Anca Metiu, Professor of Management at ESSEC Business School and Director of the ESSEC PhD programme, together with Prof. Nancy P. Rothbard of the Wharton School, take an intimate look at how teams reach success to uncover a winning world of task bubbles, artefacts and shared emotions.
Over the years, a lot of research and practice – not to mention trial and error – has been put into explaining how some teams manage to out-perform others. And we think we know how that now happens: a team needs the necessary knowledge and skills to do its job. It needs to have performance strategies that may include incentives or KPIs. And it also needs individual effort and motivation. The standard five-card flush the manager waves includes inspiring people to work harder through a shared vision, effectively coordinating them, providing them specific goals, managing conflict and lastly, monitoring the team’s progress. So with all these cards in hand, why do some teams still do better than others and why, indeed, do some of them actually fail to reach a successful project outcome?
The answer, according to Prof. Anta Metiu of ESSEC Business School, France and fellow researcher Prof. Nancy P. Rothbard of The Wharton School, Penn State University, may have something to do with not so much focusing on a team’s overall assignment but rather the team’s capacity to solve problems related to the task at hand. Put in another way, much less research and practice has focused on what individuals do when they are performing the focal work of the team, and how they develop and sustain the mutual focus of attention required for making collective progress on the task itself. Moreover, team performance has tended to be studied on a macro level, whereas many key determinants exist at a micro level. This means that you have to get intimate to really understand what makes a team reach excellence. And this is what Profs. Metiu and Rothbard did through their research – with startling results.
Not altogether ship-shape
When managers begin to dwell on how to successfully carry out a project, they tend to make two assumptions: first that the team members are mutually focused on the task at hand and secondly, that the team will remain unchanged from the beginning to the end of the project. Both can be wildly off-target. Not every team member is necessarily a fanatical out-performer working for the glory of the team and organisation. And caught in today’s sea of changing currents and sudden storms, most teams see members either jumping overboard, being press-ganged into other more urgent projects, or shipped – as is the case when projects rely in part on external providers – to other clients during the voyage. Anca Metiu’s research decided to do things differently and follow two separate teams working on different, though similar, software projects in a US Fortune 500 company – and with all the uncertainty of a real-life working situation. They also aimed to understand how the team members in each team developed and sustained mutually focused attention over time and in a complex context, hoping that their exploration would identify key elements leading to a better comprehension of what made the different in the success, or failure, of a team project. In order to do this, they looked at how people get work done by interacting with one another in temporary sub-groups that rapidly emerge and re-form according to the specific task at hand – the sudden change in client specs, the technical glitch, the shortened deadline, the added product functionality, to name but a few.
When everyone’s attention in the team is focused it leads to problem-solving in everyday team interactions. But how do you study its development? Prof. Metiu points to former research on interaction between individuals suggesting that successful human interaction is characterized by shared emotion, shared focus of attention, bodily presence and proximity, and the building of certain barriers to others outside the group who could potentially weaken this attention and emotion. When these factors exist, collective effervescence is triggered that in turn enhances individual emotional energy – think of all those Hollywood movies when the spaceship goes out of control and heads towards collision with an asteroid. The ground control team gathers round the computer screen to brainstorm a computer code, beads of sweat are mopped from brows, urgent glances are exchanged, a 5-star bigwig who tries to barge in with a deadly decision is physically barred from the team’s rescue attempt, and the code finally entered. A couple of elastic seconds pass by and then, at the last moment, the spaceship swerves away from the asteroid to safety producing shouts of victory, mutual back-slapping and a final close-up on the eyes of a team member transfixed by an inner sense of having done his/her duty. This sort of collective scene of victory may indeed be an occurrence in the corporations dotting the outskirts of our cities. How does it happen? And what are the ingredients to its success?
Flies on the wall
To measure this, Profs. Metiu and Rothbard used two distinct software teams (code-named Shield and Gateway) in action within a company and observed the developers’ interaction over a period of several months during project roll out. Interviews were also carried out, data gathered and numbers crunched. Shield worked on a new suite of software components destined to track and protect digital property rights over the internet. The Gateway project team worked on a new application enabling fast and high-quality delivery of rich content and documents on mobile devices. Although different projects, both teams shared several similarities, notably the fact that they worked within the same company, had large autonomy and that the vast majority of the work depended on the rapid accomplishment of interdependent tasks. There were, however, also differences: the Shield team used Indian contractors based in Bangalore, the Gateway team using local contractors tacked on to their team composed of full-time company employees. Another key difference lay in the two teams’ working approach: whereas with Shield, there were frequent sub-groups of developers working intensely together at the whiteboard, Gateway’s preference was for less frequent, more formal project meetings involving the whole team. Lastly, but not of least importance, was the degree of belief in the project, the Shield team seeing their project as exciting, challenging and meaningful and Gateway’s, in contrast, characterized by a general sense that there was no compelling direction for their project. This pre-requisite need for an overriding sense of vision and meaning cannot be under-estimated, even at micro-behavioural level. As time went by, Profs. Metiu and Rothbard observed that the group interactions in which team members developed high levels of mutual focus of attention were characterised by three factors: task bubbles, use of task-related artefacts, and shared emotion.
Go to Part 2 of the article.
- Link up with Prof. Anca Metiu via LinkedIn
- Visit the ESSEC PhD page
- View Anca Metiu’s video How to Manage a Virtual Team
- Visit the new Council on Business & Society website
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