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Best Predictor of Team Success: Water-Cooler Talk

It turns out side conversations are actually a good thing. And the more communicating your team does outside of formal meetings, the more productive it's likely to be.

You already know that communication is crucial to team success. But did you know that it’s more important than individual skill, intelligence, or personality? So says Alex Pentland, professor at MIT and chairman of Sociometric Solutions, in the Harvard Business Review.

Sociometric Solutions analyzes communication with “social-sensing technology.” Its electronic badges gather data about your characteristics and behaviors, such as tone of voice, body language, to whom you speak, how long you talk, how often you interrupt, and how frequently you empathize.

So, when Pentland asserts that communication is more crucial than talent, he’s not just reiterating a managerial bromide — he’s bringing “sociometric” data to bear. What’s more, he’s upping the specificity quotient. “When my fellow researchers… and I analyzed the data collected, we found that the best predictors of productivity were a team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings,” Pentland states in HBR (emphasis ours). In a blog post on the magazine’s website, he adds, “The best teams spend about half their time communicating outside of formal meetings or as asides during team meetings.”

Pentland’s team tested these findings at, of all places, a bank’s call center, where the manager revised coffee break schedules “so that everyone on a team took a break at the same time.” Although that runs counter to standard efficiency practices, AHT — average handling time, the gold standard of call-center efficiency — improved so much that the manager is changing the break schedule at all 10 call centers (which employ a total of 25,000 people) and is forecasting $15 million a year in productivity increases. Employee satisfaction is also up.

Their data reveal five traits of successful teams:

1. Members talk and listen in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet.

2. Members face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.

3. Members connect directly with one another — not just with the team leader.

4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.

5. Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back.

The bottom line: “Individual reasoning and talent contribute far less to team success than one might expect,” he summarizes. “The best way to build a great team is not to select individuals for their smarts or accomplishments but to learn how they communicate and to shape and guide the team so that it follows successful communication patterns.”



The power of informal communication has informed the architecture of work spaces for quite some time. For example, when architect Frank O. Gehry built the $300 million Stata Center at MIT in 2004, he was charged with the task of fostering communication among “seven separate departments that never talk to each other.” But Gehry managed to surmount the problem in innovative ways, as Robert Campbell explains in a 2007 article for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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