Expediting Team Development at MIT



My last post suggested that analyzing context is the first step in effective problem-solving and decision-making, especially when you face complex or ambiguous problems. Once you understand the context and are clear on the results you want, you are ready to design a process to achieve those results.  This post shows how a new process led to gains in team performance at MIT.

Essentials of Effective Teamwork

In his bestseller, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni uses a fable to highlight five elements essential for effective teamwork (attention to results, accountability, commitment, productive conflict, and trust). Lencioni’s fable features Kathryn, a gifted CEO who combines skills from her days as a schoolteacher with lessons learned from her basketball-coach husband. She takes the reins of a dysfunctional executive team. Within a year, she whips them into shape through a series of off-site, team-building retreats and other interventions while demonstrating self-awareness, assertiveness, and leadership skill.

No Time for Fables: MIT UPOP Challenges Teams to Produce Immediately 

Kathyrn’s feat is inspiring, yet daunting. What if you do not have the time, money, and patience to conduct off-site retreats, personality assessments, and trust-building exercises over the course of a year?

Housed in MIT’s School of Engineering, UPOP is a program that teaches MIT students teamwork, communication, and problem-solving skills.

Faculty, staff, and alumni volunteers in MIT’s Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP) have grappled with this challenge for the past 18 years. Housed in MIT’s School of Engineering, UPOP is a program that teachers MIT students teamwork, communication, and problem-solving skills. UPOP’s centerpiece is a weeklong workshop during which students form teams and tackle a complex project. The projects combine social, political, and technical considerations (e.g. determining how to provide water to a community after a devastating hurricane).

UPOP students first meet their teammates on Monday morning. By Thursday afternoon, they must complete their projects and present to a panel of judges. To accomplish so much so fast, each team has to gel quickly. 

CPRI (Context, Process, Results, and Implications) Thinking Leads to a Better Process

Knowing that teams evolve through a predictable sequence of stages (i.e. forming, storming, norming, and performing), we have experimented with different activities and sequencing. 

In this context, the goal has been to develop a robust process that generates results quickly while simultaneously producing trust, constructive conflict, commitment, and accountability.  Robust means that by simply following a carefully orchestrated sequence of steps, the process generates these outcomes without requiring a gifted leader like Kathryn. 

The implication we want students to draw is that they can analyze complex issues, problems, or even interpersonal situations, and then engineer a process to produce the results they want.

The Team Creativity Process:  Trust, Productive Conflict, Commitment, and Accountability by Design

To accomplish the goal, fellow alumnus, Richard Kremsdorf, MD, and I designed a unique process embedded in an experiential learning module called “Team Creativity.” It begins with each team choosing an issue it wants to tackle. Previously, team members have had a chance to meet each other (forming), struggle through a design/build exercise (storming), and develop guidelines for working together (norming).

After choosing an issue (e.g. disaster recovery), they gather information to help them frame the issue as a solvable problem. We advise them that the best solutions will address trade-offs and integrate the goals of the various stakeholders.

Having framed their problem, the teams use a structured brainstorming approach to generate solutions. They postpone evaluation to avoid stifling creativity. We harness the power of diversity in various ways, including by using a procedure that enables introverts and extroverts to contribute equally. Getting input from all team members and considering each person’s perspective builds trust.

Next, we separate ideas from the individuals who suggested them. This makes it easier for teams to evaluate each idea on its merits and to engage in constructive conflict without bad feelings.

During the evaluation phase, we introduce several tools. Teams cluster their ideas and identify key themes using “affinity diagramming. Later, they use “multi-voting” to select the best ideas. Giving everyone an equal vote fosters commitment to the outcome.

Finally, the teams produce action plans for conveying their proposed solutions in polished presentations. Team members hold each other accountable using an “accountability matrix” to specify who will do what, by when.

... they can analyze complex issues, problems, or even interpersonal situations, and then engineer a process to produce the results they want.

Results and Implications:  Stronger Teams and Better Performance in Solving Complex Problems

January 2019 marked the third year we have used the Team Creativity process at UPOP. Students frequently describe Team Creativity as the most valuable part of the team training. Outside observers are surprised to see how quickly groups of students become high-functioning teams and how well they perform on their projects. 

Meanwhile, the Team Creativity process is finding application outside UPOP. Several MIT alumni volunteers have used the methods to tackle business problems in their own companies. A working group at MIT adapted this approach to generate ideas for a new career development program. At last fall’s Inclusion by Design conference, attendees used the Team Creativity process to generate ideas for new products, better workplace design, and improved hiring and training methods. 

The CPRI framework has proven useful in developing the Team Creativity process, and in expediting team development, complex problem-solving, and decision-making at MIT. It also helps in managing ambiguity and complexity. It will be interesting to see what new applications arise.