In the final days of Steve Jobs’ life, his biographer, Walter Isaacson seemingly visited him and asked what product he was most proud of. ‘Was it the early Mac?’ enquired Isaacson, ‘or perhaps the iPod, iPad or iPhone?’

If you don’t already know then Jobs’ reply may surprise you.

He said that he was ‘most proud of his team – The Apple Team – that had created award-winning products time and again.’

If Jobs was most proud of his team, what was his secret? How did he build the team that built those daringly disruptive products? To gain further insight of his approach it’s also worth looking at the success of Pixar Animations which produced a string of hits from Toy Story 1, 2 & 3 to Monsters Inc. and The Incredibles. When Jobs became a major shareholder in Pixar he built an atrium – a communal space where people could meet, talk to one another, collaborate and create; where the goal was to produce their best work regardless of whose toes (including their own) were stepped on. For example, they knew that by introducing the iPhone, they would disrupt their own iPod. Ironic in some respects that the man who brought us the iPhone also knew that face-to-face communication is the key to building a high performing team.

According to research by the Harvard Business Review the average team achieves only 63% of its strategic plans and high performing teams seldom, if ever, evolve randomly. Much has been written on high performing teams but in recent times perhaps MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has provided the most insightful research on the team dynamics necessary to create dramatic leaps in performance.

Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland leads MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and is a founding member of advisory boards for Google, AT&T, Nissan, and the UN Secretary General. He’s also cited as one of the most powerful data and computational scientists in the world. So, what did Sandy and his (presumably high performing team!) find or -perhaps confirm- what we’ve probably always inherently known?

The Human Dynamics Lab set out to find the elusive group qualities that characterise high performing teams. They observed, measured and quantified those teams that demonstrated drive, imagination and alignment to a common purpose. The Lab’s modus operandi was an electronic badge called a ‘sociometer’ that they basically pinned to people’s lapels – a wearable gizmo that recorded extraordinary amounts of data relative to face-to-face contact; what were team members’ physical proximity to one another when conversing; what was their tone of voice; their body language; how was the airtime split between them; were they introvert or extrovert in their communication style and what was their level of emotional intelligence?

Even before they studied the data, MIT had a sense of whether a team might be exceptional or not simply by its ‘buzz’ or ‘esprit de corps’. The Lab didn’t need to understand what was being said because the style of communication said it all. Unsurprisingly then, it’s not what we say, but the way we say it, that matters. Sandy and his colleagues found that communication patterns are critical to a team’s success and that communication style not only trumps any other individual factor but trumps all other factors combined, including intelligence, personality type and even the topic being discussed.

They then sub-divided communication into Three E’s: Energy, Engagement and Exploration. In other words, how much energy was each member contributing; how often did they engage with one another and to what extent did the team communicate and collaborate with other teams? And if you’re reading this thinking that nobody ever engages with you, it might be because you aren’t engaging with them; time for a look in the mirror perhaps?

Allied to communication, further research from Harvard reveals that high performing teams tend to celebrate their success and show appreciation for one another’s skills as well as share and resolve emotional issues that might hinder success. The converse is of course true: teams who focus solely on process and forget about people ultimately falter or fail.

The MIT Lab tracked sales teams who failed largely because of their lack of face-to-face communication coupled with an over-reliance on email, especially at the beginning of projects; people got together too late. What these sales teams should have done was create bonds sooner, both internally with each other and by extension, externally with their clients.

In summary, MIT’s formula for high performing teams includes the following features:

  • conversations are largely in person
  • team members both talk and listen. No one hijacks the airtime. Discussions are dynamic
  • members communicate 1:1 with each other, not just through their team leader
  • side conversations are continued out-with structured team meetings
  • external input and perspectives are occasionally sought by members to inform and enlighten their team
  • positive communication patterns are more important than individual talent or contribution

And the ‘Ideal Team Player’, ‘Connecter’ or Leader’ generally:

  • circulates regularly
  • engages in short, dynamic conversations
  • communicates with everyone equally
  • doesn’t need to be an extrovert but does feel comfortable initiating conversations with others
  • listens intently – more than talks
  • focuses their complete attention on whoever is talking

And logic dictates that the more people on a team with these latter qualities, the greater likelihood of a team’s success.

Interestingly MIT’s formula for high performance matches Steve Jobs’ innate approach – that the most valuable form of communication is face-to-face followed by video and telephone – with email at the bottom of the list. Brad Bird, one of Pixar’s top directors said, “Steve Jobs realised that when people are brought together, they make things happen.” Jobs most certainly harnessed the power of high interaction; people checking in with one another to create powerful conversations. He knew that creativity comes from spur-of-the-moment meetings, ad hoc conversations on the telephone, Skype or Facetime if not in person. Jobs held that there is a “temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email or ichat.” He knew of course that when we type less and talk more to colleagues, we instil the essence of teamwork. Someone once said that there is no ‘i’ in Team but it might be fair to say that the product Steve Jobs was most proud of was his ‘iTeam’.

Author: Thomas Chalmers

Share Online