5 Traits of High-Performing Project Teams

Updated: Nov 5, 2018

The 2006 USA basketball team had a super successful coaching staff and a team full of NBA stars, yet they finished third in the world championship, losing to Greece… a team without a single NBA player. 

The 1980 US hockey team that beat the Soviets at the Lake Placid Olympics executed one of the largest upsets in history.  The Soviet Union had won the gold medal in six of the seven previous Winter Olympic Games and fielded a team consisting primarily of professional players with significant experience in international play. By contrast, the United States' team consisted exclusively of amateur players, and was the youngest and least experienced team in U.S. national team history.  The US beat the Soviets 4-3 in a major upset and went on to clinch the gold medal by beating Finland in their final match of the tournament.

We see this story play out over and over again.  Why does this happen?  Shouldn’t the collective talent and individual experience culminate into better performing teams?  Clearly it doesn't, but what exactly is this "IT Factor" and how can it be learned and applied?

As Healthcare Project Managers, we are routinely charged with organizing and managing teams to complete projects.  These teams are often comprised of individuals from technology vendors, clinicians, IT department personnel and usually some administrative oversight.  We are then charged to quickly get the team to work to complete the project and deliver the intended benefits... on time and under budget.  How can a project manager influence the team dynamics to create this high performing culture?  What tactical activities can be used that would routinely deliver higher performance? 

Researchers at MIT have identified some key determinants; which, if monitored and managed proactively, can help make the difference between an under-performing all-star team and a “miracle on ice” performance. The research, titled The New Science of Building Great Teams (Harvard Business Review, April 2012) included observation of 2,500 Individuals equipped with wearable electronic sensors collecting socio-metric data on social behavior.  The sensors collected over 100 data points, including tone of voice, body language, and how much each person talks and listens.  The researchers then compared these data points to the performance of teams across various projects.

The conclusion, to paraphrase, comes down to what The Project Management Institute would state is the largest single responsibility of a project manager… Communication.  Communication patterns account for 50% of the variation between poorly performing & highly performing teams – More than all other factors combined.  The 5 traits commonly seen in high performing teams were:

  1. Everyone talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet

  2. Members face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic

  3. Members connect directly with one another-not just with the team leader

  4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations with the team

  5. Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back

The goal is to create an even distribution of communication channels while avoiding a single channel from dominating the network.

3 Tips

Set example. When the managers themselves were seen interacting with one another, the communication patterns among the team members increased.  Actively seek out other resource or project managers and engage with them.

Encourage the ideal team player. Effective teams have team members who circulate frequently and engage all team members evenly in short, energized and focused conversations.  If a single team member is isolating themselves, engage them and encourage engagement across lines that are dormant.

Facilitate communication.  Effective teams establish appropriate forums allowing for open communication for the given objective.  Be mindful of the amount of time each team member, including yourself, is speaking.  Seek to keep an even balance through inquiry into each team member's deliverable.

You can reach me at don.ellis@ellisandadams.com