What Makes Effective Problem-Solving Teams


We all want to work in teams that exhibit high performance and solve problems effectively. But while it’s often easier to understand what drives individual performance, team performance is a more complex activity.

There is some great research done by folks at MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Google that shows how we can make smarter teams, and the answers are not what you might think.

Building Smarter Teams

In a paper published in Science, researchers split a few hundred participants into randomly assigned 2-5 person teams and spent upwards of 4 hours on a diverse set of activities, including solving visual puzzles, brainstorming, negotiating over limited resources, and playing checkers (as a group) against a computer.

Each participant had previously undergone an IQ test as well as a test called “Reading the Mind Through the Eyes” which gets at people’s emotional/social intelligence. The test takes about 15 mins and is free to take, so I encourage you all to check it out.

After analyzing the activity and performance of the 192 teams, the research team noted a couple things:

  1. Groups can be smart: Groups that could successfully tackle one type of problem were more likely to also successfully tackle other problems. This suggests that groups can exhibit a general intelligence similar to how an intelligent person is be good at solving a variety of cognitive tasks
  2. Individual genius does not translate to group intelligence: Average and maximum IQ of the individuals of the group were NOT significantly related to the group’s ability to solve problems as a group

So that sets the stage. What were the factors that contributed to this group intelligence?

  1. Social intelligence: Teams that had a higher average score on the “Reading the mind between the eyes” test performed better
  2. Equality: Teams where the conversation was not dominated by one or two individuals did better
  3. Women: Teams that had more women did better. This effect is due in part because women score higher on the social intelligence metric.

Interestingly, they looked at a couple other factors including group cohesion, motivation, and satisfaction — none of which were significant predictors of group intelligence. This doesn’t mean it’s fine for teams to be discordant and dissatisfied – but that at least in these studies on problem solving, they were not directly linked with performance.

In a followup study published in PLOS, later repeated this experiment, but included both in-person and virtual teams that only participated via chat. They found that the in-person and virtual teams achieved similar levels of performance and that the three attributes of social intelligence, equality, and women on the team held similar.

The one additional finding they uncovered was that teams that total communication between group members also related to team performance. So while email and meeting overload are serious workplace issues, the answer is not necessarily to decrease the amount of communication as that could decrease performance as well.

Outside of the Lab

While all of this sounds good, the findings still come out of an unnatural setting of the lab. What about the real world?

Well, Google recently published the findings of a two-year effort to understand what makes effective teams. They looked at 180 active teams at Google, conducted over 200 interviews, and analyzed 250 attributes of those teams. And what they found was that it was not who was on their teams, but how those teams worked together.

Specifically, the teams that had the highest performance, had higher levels of what’s known as psychological safety: the willingness to take risks, ask “dumb” questions, and admit mistakes.

Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.

The full list of findings:

  1. Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
  3. Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

While all of these sounds really good, note that the answers did not include: everyone likes each other, years of experience, advanced degrees, in-person vs remote teams. While these attributes probably contribute to a high functioning team, they were not the critical factors for success.

These findings help underscore the fact that at their core, great teams have a great deal of trust, openness and equality, and where personal feelings matter a lot. Individual superstars don’t seem to matter as much, and domineering personalities will likely make things much worse. Keep these things in mind next time you’re forming a team or trying to improve an existing team’s performance.