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Because Sources Matter


Why Teamwork Science Matters

When I started my first consulting practice TeamTrainers™, I wanted to make sure I was only telling my clients what really worked. I’d attended some trainings on team development and read some books in the six years I’d been doing it at my work. Few spoke of the actions I was finding most effective, and some of the suggestions seemed really dubious based on what I had learned of small group psychology. So I fell back on my early career as a journalist and “hit the stacks.” Every week for six months, I spent a day in the libraries at the Univ. of New Mexico. I read books by scientists for scientists. Starting with those leads, I went through peer-reviewed journals reading reports of studies. (“Peer-reviewed” means an article must pass inspection by several anonymous scientists who agree the study was performed according to the quality standards for scientific research.) In those days, I was able to go through a half-dozen articles a week, focusing on scientific studies, and a book every couple of weeks. I think I had around 350 sources when I finished the first draft of my training method, The SuddenTeams™ Program. Mind you, not all of my sources are scientific. I have to create practical applications from the science, and examples from the real world help me teach them.

After moving to Seattle, for three years I published an e-newsletter, hitting the Univ. of Washington libraries a full day once a month. TeamResearch News morphed into a collection of study summaries arranged by topic on the TeamTrainers™ Web site. Along with other sources picked up over time, I was over 450 sources when I restarted the business after a move to Raleigh, NC. Then I walked to the library at North Carolina State Univ. once a month, but usually only half a Saturday. (Fortunately, it’s easier to find studies on the Internet these days.) With the typical human penchant for nice, round numbers, I yearned to top the 500 mark, and eventually passed 1,000!

Most people seem impressed when they hear about my research into “The Science of Teams™,” but I have run into skepticism. A meeting of potential referral partners in Seattle fell apart when one person took an anti-science stance. Speaking as a former reporter, I put a chunk of the blame on the media. When they report on studies without putting them into the bigger context; or make one study appear to contradict the next by not reporting the different methods; and hype books by people on the fringe of scientific thought as if those theories have been proven, the average reader is understandably confused.

But science learns the same way you do: reading and conferences plus trial and error. Scientists do this in a very controlled way, however. Their trials eliminate other factors that could have caused the result they saw, they try the same test again with some slight changes to see if that makes a difference, and they invite others to try it. They pore through other scientists’ work to get ideas and avoid others’ mistakes. And when they’re done with their trial, they have to submit the report to an anonymous team of colleagues who critique the article, questioning the scientist’s methods and conclusions (hence the term “peer-reviewed journal”). Then the journal editors take a crack.

Tiny differences in how studies are put together can cause very different findings. Over time, however, a trend will develop until most of the scientists in a particular field of study agree on some basic truths. Sometimes new evidence causes a huge shift in thinking. But more often, especially in the behavior sciences, consensus develops in a slow, methodical way over many years, and proves able to predict results. They’ll still call it a “theory” though, as in “the theory of gravity.” And there are always “outliers,” exceptions to the rule.

But the media do not report all this. There have been countless “shifts” reported that from a scientific standpoint are relatively minor. Whether you eat a lot or a little salt, or go on a high-fat diet to shed some pounds quickly, is almost irrelevant. The basic truths of nutritional science have held accurate through countless studies over decades. You have a much better chance of being healthier than the average person if over the long term you:

  • eat a variety of food, including fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • limit your fat intake, especially saturated fats.
  • eat no more calories than you expend through exercise and daily activity.

The same is true in teamwork science. Sometimes the latest fad or buzzword flies in the face of science, with no studies supporting it. It’s just an idea somebody has. These eventually disappear, but not before wasting some teams’ time, money, and goodwill. Other popular teambuilding solutions are like diets: they might have a short-term, temporary effect, but as soon as you go off the diet/activity, the bigger, underlying issues are still there—and the pounds or problems return.

Winston Churchill famously wrote, “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Scientists make mistakes, have egos, hang onto theories longer than they should, and otherwise show the same foibles as the rest of us. I rejected at least 100 studies for various reasons, including my belief that some were poor science. But scientists follow a process, the scientific method, and subject themselves to checks and balances the rest of us would find highly irritating, for a simple reason: they want the truth.

I’ll take that over some consultant pushing their latest Big Idea, or popular but unproven practices, any day.

Are Your Sources Leading You Astray?

