Let’s explore chemistry: the science of forming project teams

If your role includes forming project teams, you probably spend a lot of time trying to get the chemistry right. Find out how to spark the right reaction.

forming project teams: Chemistry

How do you measure the success of a project? Getting a team to meet a deadline isn’t the same as getting them to produce the best possible results. You, as manager, have the power to create teams that not only succeed, but also thrive.

The three C’s of team chemistry

When forming project teams, keep in mind that a group can reach three different levels of teamwork:

  • Compliance. Each team member is responsible for separate tasks and they work independently. The project is completed to satisfaction, but with little to no interaction.
  • Cooperation. Team members complete tasks independently, but communicate with other teammates on issues and progress.
  • Collaboration. True teamwork balances interactive and independent work. It is reached when team members consistently share ideas and provide feedback to other members to push the project to its best.

The chemical reaction needed when forming project teams

In a study published by MIT, researchers evaluated how the best teams work. They found:

  • The number of higher individual IQs in a team has no bearing on the success of their tasks
  • Teams that perform higher on one task continued to show the same success on the next tasks
  • High-performing teams had equal contribution to discussion by all members, not one or two dominating
  • High-performing teams were made up of individuals who scored high on tests to measure their ability to read emotion in other people
  • Teams with more women than men were among the highest performing (this was attributed to the women’s ability to score higher in reading others’ emotions)

Teamwork doesn’t come from teams comprised of the brainiest employees, the most focused employees or the most outgoing. Instead, top results come from the collective intelligence of a group and the interaction between team members.

Working together, team project

(Photo: Michael Cardus)

The question of consistency versus diversity is often raised in hiring, but if you’ve hired a diverse set of employees, make the most of that diversity of ideas, experience and background when you create teams. Steve Jobs said, ‘A broad set of experiences lead people to conclusions others might have missed.’ On a team, you want:

  • Alignment of goals
  • Diversity in ideas on how to reach those goals

Different experiences manifest competing ideas and allow different perspectives to enter the mix. You must have a diverse set of individuals communicating their ideas, listening to others and allowing the project to evolve through collaboration.

Combining the right elements

College basketball coach Dean Smith required each player who made a basket to point to the player who passed them the ball. One individual, or even one type of individual, does not carry a team. It’s the same in the office.

The goal is not to create a random collection of misfits, but to insert strength where there is weakness by identifying complementary skillsets, personalities and work styles and combining them into a dynamic group.

Hard skills. Hard skills are learned, like software programming or graphic design. Each project will demand a specific skillset so this part of the team forming process is straightforward. Answer:

  • What skills are needed?
  • Who has them?

The dilemma you will face is balancing specialists and generalists. Too many specialists inhibits collaboration and bottlenecks develop as the specialist works on their stage of the project and the others wait their turn.

It’s vital to develop your team in such a way that you improve on the specialised skills and strengthen your employees’ general knowledge at the same time so you can form teams capable of collaboration.

Personality. We often simplify personality by whether an individual is introverted or extroverted or take a Meyers-Briggs test to see what our four letters are.

In reality, personality is anything but simple, but what’s important is how those personalities work together (or not) in a team atmosphere.

For example, if you have one team member who can put together a detailed presentation, but would prefer not to present it, give them a team member who is a natural public speaker.

Take care not to pit personalities against each other but create an interdependence among the team members.

Work style. The work style of an individual contributes to the group dynamic. Inc.com breaks down work style down four distinct styles:

  • Doing. Doers have intense focus and thrive on checking tasks off the list. They struggle with communicating their progress to others on the team.
  • Leading. Leaders have vision and ideas, but can fail to understand the details of what will go into executing their vision.
  • Loving. These individuals have strong emotional intelligence which makes them great at communicating and managing relationships in a team setting. They fall short on details and execution.
  • Learning. Learners are deliberate and great at researching and dissecting problems. However, they tend to over-analyse and need their counterparts to be action-orientated individuals.

Your goal is to fill out the team with the skills, personalities or work styles needed to make the project happen and to encourage individuals in the team to realise they can rely on their teammates to back them up.

Chemistry test tubes alternating colours

(Photo: Shaun Fisher)

Conditions for success

If you form that perfect team, don’t sabotage your work-or theirs-by setting an unrealistic deadline or assigning too many or too few people. To estimate, consider hours:

  • Per task based on past projects and tracked in a project management tool
  • For outsourced tasks not completed by a team member
  • To do rework or for unexpected delays
  • For meeting, administrative and project management
  • For daily operational tasks outside the project

The number of hours the project will take, divided by the days until deadline and the hours devoted daily to projects tells you how many people the project requires. You can reverse the calculation to determine what a realistic deadline would be.

You also need to consider that the more people who pull on a rope, the less effort each individual puts in. Back in 2006, studies cited the optimal team size as 4.6 people. Other studies fall between five and nine.

Create the ideal environment for teamwork

After team size, it’s up to you to provide access to the tools and workspaces the team needs.

Leaders emerge whether or not they are at the head of the conference table so create a space to support teamwork, not status. As the MIT’s studies proved, an environment where everyone is a part of the conversation produces better results.

An environment is not comprised solely of physical workspace, but also culture. You create team culture with how you identify and combine your employees into teams, but it is also affected by the company’s overall culture.

Challenge the status quo

If you expect your team to use collaboration to reach the best conclusion, you need to be on the lookout for groupthink where the desire for consensus results in poor decision-making. Try swapping individuals with similar skills if you feel a team has gotten too comfortable with each other to effectively challenge each others’ ideas.

As manager, you have the power to form teams that can exceed expectations. When the project is completed, be sure to recognise how each member played a part in the results, learn from that success and teach new teams how to follow that proven, collaborative path.

(Hat tip to Wendell Okay)

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