Part 1: What makes teams successful?

I have uncovered several new research papers on team success, so I will be writing a short series exploring the topic.

In a paper released this month, Michael Klug and James Bagrow of the University of Vermont took a deep mathematical dive into Github data looking for the magic that makes teams successful. This is possible because Github — a web platform initially devised for software development, but now used for literature, music, design, and many other disciplines — captures information like when people join a team, contribute, comment, and so on.

The researchers started the effort because there is little large-scale, quantitative data about how teams form and succeed. However, Github is an open source dataset with hundreds of thousands of projects that can be analyzed. So they analyzed around 150,000 self-organized, online projects using network analysis techniques, and what they found is fascinating.

They found that high impact teams — those that the community have high regard for — share several key attributes:

  • High-impact teams tends to be larger than small teams. However, Github teams tend to be small, with less than one percent having more than 10 members.
  • High-impact teams are more focused than lower-impact teams of the same size, and are likely to have members with diverse experience.
  • Even in larger teams, high-impact teams have core and support cadres. A small number — sometimes just one — of the team do the majority of the work, while other, non-core members act in support roles.
  • Perhaps just as important: high-impact teams are more likely to have members that are core members of other teams.
  • High-impact teams are more likely to be ‘dominated’: where the lead member contributed more work than all the other contributors combined.

As the authors state,

This mixture of size, focus, experience, and diversity points to underlying mechanisms that can be used to maximize the success of collaborative ventures.

Or, alternatively to evaluate — in advance — whether a newly formed team is likely to become successful. Does it have enough mass to do something of high impact? Are there one or more core contributors stepping forward to lead the push? Are the members experienced, and diverse?

These factors remind me of Sandy Pentland’s work at MIT, where the use of wearable devices enabled tracking of teams in business. Pentand and his researcher’s rapidly determined that they could judge the likelihood of team success merely by tracking the frequency and duration of face-to-face interactions of team members (see The future of work: 4 trends for 2014). Too little interaction indicated less than top performance, as did too much interaction. Like The Three Bears, the middle bowl of porridge was just right.

Unlike Pentland, Klug and Bagrow weren’t able to track frequency and duration of communications because that mostly occurs outside of Github, but my bet is that the core group is involved in intense conversation, with an exponential die-off with the less critical non-core members.

What we learn is something about the organizational dynamics of these high-impact teams: a small core group linked by very strong ties (maybe just a single dominating member), supported by a somewhat looser, although still relatively strong tie network (or networks) of diverse and experienced non-core team members. The non-core members support the activity in many ways, one of which is likely to be influencing the outside world through loosely tied networks, which is where the high impact comes from. The outside world knows about these projects, and promotes them.

In the business setting the same dynamics are likely to hold, although they may be buried in bureaucracy and hierarchy, and as a result, the efforts may be slowed or watered down by ‘team members’ that are neither core nor strong supporters. When larger teams — with hundreds or thousands of people are involved — the researchers suggest that success is fractal: successful teams larger than the small social scale of <10 person teams are likely made up of networks of small scale teams.

Next up, some research into the central role of strong ties in the networks that make up successful teams.