What do the Golden State Warriors, Deloitte, NASA, and Texas Tech all have in common? They’re all undoubtedly good at what they do, sure. But why? A few different researchers have come together to study what makes some of the best teams and organizations in the world so successful. Skill? Intelligence? Perseverance? Nope. While these factors all play a large part, the common denominator is chemistry. Each of these groups has some of the best team chemistry in the world, an indicator scientists are using to predict results.
“Hand over your phones,” said Chris Beard, as his team stepped off the bus to begin a two-day retreat at the start of the season. At the time, no one foresaw Texas Tech to be playing in the Final Four or the national championship for that matter. According to Inc.com, the Red Raiders had reached their first ‘Elite Eight’ appearance in the 2018 NCAA tournament and had lost five of its top six scorers. The first thing Beard did when they reached their retreat destination, a ranch two hours south of campus, was ask for his players’ cell phones.
The players were assigned questions to ask one another, and they had to share what they learned with the rest of the group. The absence of any digital presence forced the players to attempt at developing a psychological connection within one another that just seemed to click. They learned about each other, where they came from, and what motivates them to play at such a high level.
The effects of this retreat were not a surprise to neuroscientists and psychologists like MIT psychology research professor, Sherry Turkle, or Yahoo sportswriter Jeff Eisenberg, who have studied the group of athletes. According to Eisenberg, the retreat “transformed a loosely connected group of basketball players into a tightly bonded team capable of making history.” Eisenberg says the way the team communicated, trusted, and understood one another’s tendencies was “a huge reason” they had a top-three defense in the nation.
The Texas Tech basketball team making it past the sweet sixteen, final four, and into the national championship is nothing short of an inspirational Cinderella story, one that most ESPN analysts never saw coming. But there were many predictable factors that go into the success of teams like Texas Tech, a set of ingredients that may be applied to any league or organization.
Now, imagine being stuck in an apartment with roommates you despise. Only, you can’t leave, even for a minute. (This was the case for many Texas Tech basketball players at the start of their retreat). If it sounds like hell, just think of what it must be like for a marine platoon or NASA crew, being stuck with the same team members for months at a time.
According to “Space Jam: Team Chemistry Counts Beyond The Stars,” Chester Spell, a professor of management at the Rutgers School of Business–Camden decided to explore this idea of team chemistry among space crew members. Spell, along with three research colleagues from Santa Clara University, studied various records and accounts from the International Space Station’s 44 missions. They found details on conflicts that typically arise among crew members.
The problems that arise are mundane and common among any group of individuals that spend extended periods of time together, like tastes in music or sharing food. The fewer arguments that occurred, the more efficient their communication, the higher the level of their mental health, and the more productive they were. The best teams, however, regardless of the task at hand, have the right mix of subgroups known as faultlines, when group members align along with one or more demographic characteristics.
According to Spell, the most successful NASA crews and professional sports teams include the right mix of age, tenure, nationality, and race. His team chemistry algorithm — by which the last two World Series winners scored among the highest — was featured in ESPN the Magazine, and he has presented his research to CEOs and NBA coaches.
While getting along with team members might seem like a no-brainer for the magical success-recipe, there’s more that goes into building team chemistry than getting along with the person you spend all day with. “There’s a general sense in sports about the importance of ‘team chemistry,’ but it’s a nebulous concept,” said Northwestern Engineering Professor, Noshir Contractor.
“We wanted to be more rigorous about how we think about team chemistry. Psychology has shown that when you enjoy success together, you learn more from experience, so we focused on players who played together on winning teams,” like the Golden State Warriors. Prior shared success predicts victory in team competitions, a study published December 3rd in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, is an example of exactly that.
A group of data scientists used linear regression modeling to examine the impact of NBA, MLB, English Premier League soccer, and Indian Premier League cricket teams’ past success to predict the outcome of games during the season. The results were astonishing.
Using different variables like player tendencies, and key statistical averages like points, assists, goals, shots per game, but most importantly, the number of times a pair of players were part of the same winning team, the rate of correctly predicted games increased between 2 and 7 percent. What’s most interesting is that the results held up across different sports cultures. Could the same concepts and algorithms be transferred into the corporate world? Some businesses already are.
To produce stats that contribute to a team’s success, like Steph Curry’s points per game or Deloitte CEO’s Punit Renjen’s quarterly revenue goals, differences among team members need to be addressed to create synergy and gain a competitive advantage. According to Harvard Business Review article, “Pioneers, Drivers, Integrators, and Guardians,” Deloitte created a system called Business Chemistry that identifies these four primary work styles for accomplishing shared goals, aligning the right mix of tendencies in each team.
The first category they identified, pioneers, value possibilities, spark energy and imagination and believe risks are worth taking. The second, guardians value stability and bring logical order and rigor. The next one, drivers, use logic and data to value challenge and generate momentum. Lastly, integrators value connection among relationships and draw teams together.
Each of the styles is different from the others, but they’re not necessarily different in measure or value. What’s important, is getting the correct combination of styles, a strategy HR departments (like Deloitte) and professional sports teams (like the Warriors) are increasingly working on. For example, Guardians are generally more reserved than Drivers—but both types are very focused, which can help them find common ground. (Think Steph Curry’s aggressive passing tendencies compounded with Clay Thompson’s consistent shot percentage).
By pulling different styles closer—having them collaborate on small projects and then take on bigger ones if it’s working out—you can create complementary partnerships on your teams. This is known as the synergy effect, where 2 + 2 = 5, a larger result than the sum of its counterparts.
In describing their view on team chemistry, Deloitte article, “Business Chemistry, Using science to Improve the Art of Business Relationships,” stated “an analysis of team composition provides perspective on relative strengths and areas of misalignment to understand how to utilize each individual’s natural tendencies best while leveraging the overall group makeup to achieve goals.”
So what happens when you align the right number of qualified tendencies among a team and tell them to win a game or sell a product? Those teams may just become the next Texas Tech, Deloitte, NASA, or Golden State Warriors.