Increasing Team Effectiveness

My new responsibilities at EMC make me a part of a large transformational project. I have never before had the privilege of building or changing culture.  But my managers have brought me into such a project.  And we are doing it at very large scale.  Thousands and thousands of people.

The first outward signs of the scope of this project came from a blog post by my second-level manager.  If you are not in the industry the import of Chad’s post may be difficult to decipher.  But those of us in technical sales recognize the ambitious nature of this change.  Chad is not just trying to change reporting lines.  He’s trying to change culture.

It is relatively easy to drive behavioral change of an individual.  One can observe it, measure it, direct it, and refine it.  But behavioral change of a large organization requires indirect methods that have more success at scale.  I believe the most effective way to do this is to seed a new culture. Then watch it take root, grow, and move the masses.

Culture defines behaviors and imprints them on new hires.  It molds individuals to a group.  By defining a culture we can change the behavior of many people that we may never meet.

In late May I took I took a personal development course. One instructor, Northeastern University professor, shared a document on group dynamics with me.  His paper, The New Science of Building Great Teams from The Harvard Business Review, discussed behaviors that drove efficiency.  I want to create environments in our team to drive these behaviors.  If I can help create a culture that drives these behaviors, I think EMC will benefit as his test groups did.

The paper often highlighted the value of face-to-face communications.  First, with respect to coffee breaks:

Drawing on that insight, we advised the center’s manager to revise the [call center] employees’ coffee break schedule so that everyone on a team took a break at the same time. That would allow people more time to socialize with their teammates, away from their workstations. Though the suggestion flew in the face of standard efficiency practices, the manager was baffled and desperate, so he tried it. And it worked: [Average Handling Time] fell by more than 20% among lower-performing teams and decreased by 8% overall at the call center.

Then later in the paper:

The most valuable form of communication is face-to-face. The next most valuable is by phone or videoconference, but with a caveat: Those technologies become less effective as more people participate in the call or conference. The least valuable forms of communication are e-mail and texting.

The study measured performance of teams and correlated it to the number of face to face communications.  It concluded, “For example, we now know that 35% of the variation in a team’s performance can be accounted for simply by the number of face-to-face exchanges among team members.”

The article spent some time describing how successful teams communicate.  It identifies communication that is within the team as well as communication between teams, dubbed exploration.  The article notes, “Exploration essentially is the energy between a team and the other teams it interacts with.  The most valuable form of communication is face-to-face. E-mail and texting are the least valuable.  Higher-performing teams seek more outside connections, we’ve found. We’ve also seen that scoring well on exploration is most important for creative teams, such as those responsible for innovation, which need fresh perspectives.”

Discussions, whether they are within a team or between teams, are more successful with certain dynamics.  The researcher observed several key characteristics of successful meetings:

The data also reveal, at a higher level, that suc- cessful teams share several defining characteristics:

  1. Everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet.
  2. Members face one another, and their conversa- tions 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.”

Lastly, the paper concludes that the best teams are not defined by the technical skills of the manager but by his ability to foster these communications.  The author says, “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.”

Let me see what lessons I can glean from this study:

  1. Establish policies, programs, and activities that result in organic, face-to-face communication among teams.
  2. Travel as much as possible.  Prefer to visit my teams whenever time and budget will allow.
  3. Use meetings to create many-to-many discussions, not one-to-many.  Correct over-participation and under-participation.
  4. Hire with a preference towards communication.  This means individuals that communicate openly and listen readily.  Managers that identify, value, and cultivate these skills.


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