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.


PMBOK: Human Resource Management – Building a Team Culture

From time to time on this blog forum, I have talked about PMBOK (Project Management Book of Knowledge) as an industry standard on areas of PM responsibility and best practices. To continue my journey through the book, I would like to talk about an area that is often overlooked but critical to project success:  Building a Team.

A collaborative team functioning effectively provides an essential ingredient in successfully executing a project. I know senior project managers who believe a team is more effective and productive than even a group of superstar players in getting the job of a project done well. However, turning a loosely affiliated group of people into a team requires skill and intervention by the project manager.

A bit later in this post, I will talk about the wisdom gained from PMBOK on human resources and building a team. Before that, let me stray for a minute into a world where building a team is quintessential to success and survival – coaching. Whether you are coaching peewee football or a professional sports team, the coach (read project manager) creates an environment, a set of rewards and punishments, and acts as a role model that makes being a team possible. Successful coaches also say inspiring things like:

“Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work. Vince Lombardi

"Good teams become great ones when the members trust each other enough to surrender the Me for the We." Phil Jackson

“When you’re part of a team, you stand up for your teammates. Your loyalty is to them. You protect them through good and bad, because they’d do the same for you.” Yogi Berra. Of course, Berra also said, “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” (So, he probably would not have been hired on any IT projects!!).

My first thought for a new project manager or a project manager with a new team is, BE PATIENT. It takes time for a team to gel. A project manager should act as a facilitator and coach to get things going in the right direction.

Building a software development or project team from scratch begins with breaking down natural barriers to camaraderie that come from a lack of knowledge.  This is especially true when you use staff from many organizations including external companies.  So, begin building the team by providing an overview of the project goals, the execution time frame and the roles of the players. In the beginning, you will be more directive – then later in the process you will switch to a facilitative role, when the team-based momentum can carry the ball.

Another characteristic of teams is that they have fun when things are not serious. Having fun together builds relationships that support working effectively together (read my post on projects and fun). To the extent possible, add some fun to a regular project meeting and keep a relaxed and open communication style. It is not necessary to go off together to a resort to build a team. However, taking lunch together occasionally or having a treat brought into a meeting helps.

The project manager and coach should reinforce team-like behavior through praise and reward.

  • Do not reinforce behavior that works against the team by picking favorites or reinforcing negative behaviors through your attention.
  • Demonstrate trust by trusting.
  • Celebrate successes, even small ones.
  • Resolve conflicts fairly with a constant eye on the desired result – meeting objectives on time and within budget.

The last thing I will say about building a team culture is that it is easier when you have face-to-face contact on a frequent basis. As the project manager, you will have to be more creative and work harder to build a sense of team when players work remotely.  There are several posts on managing remote and virtual teams as well as tools in this blog if you need to do some reading on the subject.

Guidance on Team Building and Human Resources from PMBOK
The Project Management Book of Knowledge in chapter 9 “Project Human Resource Management” makes it clear that the project manager is responsible for the team, not a team member. It is your job to develop team competencies, facilitate team interaction and create an overall team environment to enhance project performance.

You are responsible for developing training plans for project members to gain competencies needed to execute the project. By the way, attending training together helps build a team. You can schedule team building activities that include informal communication and trust building activities during the first five minutes of regular status meetings.

Remember: You must handle project problems as team issues.

You should reward appropriate behaviors that help the team reach its objectives. Decisions on recognition and rewards should be part of the Human Resources Plan developed before work begins on the project. The PMBOK cautions you to take into consideration both individual preferences and cultural differences in creating a project reward system. Rewards include not only monetary compensation, but (more importantly) also recognition and opportunities to grow and apply skills to meet new challenges. Remember that rewards given during the project are more useful in shaping behavior on the project than rewards given at the project’s end.

If you have had any training in small groups then you understand the formation of teams – the PMBOK describes the process of building a team as:

  • Forming – team meetings to learn project objectives and meet each other
  • Storming – begin project work, develop detailed plans and make technical decisions. With strong personalities and individual competencies in an environment of under-developed trust in one another’s skills this can be a contentious time
  • Norming – work habits and behaviors have adjusted to support the team
  • Performing – the team is well organized and working through issues smoothly and effectively
  • Adjourning – work is completed

So bottom line is that you should think about the human component of a project team when you are the PM and not just leave it up to the organization or HR staff.  If you have had successful in building teams, please share some tips.

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