Work, Learn, Play

The sum of the parts

In Born To Win, his book about the 1983 America’s Cup race, John Bertrand relates the story of Dennis Conner bragging that Bertrand and his fellow Australians would never beat Conner because Conner had a better boat and a better crew to sail it, a crew 100 percent made up of world-class, individual champions.

Bertrand said he didn’t need a team of individual winners because he had something better — a winning team.

The Australians made a lot of mistakes and suffered some spectacular hardware failures but, in the end, did beat Conner, a four-time America’s Cup winner.

In fact, Bertrand’s win took the cup away from the Americans for the first time in 132 years.

Science is now rallying behind John Bertrand’s view of success. New research from M.I.T. shows that team performance depends not so much on the team’s top performers or even on the team’s average intelligence but rather on group dynamics and emotional sensitivity. One of the key indicators of high performing teams is simply air time. Teams that let members talk tend to outperform and teams that include a high proportion of women tend to outperform too (are we really surprised?). From the Boston Globe article on the research:

Questions about how to make groups better have taken on new urgency as evidence has accrued that teams are usurping the central spot once occupied by solo contributors. A 2007 Science study found that in science and engineering, patents, social sciences, and even to some extent in the arts and humanities, there is a shift at work — new knowledge is increasingly being produced by teams.

So, aside from the obvious response about corporate social networks, what are the implications for learning and development programs? What should L&D professionals be looking at and trying to improve if company success is really more about group performance than up-skilling individuals?

I’m not sure there will be a single set of right answers to the challenge of this new (and fast growing) body of research but useful L&D responses might include: