The art of improving performance

BY Jayashantha Jayawardhana

A manager who oversaw the call centres of a major bank was baffled as to why some of his teams achieved excellent results while other seemingly similar groups struggled. Apparently, there’s not much complexity about running a call centre. The skills required are easy to identify; and the tasks are well-defined and easy to monitor.

Almost every aspect of their performance is easy to measure – viz. the number of issues resolved, customer satisfaction and average handling time (AHT is the gold standard of call centre efficiency) and so on.

So what could be the reason behind this disturbing performance gap?

The catch was that none of those well-defined metrics could establish the real reasons behind performance gaps, which led the manager to execute his flawed assumption that building high performing teams was an art rather than a science.

But Prof. Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Human Dynamics Laboratory, writing in Harvard Business Review (HBR), shoots down the manager’s assumption. Pentland cites cogent evidence to prove that there’s a sound scientific base to building high performing teams, and explains how he and his team helped the manager solve the performance conundrum.

He writes: “We have identified the elusive group dynamics that characterise high performing teams – those blessed with the energy, creativity and shared commitment to far surpass other teams. These dynamics are observable, quantifiable and measurable. And perhaps most important, teams can be taught how to strengthen them.”

Before the group embarked on the research study, it intuited on the basis of general observations that communication played a vital role in driving team performance – even though it had been overlooked in many of the previous studies.

The subjects of the study were as diverse as innovation teams, post-op wards in hospitals, teams handling customers in banks, backroom operation units, call centre teams etc. They equipped all team members with electronic badges that collected data on their individual communication behaviour such as tone of voice, body language, whom they talked to and for how long, and more.

When the research team led by Pentland analysed the data gathered through the sensors embedded in those electronic badges, it found that the patterns of communication were the most important predictor of a team’s success. It also ascertained that the patterns of communication were as telling as the other key factors at play – such as individual intelligence, personality, skill and the substance of discussions.

The researchers found that three communication dynamics – i.e. energy, engagement and exploration – affect team performance. Here, energy is measured by the number and nature of exchanges among team members. An exchange is defined as a comment or an acknowledgement: even a ‘yes’ or nod qualifies as an exchange.

A typical conversation consists of many such exchanges. Also, the most powerful form of communication continues to be face-to-face while the next is by phone or video-conferencing.

Engagement reflects the distribution of energy among team members. If all members possess comparatively equal and reasonably high energy with other members, engagement is very strong. Teams that have some members who engage in high-energy communication while others are withdrawn end up performing poorly. The researchers noted that when making investment decisions, the partially engaged teams made worse (or less profitable) decisions rather than their fully engaged peers.

The third element of the mix is exploration and it involves the communications that members engage in outside their team. Better performing teams look for more external connections. Pentland emphasises that scoring well on exploration is most important for creative teams such as those responsible for innovation, which calls for fresh perspectives.

Based on their research insights, the researchers advised the manager of the call centre to change the employees’ coffee break schedule so that everyone takes a break at the same time. That would give people more time to socialise with their teammates away from workstations. It was a bold move and the results were startling.

The AHT fell by over 20 percent among lower performing teams and eight percent overall at the call centre. And employee satisfaction rose too – sometimes by more than 10 percent. So Pentland progressed to change the coffee breaks of all 10 of the bank’s call centres, which employed 25,000 people with a forecast of US$ 15 million in annual productivity gains.

With a little creativity and critical thinking, you too can devise dozens of different ways to optimise intra and inter-team communication – both inside and outside formal meetings.