What makes a successful team? Is it a strong leader? Smart people? Good processes? Organization? A high-tech and well-designed office space? If you do a quick Google search, you’ll see all of these explanations in one article or another. Luckily, in recent years some innovative social scientists have been crunching massive amounts of data and doing elegant experiments on what makes teams and organizations successful. Their secret? Idea flow.
Idea flow is a term coined by Sandy Pentland, a researcher at MIT’s Media Lab. It refers to the movement of ideas through a group. A team with lots of idea flow is one in which an idea learned by one member quickly makes its way to the rest of the group members. In the best groups, each of the members share ideas with each of the other members, creating a dense and tight web of social interaction. In such a group, each member is able to share their learnings and thoughts with the rest of the group, ensuring that there are few information discrepancies. If a group member discovers a new great way to do something, that knowledge is quickly passed on to the rest of the team. Ideas are contributed by all of the members, as well–allowing the group to take full advantage of the unique specialties and backgrounds of each member. As Pentland says in his book, Social Physics:
[What our data] showed was that the pattern of idea flow by itself was more important to group performance than all other factors, and, in fact, was as important as all other factors taken together…. Individual intelligence, personality, skill, and everything else together mattered less than the pattern of idea flow.
[We] found that three simple patterns accounted for approximately 50 percent of the variation in performance across groups and tasks. The characteristics typical of the highest-performing groups included: 1) a large number of ideas: many very short contributions rather than a few long ones; 2) dense interactions: a continuous, overlapping cycling between making contributions and very short (less than one second) responsive comments (such as “good,” “that’s right,” “what?” etc.) that serve to validate or invalidate the ideas and build consensus; and 3) diversity of ideas: everyone within a group contributing ideas and reactions, with similar levels of turn taking among the participants.
So, what can teams do to maximize idea flow?
Don’t work remotely.
Face-to-face communication is critical. So much of our communication and connection is nonverbal. If you stick to written forms of communication, such as email, you’re going to miss out on much of what is being said. We’ve all gotten an email from a co-worker that we thought sounded rude, or one that was confusing enough to trigger a five email back-and-forth to clarify the plan or issue laid forth. All of this can be avoided by working in the same place and encouraging face-to-face communication as much as possible. Your team will bond more, and you’ll be able to talk about complex issues with much more nuance and sophistication. A remote team is at a huge disadvantage.
Have a spirit of equality.
In the quote above, Pentland points out the importance of having everyone in the group contributing ideas and reactions. If your team is overly hierarchical, with the ideas of certain individuals getting more conversation time and attention than those of others, your group’s collective intelligence will be hampered. Think about it this way: Five heads are better than one (or two). You need to unleash the creativity of your whole group. To do that, you need to have a spirit of equality. The best idea should win, not the most senior team member.
Finally, say yes. Reward your fellow team members for reaching out and sharing new ideas or learnings. Few things are worse than getting a blank stare or a “that’ll never work” after sharing a new idea. There’s a time and place for criticism and editing, but you want to make sure that you create a culture of encouragement and acceptance of new ideas. Be good to each other. Reward each other for communicating and exploring. That’s what teams are all about.