcontributor to WIRED, author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. On Twitter @Psych_Writer.
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