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Discover the Four Secrets of Smart Teams

Bob Little 

September 15, 2017

Common sense points us toward the idea that, “No one is as smart as everyone.” Now there could be hard evidence to back up that instinct.

Research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology appears to confirm what we’ve long suspected: smart teams perform better than teams of bright individuals. MIT found that collective intelligence is a good indicator of potential team performance. And it’s a far better pointer of success than any one individual’s performance.

Smart teams are crucial to the success of any organization, according to digital learning strategist Tim Drewitt. He said, “We still gravitate to working in silos and it’s a constant struggle to break down those barriers. A smart team – with the widest possible outlook – will find it more difficult to isolate themselves from the rest of the business.”

What does it mean to be a “smart team?” According to Steve Rayson, of content marketing group Anders Pink, smart teams have four key attributes: social sharing, diversity, perception, and sensitivity; as well as team discussion and collective understanding.

1. Smart Teams and Social Sharing

The most effective teams leverage their collective intelligence through actively sharing knowledge.

“As an individual, trying to stay updated is hard,” says Rayson. “There’s so much content available in the world – and it’s growing, minute-by-minute. However, a team can leverage its members to scan and research the environment and share relevant information.”

Canadian designer and online learning a commentator Stephen Downes prefers the concept of “connective intelligence” to “collective intelligence,” because he feels that individuals must be encouraged to seek out and share information.

Harold Jarche, a Canada-based writer, has produced a seek, sense and share model for personal mastery, which applies equally to teams.

In Jarche’s model, members seek knowledge and information – reinforcing Downes’s point about empowerment. These team members then validate, synthesize and share team-relevant information. Sharing and commenting can provoke a team discussion and improve collective understanding.

“Curation’s a quick way to make a smart team smarter, by ensuring that new wisdom and insights are shared with a wider audience,” says Drewitt. “But it must be appropriate curation – and the curator needs to do some work before sharing to add context.

“This process also encourages each individual to get to know their colleagues better, to ensure they make more informed decisions about what to curate. Team members should also provide feedback on what’s being shared, so curators learn what adds the most value and what doesn’t. Without these insights, what we curate might merely increase the information overload that plagues today’s workplace.”

2. Team Discussion and Collective Understanding

It can be difficult to make sense of our environment by ourselves – and merely sharing information with others isn’t enough. Team discussion enables individuals to share views, ideas and attitudes to produce a collective understanding. This cognitive process can’t be easily replicated by an individual or individuals working on their own.

Team discussion doesn’t equate to sitting in team meetings. It can mean contributing to an online discussion where participants add viewpoints and information. The key is to explore an issue collectively.

Behavioural psychologist Jens Krause calls it “swarm intelligence” – when people gather information independently, process and then combine it in social interactions to solve problems. Krause’s research shows that, in swarm intelligence, because people act collectively, “they can consider more factors, come up with more solutions, and make better decisions.”

3. Diversity in Smart Teams

“Collective team discussions are improved by diversity,” says Rayson. “This diversity can be more significant than the intelligence of individual team members.”

Thomas Malone, of MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence, says: “Group intelligence isn’t strongly tied to either the average intelligence of the members or the team’s smartest member.”

Malone found that the diversity of a team is a better indicator of its collective intelligence than its IQs. This also appears to be true in broader social networks. Malone reveals that a team’s collective intelligence increased if the team included more women. However, this wasn’t the case if the team comprised women only.

4. Social Perception and Sensitivity

Studies show that women tend to score higher on social sensitivity. MIT’s research has found that it’s important to have people who are socially sensitive on a team – regardless of gender.

MIT also highlighted the importance of egalitarian norms in a team. Collective intelligence linked to teams with higher average social sensitivity and an equal distribution of conversational turn-taking.

Drewitt says, “I’ve worked in high-performing teams where everyone knew the value of social sharing, team discussion and collective understanding. It’s only when the individuals on these high-performing teams truly understood what each of their fellow team members was working on, that the value of sharing and the importance of the appropriate relevance of what was being shared and discussed proved of real value.

“Ultimately, the only true measurement is whether the team achieves its stated goals and meets, or exceeds, expectations. Looking at how much faster or more efficiently the achievements were realized would indicate smart team behaviors, as would extracting any lessons learned during a project debrief that could be shared more widely.

He added, “There also needs to be recognition for good smart team behaviors. Such behaviors should appear in skills and competency frameworks, and be examined as part of performance reviews.”

So how smart is your team?

Five Questions for Smart Teams

A good starting point is to reflect on five questions:

  • How regularly does your team scan the outside world for new information and insights?
  • How much social sharing takes place in your team?
  • Are there team discussions to build collective understanding?
  • How diverse is your team?
  • How socially sensitive is your team?

Answering these questions can help you to ensure that you are tapping into the benefits of collective intelligence, and that you have a smart team.

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