By Paul Levin, Publisher
On a flight to Colorado last week I had the luxury of several hours to read and found myself with the February 28 copy of The New York Times Magazine, which contained several articles on productivity and the work place. The first of these, Group Study by Charles Duhigg, reported on studies that tried to identify why some teams thrive and others fail. This was of particular interest to me, since construction is all about the project team. An extension of this thought might be if the team fails, so does the project. Or the corollary of this should be that if the project team thrives, the more likely the project will be a success. Let's look at the research and see if there's a lesson in this for the construction industry.
The article is based on research into personal productivity and the dynamics of teams in the workplace. Not just in construction, but in general, the bulk of modern work is more and more team-based. While varying studies seek ways to improve or optimize personal productivity, the consensus of most studies is that people working in teams tend to achieve better results and report higher job satisfaction. Duhigg reports that studies show that groups tend to innovate faster, see mistakes more quickly and find better solutions to problems.
The Google studies
Duhigg relates how Google has spent millions of dollars studying employee behavior, how to build the perfect team and what traits make the best managers. Many executives assume that the best teams mean combining the best people, combining people that are known friends or combining people of like characteristics such as introverts. The Google study, code-named Project Aristotle, set out to study what actually makes a successful team. First, the researches reviewed 50 years of academic studies on how teams worked, including similar interests, hobbies, outside socialization, educational background and the effect of different types of rewards on motivation.
Next, the researchers applied these characteristics to a study of 180 different teams throughout Google. In short, no matter how the data was analyzed, it was almost impossible to find any evidence that composition of the team made any difference! Strong managers or weak managers, socialization outside the group or no socialization, strangers or friends, smart people or not so smart; none of these characteristics correlated to what makes an effective team. Even two teams with identical characteristics might show vastly different levels of effectiveness.
The researchers then turned to studying research by sociologists and psychologists that focused on "group norms." Norms are the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how we interact with each other. According to Duhigg:
“One team may come to a consensus that avoiding disagreement is more valuable than debate; another team might develop a culture that encourages vigorous arguments and spurns groupthink. Norms can be unspoken or openly acknowledged, but their influence is often profound. Team members may behave in certain ways as individuals -- they may chafe against authority or prefer working independently -- but when they gather, the group's norms typically override individual proclivities and encourage deference to the team."
The Google team then set out to identify and study norms. The team studied the dynamics of over 100 groups for more than a year, concluding that understanding and influencing group norms were the keys to improving Google's teams. The next step for the researchers was to find out which norms were most important. Duhigg follows the activities and results of Google's research, which is significantly more than we have room to repeat here. But we will summarize some of the highlights:
- Teams that did well on one assignment usually did well on others, while teams that failed on one seemed to fail at everything.
- What distinguished a "good" team from dysfunctional groups was how the individuals on the team treated each other.
- There were two behaviors that all good teams generally shared:
- Members spoke in roughly the same proportion, known as "equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking"
- Members all had high "average social sensitivity" -- a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.
The bottom line
So bottom line -- successful teams are comprised of members who listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs. In the construction industry, we have worked as teams for centuries. We have several layers of teams, starting with the trade crews in the field. Here, supervision (foremen and superintendents) should be alerted to be aware of these factors when assembling and managing crews. The next level of teams is the project management staff - project managers, engineers, schedulers, purchasing agents and other staff internal to the general contractor or construction manager. Again, we have the company's own employees and that gives the company some degree of influence or control over the composition of the teams and management input to team performance.
Finally, and most challenging, is the overall project team. The project team is comprised of the owner, owner's representative, general contractor, construction manager, subcontractors and suppliers. This comprises a set of diverse and separate companies where assembly of the team is basically beyond anyone's control, but whose collective performance is critical to success of the project. This is why we repeatedly hear the work "collaboration" mentioned in any description of a successful project, and indeed, goes to the heart of "partnering" and other attempts to facilitate a good working relationship among the parties.
The takeaway for this commentary is that executives and managers charged with leading a project need to understand and stay aware of these dynamics when assembling and managing their teams. Beginning with source selection - give points to companies that you have successfully worked with before; and consider requesting commitments to provide the same personnel from previous projects. If formal partnering is not part of the contract, put together your own partnering program and consider engaging a professional partnering consultant to facilitate the effort. Explain to the owner and other team members the benefit of partnering to the successful outcome of the project. Finally, for your existing projects and teams, step back now and then, particularly when things seem to be going in the wrong direction, and give some thought into revitalizing the team dynamics.