Building Great Teams
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Building Great Teams

Assembling and managing successful teams is a core leadership skill, whether you are convening a temporary task force, managing a full department, or running a school fundraiser.

But how well do you understand what makes a great team?

If you think it’s simply assembling a group of highly talented people and letting them do their thing, then you’re in good company. Research shows that’s what people tend to believe. But, unfortunately, you’d also be wrong.

Teams are more than the sum of their parts. In fact, sometimes having lots of top talent on a team actually hurts performance. We’ll get back to that in a minute.

First, let’s look at why it’s become increasingly important to know how to lead, and be part of, teams.

Teams are more important than they used to be because there’s so much more to know in a given field.

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You’ve likely been taught the importance of teamwork since you were in kindergarten. Today, those lessons are more important than ever, as teams have become a mainstay in organizations.

The world of scientific research offers a telling example: a study of 19.9 million scientific papers and 2.1 million patents generated over 5 decades shows that teams are increasingly producing more work than individuals are. And, those teams are getting bigger over time.

Teams also generally produce research and patents that are more frequently cited—a measure of the paper’s or patent’s impact within its field—than research by individuals. That trend has also increased over time. (Wuchty, Jones, and Uzzi, Science, 2007.)

Here’s one way to explain the trend toward teams: As technology advances, the quantity of knowledge in the world grows. With more and more to know, it becomes harder and harder for any one person to have a deep general knowledge in a field. Instead, people are joining forces to combine their specific knowledge and cover more of a field. Another study on 2.9 million patents issued from 1963 to 1999 shows that team-size increases are bigger in fields with a larger “depth of knowledge,” such as biotech. (Jones, Review of Economic Studies, 2009.)

Teams have their own level of intelligence, which is separate from the combined intelligence of their team members.

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A well-assembled team can be more than the sum of its parts. Research shows that teams have their own level of intelligence, dubbed “collective intelligence,” which is a measure of the group’s ability to perform a wide variety of tasks. And, importantly, having a lot of individually intelligent team members does not mean the team will have a high collective intelligence.

Lab experiments in one study had teams spend several hours on a variety of exercises, from brainstorming to solving visual puzzles. The results point to three ways to increase a team’s collective intelligence:

  1. Have more members who are socially sensitive, meaning they’re perceptive of their teammates’ views and feelings.
  2. Have more women on the team (in large part because women tend to be more socially perceptive).
  3. Make sure team members take turns talking instead of being dominated by just a few voices.

(Woolley, Chabris, Pentland, Hashmi, and Malone, Science, 2010.)

Sometimes building a group with lots of really talented people actually hurts a team’s performance.

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Packing your team with top talent boosts success—but only up to a point. Research from the world of professional athletes shows that in sports that require a lot of interdependence, there’s a point at which lots of talent starts hurting performance.

This happens because top talents don’t always coordinate effectively, perhaps because superstars are angling to be top dog instead of focusing on winning. (The researchers note similar findings in the animal kingdom, citing a study of chickens. Having too many high-producing egg layers in a colony reduces overall egg production “as a result of intense conflicts.”)

The human-based study found that professional soccer and basketball teams suffer the diminishing returns of top talent, but Major League Baseball teams do not, likely because the nature of baseball means players can coordinate less and still win games. (Swaab, Schaerer, Anicich, Ronay, and Galinsky, Psychological Science. 2014.)

Another reason not to focus solely on the best of the best: you want diverse thinkers

Diversity is often an asset for teams, but can also lead to common pitfalls. So be thoughtful and deliberate in how you lead diverse teams.

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As the importance of teams has grown, so has the diversity of the American workforce. Yet, there’s no simple prescription for how to effectively lead diverse teams. Sorry, even researchers disagree on the nitty-gritty pros and cons.

However, research does point to a benefit in having a diversity of thinking on teams that tackle complex tasks. Meaning, teams of people who approach problems differently (often, but certainly not always, as a result of gender, cultural, or educational diversity) are usually better at solving those problems.

But that diversity brings a set of potential pitfalls as well. Scholars generally agree that these include the following:

  1. Team members may splinter into subgroups of similar people.
  2. These teams can have higher turnover.
  3. Teams tend to lose their diversity over time as members start thinking similarly.

But researchers have also identified ways to prevent these pitfalls. Here are some tips for leading diverse teams in ways that boost their performance.

Make sure your team understands the value of diversity
Make sure teammates really “get” one another
Double up on diverse teammates

Don’t always opt for a generalist. Sometimes you need a specialist.

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The allure of recruiting a jack- or jill-of-all-trades is strong. So strong, it seems, that managers are biased against recruiting and rewarding specialists—even when a specialist is exactly what their organization needs.

This was the finding in a set of experiments, where participants were tasked with assembling a fictional team. They were more likely to favor generalists, even when a specialist would have a bigger impact. Why? We have a natural tendency to compare people against one another, the researchers say. And when you compare specialists who excel in a single area to generalists who are high-achieving in multiple areas, those specialists don’t look as impressive.

The lesson: evaluate job candidates on their own merits, as opposed to in contrast to another candidate, when you know a specialist is what your team needs. (Wang and Murnighan, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2013.)

Talk through how to incorporate your specialists onto the team

Team members’ history together, especially if it’s been successful, can help a lot.

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There’s a euphoria to being part of a winning team, whether you claimed the championship title or nailed the product launch. And, research shows, winning together also predicts future success—over and above simply having highly skilled people on your team.

In looking at four professional sports leagues and a multiplayer online game, researchers found that the level of talent helped to predict whether a team would win. But taking into account a history of shared successes also helped predict wins—above and beyond the effect of talent. (Mukherjee, Huang, Neidhardt, Uzzi, and Contractor, Nature Human Behaviour, 2018.)

Having a history of collaboration matters for scientific teams, too. A different study looked at researchers in cell biology and physics and found that some groups of scientists had collaborated frequently enough to be dubbed “super ties.” Those super ties were a significant boon to a scientist’s career, leading to more published papers and a higher rate of citations on those papers, which is an indicator that the papers were considered higher impact. (Petersen, PNAS, 2015.)

Don’t get too insular. Make sure you bring in new people and ideas.
This extends to financial services, too ...
As well as to scientific ideas.

How big of a team should you convene? It depends on what your ultimate goal is.

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How big of a team should you assemble? It depends whether you are trying to advance the field by building off prior discoveries—in which case a large team is best—or whether you're trying to disrupt your field by going in a totally new direction—in which case you might want a small, nimble team.

That’s the finding from an analysis of 65 million scientific papers, patents, and software products from 1954 to 2014. This may be because large teams need to secure significant and ongoing funding, so they are less likely to pursue something risky and novel—whereas smaller teams or solo authors are able to take more risk, as they have less to lose. (Wu, Wang, and Evans, Nature, 2019.)

It also depends on how easily you can delegate tasks.
Takeaways
Credits
Writer

Emily Stone

Editors

Jessica Love

Jake Smith

Illustrations

Michael Meier

Charts and Graphs

Aaron Geller

Special Thanks to

Dashun Wang

Zach Wise

Design

Grip

Sources

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Jones, F. Benjamin. 2009. “The Burden of Knowledge and the ‘Death of the Renaissance Man’: Is Innovation Getting Harder?” Review of Economic Studies. 76(1): 283–317.

Woolley, Anita W., Christopher F. Chabris, Alex Pentland, Nada Hashmi, and Thomas W. Malone. 2010. “Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups.” Science. 330(6004): 686–688.

Woolley, Anita. W., Ishani Aggarwal, and Thomas W. Malone. 2015. “Collective Intelligence and Group Performance.” Current Directions in Psychological Science. 24(6): 420–424.

Swaab, Roderick. I., Michael Schaerer, Eric M. Anicich, Richard Ronay, and Adam D. Galinsky. 2014. “The Too-Much-Talent Effect: Team Interdependence Determines When More Talent Is Too Much or Not Enough.” Psychological Science. 25(8): 1581–1591.

Hong, Lu, and Scott E. Page. 2004. “Groups of Diverse Problem Solvers Can Outperform Groups of High-Ability Problem Solvers.” PNAS. 101(46): 16385–16389.

Homan, Astrid C., Daan van Knippenberg, Gerben A. Van Kleef, and Carsten K.W. De Dreu. 2007. “Bridging Faultlines by Valuing Diversity: Diversity Beliefs, Information Elaboration, and Performance in Diverse Work Groups.” Journal of Applied Psychology.92(5): 1189–1199.

Polzer, Jeffrey T., Laurie P. Milton, and William B. Swann Jr. 2002. “Capitalizing on Diversity: Interpersonal Congruence in Small Work Groups.” Administrative Science Quarterly. 47(2): 296–324.

Smith, Edward (Ned), and Yuan Hou. 2015. “Redundant Heterogeneity and Group Performance.” Organization Science. 26(1): 37–51.

Wang, Long, and J. Keith Murnighan. 2013. “The Generalist Bias.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 120(1): 47–61.

Woolley, Anita W., Margaret E. Gerbasi, Christopher F. Chabris, Stephen M. Kosslyn, and J. Richard Hackman. 2008. “Bringing in the Experts: How Team Composition and Collaborative Planning Jointly Shape Analytic Effectiveness.” Small Group Research. 39(3): 352–371.

Mukherjee, Satyam, Yun Huang, Julia Neidhardt, Brian Uzzi and Noshir Contractor. 2018. “Prior Shared Success Predicts Victory in Team Competitions.” Nature Human Behaviour. 3: 74–81.

Petersen, Alexander Michael. 2015. “Quantifying the Impact of Weak, Strong, and Super Ties in Scientific Careers.” PNAS. 112(34): E4671–E4680.

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Choi, Hoon-Seok, and Leigh Thompson. 2005. “Old Wine in a New Bottle: Impact of Membership Change on Group Creativity.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 98(2): 121-132.

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Wu, Lingfei, Dashun Wang, and James A. Evans. 2019. "Large Teams Develop and Small Teams Disrupt Science and Technology." Nature. 566(7742): 378–382.

Garicano, Luis, and Thomas N. Hubbard. 2018. "Earnings Inequality and Coordination Costs: Evidence from U.S. Law Firms." Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization. 34.