Why Some Teams Outsmart Others: 5 Research Backed Insights


What makes some teams higher performers than others? Is it about the manager? Is it about the strength of individual players? We didn’t have access to Jose Murinho at time of writing, but we did research some of the latest thinking on what makes teams smart. Here are 5 research backed insights into what can make the difference for smart teams.

1. Everyone’s seeking, sensing and sharing information

Very few teams can achieve their goals by being completely inwardly focused. Success depends on scanning the world for signals that could give it a fresh insight or competitive advantage.

Harvard Business Review, in its study on the science of high performing teams found that high performing teams periodically go off to gather new information, then bring it back to the team for consideration. Behavioural Psychologist Jens Krause calls this “Swarm Intelligence”: It requires people to gather information independently, process and combine it in social interactions, and use it to solve cognitive 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.”

A key indicator of high performing teams is how well they seek, sense and share new information, to use Harold Jarche’s 3 step model.

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2. The team has ‘Charismatic Connectors’

Even in the swarm, there’s often a queen bee or two (except these ones regularly leave the hive). Harvard’s research into high performing teams shows that they usually have individuals who are naturally better at doing initial seeking and bringing information back to the team. Their research tracked people’s physical movements as an indicator of team performance, physically examining how they connected. They found that high performing teams had a larger number of these connectors, who ‘circulate actively, engaging people in short, high-energy conversations’. They are very good at “focused listening”, taking in key information. They are also very good at connecting teammates with each other and spreading ideas from outside within the team.

Think about your teams – you probably know instinctively who they are. HBR’s research also showed that they may not be the functional leaders of the team.

3. There’s no dominant view

What happens when the swarm and the connectors bring back insights? Do they live or die based on what the manager thinks? Pressure to conform with a dominant view can be be a smart team killer. In his study on conformity, Psychologist Solomon Asch found that even when someone in a team has a new or better insight than the rest of the team, pressure of conformity can cause them to just go along with the dominant view, even if it’s wrong. So you need to create an environment where all views are accepted.

Research by M.I.T published in the journal Science grouped together 697 participants into teams of 2-5 and set them various tasks. The research showed that in those teams where the everyone’s opinions were sought and valued, those teams outperformed others were there was a dominant opinion.

Harvard Business Review identified that the most productive teams were ones in which everybody talks and listens, and everyone has a relatively equal share of the conversation.

Google has embedded this principle in how it forms teams. Analysing the performance of its own teams, it found that ‘Psychological Safety’, the freedom for all team members to share their views and take risks, was the key determinant of success, more important than the skills or experience of any individual team members.

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4. Teams draw from diverse sources

Sandy Pentland’s MIT research into the Echo Chamber effect, which we look at more closely here, uses day trader results to show the value of having diverse sources of information and influence, and the risk of staying in an echo chamber of the same information sources and experts, which leads to groupthink, as the same ideas get repeatedly amplified within the group.

This effect can be compounded if there’s a dominant view – so avoiding an echo chamber and a leader who reinforces it, is vital for high performing teams. Harvard’s research shows that high performing teams have multiple one to one discussions, which further removes risk group think seeping in.

Our Anders Pink app is designed to keep teams briefed on content from right across the web to provide diversity of content. For example, here is a briefing on remote working tips.

5. Team members can read each other well – in any channel

The fifth factor in high performing teams is how well the individuals can connect and read each other. Call this emotional intelligence, or chemistry – MIT’s research showed that the members of high performing teams scored higher on a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes, which measured how well people can read complex emotional states from images of faces with only the eyes visible. Does this mean that smart, high performing teams spend more time physically looking into the whites of each other’s eyes? MIT did a subsequent research project comparing the performance of teams who worked on projects in close physical proximity to those using online channels. They found that smart teams do equally well in both conditions. The ability to stay on top of what others are sensing, sharing and feeling is just as important in online channels.

They also found that women are better in general at this test. So high performing, smarter teams, generally have more women in them. Not just more diversity – more women. Smarter teams also reflect more actively on what they’ve learned and what’s working, and active reflection has been shown to drive up performance by 15%.

So as you look at your team performance, ask yourself

  • Are we all seeking new information sources, then sensing and sharing
  • Are we identifying our best connectors, and giving them tools and time to find new sources
  • Are we giving everyone equal space to share their views freely
  • Are we taking in diverse outside sources and avoiding groupthink
  • Are we reading each other well and actively reflecting?

If this is something you are working on do try the Anders Pink app which allows team members to share daily briefings, to highlight, save and comment on articles.