With engineering teams being tasked with solving problems and meeting product launch deadlines faster than ever before, many engineering leaders are asking what makes some engineering teams within an enterprise more successful and productive than others. Do assembled teams with just “A-players” consistently outperform the diverse teams to achieve greater results?

These are questions in which Margaret Heffernan, an international businesswoman, author and interviewer answers at one of her Ted Talks entitled, Why it’s time to forget the pecking order at work.

Heffernan starts off her Ted Talk by sharing a story about William Muir, an evolutionary biologist at Purdue University, regarding his research on chickens to see what would make them more productive. Muir held an experiment by organizing two distinct groups of chickens, and he tracked their results over six generations to see which of these two groups produced the most eggs.

The first group he put together was just an average flock while for the second group he assembled the most productive “super chickens,” known as a “super flock.” And in each generation of the “super flock” he selected only the most productive chickens for breeding.

Most people would assume the second group would outperform the first because they had all the stars. The results from Muir’s research, however, showed just the opposite.

The first group of average chickens vastly outperformed the second group – they were fully plumped and feathered, and egg production skyrocketed. With the second group, all but three were dead at the end of the study. This super flock suppressed the productivity of the rest – they literally pecked each other to death.

What does this have to do with engineering teams within your enterprise?

As Heffernan states, for the past 50 years, most organizations have followed this super chicken model in which they pick the superstars and give them all the resources and power to drive long-term results. And what’s interesting to note is that these organizations have experienced the same results as William Muir’s experiment – “aggression, dysfunction, and waste.”

The teams that consistently outperform the others, however, mirror the first group from Muir’s research. These high achieving groups are not those that are made up of superstar achievers, or have a high aggregate IQ among its team members. Instead, these groups consisted of average people who achieved success through social connectedness with each other.

When teams are socially connected, ideas flow and grow as team members are highly attuned and sensitive to each other. Everyone is on equal footing within these groups, and each member feels valued for his or her unique abilities and what he or she can contribute to the overall success of the team. No one voice dominates the conversation within these groups.

Socially connected groups also achieve greater results as they favor helpfulness over individual IQ. This culture of helping each other, versus relying on “stars” helps companies achieve remarkable results. And this is created by having employees get to know each other at work through social cohesion – built over every coffee break as Heffernan points out.

All of this added up together creates social capital (also known as relational capital), which is the reliance and interdependence between team members that builds trust.

Heffernan states that social capital compounds with time as teams that work together over long periods develop a real candor and openness among each other. For engineering teams, social capital leads to greater value over time as engineers form a deeper bond with one another to consistently ideate, versus “pecking each other” to stand-out from the pack.

How to achieve social capital with geographically dispersed engineering teams

Most enterprises operate with functional teams spread across the globe, and engineers are working globally even more than other functions within the business. Creating social capital within these teams can be a logistical challenge as employees are not in the same room getting to know each other over coffee. However, many teams do leverage modern collaboration platforms, such as enterprise-grade video conferencing solutions, to effectively traverse the geographical distance.

Through rich video collaboration sessions, engineers can share content, like BIM or CAD drawings, and participants can clearly see these drawings and white boards in real-time.

Also, many engineering teams rely on simple to use, ubiquitous video platforms as these are the closest replica to hallway and water cooler conversations. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leverages Polycom® RealPresence Centro™ as an important piece of collaboration technology to create a more comfortable, intimate and natural means to collaborate, ideate and mimic these conversations.

Lastly, video conferences can be securely recorded and watched on-demand. These recorded meetings can also be archived and searched to help document the achievement of project milestones. This allows leaders to look at the team’s overall progress to keep everyone on track, without disruption.

Social capital in action

At the end of Heffernan’s Ted Talk, she shares the story about The Montreal Protocol and their success in leveraging social capital to phase out Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s).

CFC’s at the time were everywhere, and they were implicated in causing a hole in the ozone layer. No one knew if a substitute could be found, but one team rose to the occasion with the use of three key principles:

  1. The head of engineering insisted that there be no stars on the team. Everyone on the team was needed, and each member had a valid perspective to be heard.
  2. The team was to work to one standard only – the best imaginable.
  3. The head of engineering’s boss was given explicit instructions to stay out of the way. He was to provide air cover and to listen to ensure the group honored these principles only.

With the use of these three principles, this was the first group to crack the case to identify a safer alternative to CFC’s. To date, The Montreal Protocol is the most successful international environmental agreement ever implemented.

Engineering teams need to stop working like “super chickens.” Teams assembled in which everyone plays a vital part through social cohesion will help drive imagination and long-term value. And the companies that use the right video collaboration technology solutions to overcome distance can create and maintain social capital to drive greater results regardless of the where their engineers do their work.