The right stuff: The dramatic rescue of Apollo 13's astronauts would have been impossible without the coordinated efforts of NASA engineers. Research is revealing why some groups work so well together. Image: NASA
"Houston, we've had a problem," were the famous words that announced a crisis onboard Apollo 13. Halfway through Apollo's mission to the moon, one of the spacecraft's oxygen tanks exploded, putting the lives of the crew in grave jeopardy. A group of engineers from NASA was hastily assembled. Their mission: invent a way for the crew to survive and to pilot their damaged vessel back to Earth. The engineers were successful, transforming a potential disaster into a legend of effective teamwork.
Human history is largely the story of people working together in groups to explore, achieve and conquer—and in our modern world the role of teams is only growing, spurred by globalization and the enabling factor of communications technology. Teams do not always play the role of hero, however. They have also been implicated in many political and military catastrophes, including the U.S. government's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, the failure to prevent the tragedy of 9/11 and the explosion of NASA's space shuttle Columbia.
Given the centrality of work teams, it is more than a bit remarkable how much our society's perspective is focused on the individual. We school our children as individuals. We hire, train and reward employees as individuals. Yet we have great faith that individuals thrown into a team that has been put together with little thought devoted to its composition, training, development and leadership will be effective and successful. Science strongly suggests otherwise.
We recently reviewed the past 50 years of research literature on teams and identified factors that characterize the best collaborations. It turns out that what team members think, feel and do provide strong predictors of team success—and these factors also suggest ways to design, train and lead teams to help them work even better.
Unfortunately, although society places a great value on teamwork, the way organizations make use of teams often runs against known evidence for what works—and even against common sense. For example, it seems obvious that teams need sufficient resources to enable members to accomplish their goals. Still, in this era of downsizing and cutbacks, one has to question the wisdom of many managers who believe that more can always be accomplished with less.
Organizations reward individuals based on individual performance rather than team performance.
Consider, too, that organizations typically reward people with salaries, bonuses and promotions based on individual performance rather than team performance. These rewards can often inhibit team members' willingness to work together and help one another, even when the success of the team depends on it. Such success requires a delicate balance between meeting the goals of the team as well as those of the individuals who populate it. Research on goal setting, cooperation, competition, conflict and negotiation contributes to a better understanding of how people remain in teams and work together.
Indeed, a crucial question that should be asked before putting a team together is whether you need one at all. Some businesses recognize the importance of teams and promptly restructure every task so that it becomes a group responsibility, even when the assignment is something that could be done easily by an individual working independently. The result is a team that is more likely to impede performance than enhance it. Another question is, What type of team structure is required? The task of some teams is such that their employees can function independently for long stretches and occasionally confer and pool their results, as with a team of salespeople working in different geographic regions. Others, such as surgical teams, require a high and constant degree of coordination.
This article was originally published with the title The Science of Team Success.