Can technology be used to enhance teamwork?

May 12, 2016

Teamwork has always been something that has intrigued me, one of the main reasons I joined the army was to learn more about team performance and it definitely provided me that opportunity.

Over 11 years I worked in/with some of the most high performing military teams in the world.  My role meant working with large numbers of different units and whenever I was attached to a new team for a particular mission, I made a point of observing what made them perform well (or not).  After a while I was able to identify what the best teams had in common and how they achieved the results they did.

My main conclusion was that the best teams have a culture where they can honestly speak their mind without fear of reprisal.  When there is time, good leaders get all team members to input in to the early stages of a decision making process. The leader would retain the final call as they were accountable, but their decision was based upon the unbiased, independent input of their people, a healthy debate in meetings and giving all team members the opportunity to get heard.

Bad teams succumb to groupthink when the members feel the need to “pick their battles”, do not feel comfortable enough to provide alternatives to senior peoples’ opinions or argue with dominant personalities in meetings. The result is often artificial harmony in meetings and an ever more divided, political culture as people distance themselves from the progressively poor decisions that were made without honest input.

Leaders can only make decisions based upon the evidence they have in front of them. If the recommendations presented to them are based on thorough, honest debate then the best possible decisions are likely to be made.  If people have not presented their honest opinions because of bias and politics, then the leader is likely to make incorrect decisions.

This is a pretty simple concept but few teams get it right without taking significant time out from their day-to-day business to work on their teamwork, which is difficult for organisations to commit to.  Even those teams who do get help with their teamwork and understand the need for a culture where they openly and honestly debate during the early stages of decision processes struggle, and this is where team enhancing technology comes in.

I thought that this simple process of ensuring honest input, debating differences, then deciding could be made far more simple and consistent with web technology.

Humans are social animals and we have built in biases that mean we will be influenced if we know that senior people, experts or the majority of our group have a different opinion to us.  We have therefore found that if we use web technology to let individuals input and make initial recommendations independently, we make it far easier for them to be unbiased.

When the individual recommendations of team members are aggregated and displayed back to the entire team in a meeting, the team is able to quickly focus on key areas of difference, which can then be debated prior to a final decision being made.  Data enabling a decision meeting removes the need to spend time discussing what people thought, as that is already displayed.  Instead, where there are differences of opinion, team members are invited to talk about why they thought something.  This concept is really powerful and can be achieved far more quickly and consistently when meetings have been primed with the correct data.

Over the last year we have observed many groups using our Decision tool, which primes choice based decision meetings with data as described above. During these data enabled meetings we’re enjoying watching people getting to the heart of their real issues immediately, more constructively discussing differences of opinion, then making choices based on the healthy debate that naturally occurs. Going through this process does seem to genuinely bring a team closer together as members have got their opinions heard, they understand the diverse perspectives and are confident in the final call. Our Decision tool has helped these people to behave like the high performing teams that inspired me and I am now confident to say that technology really can enhance teamwork.