You pull your coffee out of the microwave oven and settle down for a few moments with a book on persuasion from a psychologist. Into your smartphone goes an idea to try on your boss. Turning to your computer, you use the ergonomic mouse that has saved your aching thumb to drill through some e-mails, thankful the allergy pill you took has kicked in.

In every case, science has made your life better. The electronics, pills, Internet, and ergonomics started with basic research whose practical uses were unknown at the time. You’re more likely to get the boss seeing things your way because of time-consuming studies comparing messages with and without a persuasive technique. Scientists doing tedious experiments, conducting carefully designed surveys, and using tightly controlled methods during case studies contribute to nearly every moment of your life in ways you will never know.

Today I hope to get you connecting these efforts to your role with teams. More to the point, I hope to get you thinking about where you get your information about teams, and more importantly, where those sources get their information. All I’m asking you to do is think.

Do you recall learning about the “scientific method” in school? “Scientists use the scientific method to search for cause and effect relationships in nature,” the student site Science Buddies explains. There are many versions of the method, but I’ll go with their simple one:

  • “Ask a Question”
  • “Do Background Research”
  • “Construct a Hypothesis”(a possible answer to the question)
  • “Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment”
  • “Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion”
  • “Communicate Your Results”

You can do all this, and should when making major changes. The devil is in the details. Teamwork and other scientists do exhaustive reviews of previous research before proposing their hypotheses. They go out of their way to rule out other possible causes of the results, including sheer luck, and recognize possible downsides. Legitimate studies are reviewed by other anonymous experts who might point out mistakes and alternate explanations. Ethical scientists report all the results, even the ones showing their hypotheses were wrong. Contrast that with the companies in one study that refused to release information on any failed projects to the scientists, even though the companies’ names were kept anonymous!

Scientists provide enough details about their methods that others can question what their results really show, or even retry the experiment. Private companies trumpet interesting (and self-serving) “study” reports without that information. A report about talent retention that was splashed across Twitter made a number of claims about “employers” based on a survey of human resources (HR) professionals. But the report doesn’t say how people were chosen. If the company simply sent an invitation to members of an HR organization, that leaves out a large percentage of HR people—and their employers. If the people who responded are different from other HR people, the study probably does not provide an accurate picture of all HR people, much less all employers.

The report mentions that 31% of the respondents came from companies with more than 10,000 employees. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, only 0.015% of American companies had that many employees in 2004. The survey is worldwide, but there’s no way the global figure is that much higher. You can’t honestly make any general statement about companies based on this group of people. As always in these cases, I contacted the company public relations department four days before posting the original Teams Blog version of this topic for more information. As usually happens, they ignored me. Since they’re hiding the information, I assume they know their methods, and therefore their data, are questionable.

Another questionable source is stories about business successes. Before making a change based on them, you should ask whether there are:

  • Other possible causes for the success than those the story suggests.
  • Special circumstances in the company that allowed the technique to work there, or caused another technique they tried not to work.
  • Companies built on less-flashy but better-proven techniques less risky for you to adopt.
  • Companies that succeeded despite using, or even because of using, a technique that caused a failure elsewhere.
  • Other reasons the people quoted in the story focused on the techniques mentioned (public relations, taking undue credit, etc.).

A common mistake bloggers make is to confuse “correlation” with “causation.” The fact that one trait changes with another doesn’t mean either caused the other. Many business gurus claim trust is the foundation of good team performance, and it is true that high-performing teams usually report high levels of trust. But my research and teambuilding experiences tell me trust grows with performance. Basic psychology research suggests it is a waste of time to try to make people trust each other, because real trust requires time and repeated positive experiences. Instead, put in a system that makes it obvious when people are and aren’t doing what they said they would do, so members don’t have to trust right away.

These articles on trust are a sample of the huge amount of guesswork in the blogosphere put forth as established fact. Along with the facts that Dan Rockwell’s instincts are usually right on target and he writes with heart, I like his Leadership Freak blog because he presents his opinions as such and welcomes their debate. Contrast that to other bloggers who report on “The Science of x” without reading a single scientific textbook, much less a peer-reviewed study. Data analysis from your company is not science, nor is a review of popular business sources.

Scientists are human. They make mistakes, their egos lead them astray, they sometimes hide failures, and they can fall victim to greed. The difference between them and most business gurus is that they work in a formal system where scrutiny of their conclusions and methods greatly increases the odds of their frailties getting noticed, their mistakes being admitted, and their results matching the way the business world really works.

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