October 23, 2023

What is the secret of high performance teams in IT?

Working together in teams is essential to get work done. What makes a good (IT) team nowadays and what managers should take away from this, you will learn in this article.


Teams have become the fundamental organisational unit in today's increasingly complex business world. Whether in start-ups or multinationals, non-profit organisations or manufacturing companies, teamwork is essential to getting work done. Without question, effective teamwork increases performance, innovation and employee engagement.

But what really makes a good (IT) team? Why do some teams excel while others stumble, even if the members are all professionals on paper? Fascinating new research based on data and technology revealed the science underlying the art of team effectiveness in 2012.
Advances in sensing and data analytics have made it possible to track exactly how people interact in teams. MIT researchers at the Human Dynamics Lab equipped teams in various industries with electronic badges to track communication. In doing so, they quantified communication patterns, energy levels and the unwritten rules that determine a team's success. Although teams today face new opportunities and challenges, these fundamentals still apply.
This new science of teamwork offers practical lessons for executives who want to build successful teams. Data reveals dynamics that cannot be discerned through experience alone. Combined with a focus on enduring principles, data can optimise the critical interpersonal ingredients of great teams.

Google also launched an initiative in 2012 codenamed Project Aristotle. For this, project leader Abeer Dubey gathered some of the company's best people from statistics, organisational psychology, sociology, research and engineering. The results of this project are no less of interest than the MIT results. Let's look at it in detail and what else the general tenor says about teamwork.

The Fundamentals – Direction, Structure, Context

Decades of research (beginning with J. Richard Hackman in the 1970s) on organisational behaviour points to three “enabling conditions” for team effectiveness:

Compelling Direction

Teams unite around shared purpose and objectives. Defining the team's mission, goals, and strategies provides this direction. Without alignment on where the team is going, there is no roadmap for how to get there. Ambiguity creates confusion and fracture. A compelling direction channels team energy.

Strong Structure

Norms for communication, roles, and workflows establish a team's structure. Who talks when in meetings? How are decisions made? Do members have distinct responsibilities? Solid structure fosters coordination. Teammates understand expectations and interactions. Structure balances flexibility with efficiency.

Supportive Context

The surrounding environment shapes context. Leaders provide resources, encouragement, and priorities. Organisational culture contributes expectations and norms. Context is the ecosystem in which the team operates, enabling or limiting possibilities. Nurturing context removes obstacles so the team can thrive.
Taking steps to consciously build direction, structure, and context establishes firm foundations for group cohesion and performance. Even as teams become more fluid and digitally-driven, these fundamentals endure. They are necessary but insufficient ingredients that set the stage for the most crucial element: communication.

The Critical Role of Communication

Communication is the lifeblood of teams. Basically, of everything that brings people together. Surprising new research using sensor technology and data analysis shows that the interaction of team members contributes more to success than any other factor – including individual traits such as intelligence, personality or skills.

The MIT study highlights three key dimensions:

Energy - the number and type of interactions between team members. The most valuable forms of communication are face-to-face conversations or video conferences. The intimacy of body language, eye contact and vocal signals make for high-energy interactions. Email, text messaging and asynchronous communication are the least energising. Therefore, a barrage of emails can never replicate the energy of a live conversation.

Engagement - the distribution of energy in the team. Is participation relatively even and do all members contribute? Or do some members dominate while others are almost silent? Unbalanced communication patterns mean that engagement suffers when individuals or subgroups are disconnected from the broader dialogue. Fragmentation is the result of disengagement.

Exploration – energy between the team and outside sources. Input from other teams or groups provides fresh perspectives that spur creativity. However, excessive exploration at the expense of internal engagement can cause fragmentation within the team. There is an optimal balance between exploring externally and staying engaged internally.

Analyses of high-performing teams across sectors confirm several recognizable communication signatures:

  • Relatively equal speaking time, listening, and concise contributions during meetings
  • Facing one another to maximise energy flow from nonverbal cues  
  • Connecting directly member-to-member rather than only through hierarchy
  • Maintaining side conversations beyond formal meetings to build relationships
  • Seeking external information while ensuring internal cohesion

Google's Project Aristotle study underscored psychological safety as a crucial norm enabled by communication patterns. Teammates feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable when trust, mutual respect, and caring emerge through balanced communication. Leaders shape these norms.

Generative communication balances constructive debate with psychological safety. Teams stagnate when there is too much harmony or discord. Data helps uncover unhealthy extremes. While skills are important, a team can only realise its potential when members communicate in ways that produce psychological safety and group flow.

(Fig 1: 5 characteristics of successful teams, Project Aristotle, Google)

Establishing a Shared Mindset

Based on the fundamentals (direction, structure, context), Martine Haas and Mark Mortensen have found that today's teams are particularly vulnerable to two corrosive problems: "us versus them" thinking and incomplete information. Overcoming these pitfalls requires a new prerequisite: a shared mindset.

Project Aristotle revealed that a shared mindset is an essential yet elusive driver of team success. Even with structure and compelling direction, a fractured mindset impedes progress.

"Us vs. them" thinking and working with incomplete information hinders a shared mindset. Silos, confusion and mistrust arise when mindsets are misaligned. A team may agree on its mission but disagree on execution if perspectives are inconsistent.

