What happens when 100 business leaders become lab rats?

By Kitty Knowles 11 April 2016

100 business leaders were put in a 'living' lab at a leading Ivy League university and told to play nice. Lessons have been learned.

There have been thousands of studies examining how rats run mazes. But what if instead of doing these solo, our rodent friends were challenged to work as a team to reach their goal?

What if we could use science to help our businesses work better?

This is the essence of a human study that’s been taking place at the Ivy League Wharton Business School in Philadelphia for the past three years.

Researchers created the experiment to examine how well business leaders can collaborate for the greater good.

They’ve identified our biggest strengths – and our biggest short fallings – and now Mario Moussa, Derek Newberry and Madeline Boyer have used their research to write a new book Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance.

We asked the scientists to tell us about their so-called ‘living lab’, what they learned and how we can all build better businesses…

Tools for a new world

While most entrepreneurs already know the benefits of teamwork, our new digital landscape means strengthening these skills is more important than ever.

“The way the world of work is shifting,” Mario Moussa told The Memo.

“Cultural and technological trends are making us more independent and hyper-connected at the same time – employees tend to be looking for less hierarchy, more autonomy, they collaborate remotely more frequently, and the pace of their work is picking up.

“In this kind of environment the ability to form and maintain cohesive teams is all the more important.”

Inside the Wharton ‘living lab’

To work out exactly how companies can improve their teamwork, researchers run a so-called ‘living lab’ three times a year at the esteemed Wharton Business School.

“Executives from all over the world and across industries join us for two weeks of intensive leadership development,” said Newberry, “They form teams and compete in a simulated market environment.”

“This creates a laboratory-like environment where we have been able to observe what makes teams work and why they fall apart.”

So far the study, part of Wharton’s Executive Development Program, has observed 100 teams over 100 simulated years.

Playing at business

Wharton’s simulated world of work has been designed to include all the stresses of real life.

“In the market environment we create, half of the teams are manufacturers of a fictional medical device, and half are the distributors,” says Moussa. “They partner and compete with each other to grow market share while remaining profitable.”

Mario Moussa, Madeline Boyer and Derek Newberry, authors of Committed Teams.
Mario Moussa, Madeline Boyer and Derek Newberry, authors of Committed Teams.

So what usually goes wrong?

According to the researchers, there are a few common flaws that lead teams to fall apart.

“Teams frequently forget to lay the foundations for good collaboration,” says Newberry. “They get overeager to just jump right in with their tasks, forgetting the importance of having good conversations about team goals, roles, and shared norms.”

“They end up paying for this later when teammates start getting pulled in different directions and going rogue.”

“Teams also forget to check in,” adds Moussa. “They assume everyone is still on the same page even as their environment changes. When things get off track teams will then talk about changes in abstract terms, saying things like ‘we need to speak up more’, that are hard to translate into concrete behaviours.”

How can we win at teamwork?

There are some smart ways leaders can keep their team on track, however.

“Leaders learn to give some autonomy to their team so they can grow and adapt without having the boss as a bottleneck,” says Newberry. “Small habit changes can also make the team work much more efficiently.”

“It can be as simple as starting each team meeting with 10 minutes of agenda setting.”

Finding a new break out space away from home or the office can also massively help your team, adds Moussa.

“Whether it be a lunch in the park or a happy hour, teams that perform well often create these spaces that build team relationships and spur creativity.”

A ‘3×3’ of top tips

Committed Teams suggests a ‘3×3 framework’ that presents top tips for teamwork. (These are based on the combination of three vital foundations and a three step process).

We asked the researchers for their one piece of advice they felt was most important: “Having good conversations is probably the most important thing a team can do,” said Newberry.

“Conversation is a team’s most effective collaboration tool.”

Why should everyone read Committed Teams?

It sounds helpful, but is Committed Teams for you?

” We wrote this book to give others the tools for navigating a changing world of work,” says Moussa. “Committed Teams is for anyone who has to work with and through others to get things done.”

Committed Teams is available in Hardcover on Amazon from £17.26.