Program Blog

What makes a smart team?

Posted by Marty Lawlor on Apr 19, 2017 1:46:06 PM

I recently stumbled across a New York Times article I had saved from January of 2015 entitled: Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others.  I had originally clipped it because of the importance of teamwork in our Executive MBA (EMBA) program—seventy-five percent of our courses include a team deliverable—and feedback from students suggests that working with others can be the most rewarding or the most maddening part of the EMBA experience.

The authors summarize findings from their own and several other studies.  To wit: While some teams are in fact smarter—that is, they outperform in tasks of analysis, brainstorming and moral reasoning—teams with higher average I.Q.s did not outperform teams with lower average I.Q.s, something that many of us might intuitively think would be the case.  In their search for those characteristics that best distinguished smarter teams overall, they found that neither motivation nor the ratio of extroverts to introverts on a team were significant factors in team performance. 

Perhaps not all that surprising is the fact that gender diversity does impact performance.  But here’s the surprising part: it wasn’t gender diversity per se that made for smart teams, but “simply having more women.”  This is explained, the authors say, by the fact that women tend to read emotions better than men.  “What makes teams smart must be not just the ability to read facial expressions, but a more general ability, known as “Theory of Mind,” to consider and keep track of what other people feel, know and believe.”  Should we ever need a further argument to enroll more women in our program, this appears to be it.

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We were also interested in a finding from a more recent study by the same authors.  In this study they “wanted to see whether groups that worked online would still demonstrate collective intelligence, and whether social ability would matter as much when people communicated purely by typing messages into a browser.”  We were gratified to note that “the most important ingredients for a smart team remained constant regardless of its mode of interaction: members who communicated a lot, participated equally and possessed good emotion-reading skills.” 

The authors expressed some surprise at this finding, but we did not.  After graduating 44 on campus and online EMBA classes, this finding only reinforced what we had long ago concluded:  a well-designed online program that encourages significant peer interaction yields the same outcomes as a similar on campus program, and delivery format is not a factor in team performance.

The factors that influence team performance hold particular interest for college faculty and administrators.  In undergraduate business courses, team deliverables have proven to be the bane of both students and professors.  My own experience teaching those courses suggests that on a typical four-person team, two people do most of the work, one team member passively shows up, and one person contributes nothing to the project.  A common complaint from students at the undergraduate level is that there are too many team projects.

As one might suspect, free rider issues at the Executive MBA level are much less common, but team dynamics can still be challenging.  The average age of an EMBA student is late ‘30s, and at that point in their lives, many are juggling professional responsibilities with family demands.  Adding 20 hours of class and homework time per week to that schedule leaves students significantly less tolerant of free rider or other team issues. 

And there are issues.  Some people want to complete an assignment as soon as possible; others exhibit a higher tolerance for deadline stress.  For some, only an “A” will do; for others, a “B” is a trade-off they’re willing to make for a better work-life balance.  Some students like to work collaboratively in real time; others want to work on their own and then share results.  Some are “all business” at team meetings, working through an agenda with machine-like efficiency; others need a few minutes to schmooze and then tend to stray off topic with disturbing regularity.

Team contracts and exposure to “best practices” help teams manage some of these issues; personality assessments like DISC and similar tools may help to minimize others; and program administrators also do their part to assemble smart teams.  We consider a variety of factors when assigning students to teams: industry; functional expertise; experience level; gender; and in our online program, geography to accommodate different time zones.  It’s important to get the teams right since, as the article says: “Groups of smart people can make horrible decisions – or great ones.”  The other factor for us is that student teams meet several times a week for almost a year and half, and we can’t have them unraveling right at the point in the program when they have to spend 4-to-5 months tackling a major client capstone project! 

This study and our own experience suggests that there’s room for improvement in team performance and that, while getting teams right can be difficult, doing so yields better project outcomes and happier teams.

 Learn more about the team aspect and cohort-nature of our Executive MBA Program:


Topics: MBA, EMBA, team