Research Findings on the Characteristics of Successful Teams


If you are like me, you are an avid reader and always trying to learn from, others. For example,  I have found that often the advice on the characteristics of a successful team relies on observation and anecdotal evidence. So, I was interested in a recent article in Harvard Business Review that applied research discipline to the analysis of successful team behavior. Here is a summary of their process and findings. Original article by Alex “Sandy” Pentland, professor and director of MIT’s Human Dynamic Laboratory, Media Lab, Entrepreneurship Program and chairman of Sociometric Solutions. (“The Science of Building Great Teams”, Harvard Business Review, April 2012).

Believing that communication patterns, as opposed to content of communications, offer a window into successful and unsuccessful teams, Dr. Pentland’s research team selected and then monitored communication patterns in 21 organizations across multiple industry sectors including, innovation teams, customer-facing teams, personnel in a post-operative hospital setting, and backroom operations teams.

Each member of a team was outfitted with an electronic device to collect data on tone of voice, body language, how frequently they communicated and with whom the communication occurred. Badges, which generated more than 100 data points per minute, were worn for six weeks. (My first thought here was that this intrusiveness – wearing an electronic badge – would skew the data. However, the researcher’s observations and subject reports suggest that individuals desensitized to the device in about an hour.)

Significant Conclusion 1: The best predictor of productivity was the energy and engagement among team members outside of formal meetings. The engagement is not facilitated by off-sites and parties, but can be improved with areas set aside for informal conversation such as break areas, cafeterias and hallways.

Research results on communication style:

  • Team members communicate is rough equal proportions. Most communications among team members were short.
  • The communication style of successful teams was face-to-face and included frequent gesturing.
  • Team members communicate directly with one another, not just through the team or project manager.

Significant Conclusion 2: The most valuable form of communication is face-to-face. Least valuable forms are email and texting. Phone and video conferencing are okay, if there are not too many people. According to their data analysis, 35 percent of the variability in team performance can be accounted for just by counting face-to-face interactions.

Significant Conclusion 3: Effective teams have members who often engage in communication outside of the team with other teams or key players – bringing information and ideas back to the team.

Significant Conclusion 4: Team communication can be improved through training, feedback, modifications in the physical environment and management role models.

If you find interesting articles or readings please share with a comment.


2 Responses to “Research Findings on the Characteristics of Successful Teams”

  1. Heather Says:

    I agree that face to face communication is far superior to other forms when working in teams. One of the team members I work with now, works mainly offsite in another state, only visiting occasionally. There is a huge difference in how well the team works together between when she is onsite or off.

  2. Maintaining Team Morale When Your Projects Get Tough | Fear No Project Blog - Focusing on the Management Side of Projects Says:

    […] final thought is that you need to measure success by the characteristics of what the team does.  Observe your team, or have someone else do it for you, to see if they are exhibiting the […]

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