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How Teams Work Together November 11, 2008

Posted by keithsawyer in New research.
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I’ve just read a wonderful research article called “Team implicit coordination processes”.*  Most studies of how team coordinate have focused on planning and communication; these are both explicit coordination, meanint that everyone is consciously aware of what they’re doing, they’re trying to do it, and they’re talking about it.  The authors of this article claim that explicit coordination only explains relatively static teams, when the situation isn’t changing very rapidly.  Implicit coordination happens “when team members anticipate the actions and needs of their colleagues…and dynamically adjust their own behavior accordingly, without having to communicate directly with each other or plan the activity” (p. 164).

That’s exactly what goes on in a jazz ensemble or an improv theater group, the super-creative groups that I’ve spent years studying (see my book GROUP GENIUS).  Teams have to implicitly coordinate to handle rapidly changing environments when their tasks are highly interdependent; teams that are implicitly coordinating talk a lot less about what they’re doing and what they should do next.  (This reminded me of a conversation I had at Harvard recently with Professor Rob Huckman, who has studied surgical teams.  Surgeons say that in the best teams, no one is talking…that’s implicit coordination!)

Teams that have this down do four things: (1) each member provides task-relevant information even before they are asked for it; (2) team members share the workload without being asked; (3) everyone is monitoring the progress of the activity and the performance of their teammates; and (4) each person adapts behavior to what they expect the others will do.

The authors argue that implicit coordination can only work if the group creates an “emergent team-level knowledge structure” that they call a team situation model.  The model includes shared knowledge like the team’s goal and the roles of each participant.  Because of my own studies of social emergence, I agree when the authors claim that the situation model is “an emergent group property characterizing the team as a whole” (see my 2005 book SOCIAL EMERGENCE for more details).

*Ramon Rico, Miriam Sanchez-Manzanares, Francisco Gil, and Cristina Gibson.  2008.  “Team implicit coordination processes: A team knowledge-based approach.”  Academy of Management Review, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 163-184.

The Lone Genius Loses to the Team October 15, 2007

Posted by keithsawyer in Creative performance, Genius Groups.
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What’s your visual image of a brilliant scientist? A nerdy man in a lab coat, working late in some basement laboratory with beakers and test tubes? Someone typing at a computer in their office? Well, clear your mind of that image, because science today is all about collaboration and teamwork. This is the message of a truly impressive study published in SCIENCE magazine 18 May 2007. Three professors at Northwestern University, Stefan Wuchty, Benjamin F. Jones, and Brian Uzzi, analyzed huge databases–of 19.9 million scientific papers over 50 years, and 2.1 million patents–and found that collaboration is rapidly becoming the norm in science and in invention.

They focused on a few key numbers. First, the databases allowed them to determine which papers, and which patents, had one author, two authors, or more. Two or more authors means that the creation was collaboratively generated. In science, the average team size (number of co-authors) doubled over 45 years–from 1.9 to 3.5 authors per paper. Of course, science has become a lot more complex, and requires a lot more funding, and that might account for the larger team size. But the databases also had data about the social sciences and the arts and humanities; social science research hasn’t increased in scale and cost the same way particle physics and medicine have. And surprisingly, even in the social sciences, collaboration has become a lot more important. In 1955, only 17.5% of social science papers had two or more authors; in 2000, 51.5% of those papers did. And although papers in the arts and humanities still are mostly sole authored (over 90%), the trend over the last 50 years has also been toward more collaboration.

But what about quality and creativity? Can we find out if the collaboratively generated papers are any better? Fortunately, the databases allowed the researchers to determine the impact and influence of each paper, and of each patent, because those databases keep track of how many times the paper or patent was cited by a later publication. More citations means a more influential paper; and more citations have been shown to correlate with research quality. And guess what: over the 50 year period studied, teams generated more highly cited work in every research area, and in every time period. The implication is that teams generate better scientific research than solitary individuals.

One final interesting finding is that the creative advantage for teams has increased over the last 50 years. Although teams generated more highly cited work back in 1955, by 2000 the advantage of teams over sole individuals had become even greater. In 1955, team-authored papers received 1.7 times as many citations as sole authored papers; in 2000, they received 2.1 times as many.

In a later issue of SCIENCE magazine (14 September 2007) several letters challenging this research were published; the authors convincingly responded, by providing additional data. There’s no question that teams do better science than solitary individuals, and that the trend is working in teams’ favor.

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