Back in our days as MBA candidates, few announcements made our classmates grimace like that of the dreaded team project. How would we complete the assignment? How would we keep each other accountable? And who would get rewarded – or not – based on the team’s results?

Little did we know these team-focused projects were practically the ideal preparation for the business world.

Past research pointed to the collective intelligence of groups, but newer research shows that small, agile “swarms” of groups where carefully selected members work in synchrony are more effective at completing work than arbitrarily created crowds of individuals. Swarms can have a high degree of empowerment, expertise and rapid information exchange – and can move briskly through a cycle of coming together, tackling projects, disbanding and then moving on to new assignments. This method of operating matters, because it can help organizations more quickly react to customer and market shifts.


If you think you’re immune to this trend, think again. One study showed that 84 percent of U.S. employees are “matrixed” to some extent today – that is, they work on multiple teams every day.

This is where it’s helpful to use a data-driven approach to understanding different work styles. By having a common language about preferences, a new team can rapidly surface its work styles and strengths, bolster awareness, and even up its “conflict competence” down the road.

Consider adding the following tenets to your team playbook to boost breakthrough results:

1. Encourage Shared Airtime: Research has shown that teams are more effective when members share airtime and make equal contributions to discussions. For example, some employees have more exuberance and energy, making it easy for them to talk the most in a meeting, a dynamic that organizations can teach teams to self-regulate. Team members could encourage someone else to speak after another employee makes his or her point, or even consider “going down the line” so that every person reacts, for example, to the proposed plan.

2. Avoid Collabotage: Rather than enforcing collaboration as the sole method for teamwork, encourage a team design that allows people to go off on their own as well as come together. For example, you might consider changing how a team brainstorms. Research shows brainstorming in groups is less effective for developing high-quality ideas than asking people to generate initial ideas alone and then bringing them together for consideration, refinement and expansion. So while some types, like those who excel at building relationship, may enjoy face-to-face opportunities to deepen bonds, individual brainstorming may engage more introverted types.

3. Teach Perpetual Question-Asking: What if something as simple as asking questions better unlocks a team’s talent? Harvard professor Amy Edmondson encourages teammates to be perpetual question-askers. By demonstrating to the team that there are explanations still to be found, a team is more likely to increase participation. Team members could be taught to ask questions like “What kind of leg up would it give us if we could answer X?” or “How can we move this issue from being an unknown to a known?” This technique may appeal particularly to quieter employees who find a sense of safety from seeking accuracy and thoroughness. By activating their thirst for completeness, your questions could compel them to participate even more.

4. Promote Contrarian Thinking: One marker of a psychologically safe environment, an important ingredient for teams, is the ability to engage in healthy, free-flowing debate. Debate-loving employees will likely feel right at home playing the devil’s advocate. And yet, not every personality type has an easy relationship with disagreement. Rather than allowing an employee’s hard-hitting logic to dominate, encourage him or her to be thoughtful, allow for natural pauses and enforce “disagreeing without damage.” On the flip side, you could engage employees who are known to avoid conflict in debate by “baking” disagreement into team processes. For example, a team can prompt each person to voice one potential downside or liability.

There’s no way around it. Small, agile teams are becoming more the norm. And they’re spending more time…together. To give these “power centers” the on-demand fluidity they’ll require, leaders shouldn’t overlook working styles. Enacting the practices shown here, as well as factoring in team members’ work styles, can spike team impact – or, if ignored, prove the point that what worked before won’t necessarily work now.

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