It is again the executives who play a crucial role in promoting a shared mindset through the following aspects:

  • Promoting a common identity and purpose among members to build bonds
  • Facilitating mutual understanding of team objectives, norms, strategies, and roles
  • Using techniques like "structured unstructured time" to create social cohesion
  • Countering silo mentalities by connecting teams and clarifying intersections
  • Modelling behaviours that demonstrate empathy, psychological safety, and inclusion

A shared mindset is characterised by "collective intelligence" – the synthesis of diverse perspectives. This emerges when communication patterns exhibit high psychological safety and engagement. With unified purpose and open interaction, the team can integrate a wealth of knowledge.

Furthermore, a common mindset is not synonymous with homogeneity or groupthink. Members can have distinct opinions and backgrounds while feeling connected to the team identity. Shared mindset fosters constructive debate grounded in trust, not conformity.

Leaders must be proactive in shaping communication norms and setting direction to generate a shared mindset. Its absence causes coordination breakdowns and interpersonal friction. Psychological safety is the glue that binds members together around common objectives and values.

Key Takeaways for Leaders

Having approached the challenge of ideal teams psychologically, let's conclude by compiling practical tips for putting together an ideal IT team.

Adjust team size to project

The bigger the team, the harder it is to get everyone to pull together. Jeff Bezos (Amazon) introduced the famous "2-pizza rule", which says that teams should be fed by 2 pizzas - that is, teams consist of 5-8 people. This is a useful rule of thumb - but of course it always depends on the scope of the project. It is important that the work is well distributed among all members to ensure that motivation, momentum and also mutual support can spread.

Provide clarity in the allocation of tasks and responsibilities

When assigning tasks and responsibilities, many executives limit themselves to merely describing the functions of employees. But the actual importance and added value of a team member often go beyond this description.
In a successful team, tasks and responsibilities of individual members are closely interlinked. Each team member should know exactly what is expected of them and what contributions they can expect from the other team members. This creates a transparent overall picture that makes the best use of the expertise, knowledge, competencies and skills of all team members.
Also remember that the distribution of tasks and responsibilities should not be static. It makes sense to regularly check whether the current roles and responsibilities are still effective and whether adjustments should possibly be made.

Balance of skills and competences

In IT, of course, it is first crucial to have team members on board who have a deep understanding of the particular field the team is working on. These are specific technical skills or detailed expertise. It helps if certain skills and competencies overlap - this ensures you can avoid "single points of failure" if someone from the team falls ill.

Furthermore, at least one member is needed who is entrepreneurial - a person who is good at organising, making decisions and initiating and leading a project. In hierarchical teams, this is classically the project leader.

Social competencies a.k.a soft skills

We have identified the critical role of communication in advance. That's why the best teams excel in this area, meaning the members bring a higher level of social competence. It is also possible to compensate for a deficiency in terms of personnel - the MIT study calls the ideal team players "Charismatic Connectors". These employees can bring both team members and external parties together and show them the way to a common goal. The MIT Lab even goes so far as to numerically measure the presence of these characters with monetary success.
In addition, you should also consider other important qualities that can contribute to team dynamics. This includes, for example, creativity, problem-solving skills and teamwork, in addition to communication skills. A balanced range of personalities and skills helps the team complement each other and achieve better results together.

When putting together an IT team, it is also important to pay attention not only to individual skills, but also to the potential and strengths of each team member. People can develop and learn new skills, so you should also create space for personal growth and further education within the team.

The power of diversity

McKinsey calls it "diversity wins". Our partners at CareerTeam also describe "the many benefits of a diverse workforce." In order to build the ideal IT team, the decision to rely on diversity is backed up with promising benefits, such as:

  • Promoting creativity and innovation
  • Improved problem solving skills
  • Improved staff retention and loyalty
  • Broader range of perspectives

The ideal team is often characterised by diversity. The greatest advantage of such diversity is that it leads to a broader knowledge base. This facilitates the translation of new ideas into innovations, solutions and ways of working that really drive a company forward. And for an endless stream of new ideas.

In this regard, it is important that an inclusive and respectful working environment is created in a diverse team. Different perspectives and experiences should be valued and used to achieve better results together. This requires open communication and a willingness to learn from each other.

Create synergies through complementary team members

Diversity is undoubtedly enriching, but it is of little use if team members do not understand each other. An effective team is also characterised by good complementarity. Build teams where members' personalities, backgrounds and skills complement each other. To achieve this, you can, for example, use personality tests alongside the selection process to check how a new team member fits into the existing team.

A vivid example of this is the principle of the "3 Hs", which is common in the tech world. It says that every successful team needs a hacker, hustler and hipster (some add a 4th H in the form of the "hero" or "hound") However, a complementary team does not mean that all members have to agree. On the contrary, constructive discussions and different views are welcome as long as they are solution-oriented and goal-oriented.

In addition, other aspects such as communication styles, working methods and ways of thinking can also be taken into account to create a balanced and productive team environment. The ability to think from different perspectives and develop innovative solutions together increases the effectiveness of the team and promotes mutual learning and growth.

Working together in teams is essential to get work done. What makes a good (IT) team nowadays and what managers should take away from this, you will learn in this article.
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