Turning Team Brainpower into Business Results Credit: Vichaya Kiatying-angsulee | Dreamstime.com

Ann Herrmann-Nehdi, CEO of Herrmann International, contributed this article to BusinessNewsDaily's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

With business and market demands high, it's no surprise companies are turning to teams to get results. The team advantage is based on an expectation that the whole will add up to more than the sum of its parts.

But is that really happening?

Consider just a few of the challenges today's teams are dealing with:

  • complex problems with no clear-cut solutions
  • severe time and resource constraints
  • virtual, diverse and cross-functional participants
  • heightened customer expectations and competitive pressures

It's tough to be productive in such an environment, yet we're asking teams to do more and do it faster and better than ever. For all the teambuilding retreats, sensitivity training sessions, and personality and productivity workshops we send people through, however, too many teams still struggle and their companies are losing out.

Many of these activities "make us feel good," says Margaret Neale, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. "What they don't do is improve team performance."

Even worse, a survey of 1,000 employees in the UK revealed that they often "only succeed in leaving staff feeling more awkward about dealing with their colleagues."

These approaches often fail to significantly improve performance and productivity or drive business results because they overlook an essential factor: Thinking.

Harnessing the collective intelligence of teams

Our more than 30 years of research on the brain and performance has shown that when people come together, their ability to communicate, problem solve and get the most from their diverse experience and perspectives starts with understanding how they prefer to think, both as individuals and as a group. To what degree do they prefer analytical, structured, interpersonal or conceptual styles of thinking, and how do these different modes affect team dynamics and contribute to overall outcomes?

With knowledge workers, you can't develop and maintain an exceptional, consistently high-performing team without focusing first on the thinking that drives the team's behaviors and actions. This is true whether you're dealing with intact (co-located or virtual) or project-specific teams, or if you just need people to collaborate on the fly to address everyday issues.

It's also true for any type of team, whether in the workplace or on the playing field, but from a business standpoint, focusing on thinking versus personality offers additional advantages: It removes emotion from issues a team may typically avoid addressing, and it drills down to the mental processes behind behaviors, providing a clear business connection and applicability.

Power up every meeting of the minds

Thinking style data, which can be assessed and then used as a starting point for discussions and activities, reveals a number of important clues about how a team works. The preferences of individual members and the team as whole will affect the way the team:

  • communicates
  • makes decisions
  • manages processes and work flows
  • generates ideas
  • solves problems

Using a thinking-based approach to team development allows you to address team alignment issues in the context of their business challenges and create a foundation for productive collaboration, even when face time is rare and projects are intense and pressure filled.

Here are some tips for getting the most from a team's brainpower:

Recognize that getting results requires more than just getting along. Team members have to understand how their thinking drives performance and how to optimize what they do to be more efficient and effective.

Use cognitive diversity to your strategic advantage. As business issues grow more complex, assemble teams with the mental diversity to tackle them. The most innovative ideas and solutions come from diverse thinking and "creative abrasion."

Bring in smart management. The more diverse a team is, the more important it is to have a skilled leader involved to ensure diverse thinking is respected, managed, heard and applied.

Push homogenous teams outside their comfort zones. Teams comprised of largely similar thinking styles need to learn to see past their mental "blind spots,"hold each other accountable for stretching their thinking, and if necessary, bring in different thinking and outside perspectives.

Provide training and on-the-job tools. Knowing about thinking preferences is just the first step. Team members need skills and tools to apply that knowledge so they can benefit from it.

When team members understand the importance of a breadth of thinking and how each person's thinking adds value, differences will be viewed in a nonjudgmental way, and the team will have new context for how they can tackle the inevitable challenges the come up. As a professor who uses this approach in MBA team programs explains:

"Once they get the concept that we all have brains, we just use them differently, and that we need all of those modes of thinking to get the job done, they get over the typical quibbling that takes up so much energy and drags down effectiveness."

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher.