Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Two essential traits of high-performing teams: they test solutions quickly and stay focused

Read time:

Marlys Christianson

While having a good strategy is important in business, a team that can alter course when a well-defined plan does not hold up is just as valuable.

A recent study led by professor Marlys Christianson showed that teams that are able to identify unexpected problems early, test out solutions quickly and resist becoming distracted by pressing demands, outperformed teams that didn’t do these things in a medical simulation.

Christianson, who is an associate professor in the organizational behaviour and human resource management area at the Rotman School, specializes in understanding how teams operate effectively in high-risk, dynamic and complex environments. One important area of her work focuses on the role of updating — that is, how quickly people and teams are able to revise their understanding and response to changing situations. 

“Updating is essentially the process of continually asking yourself and your teammates the questions: What’s going on here? Now what? What’s the story now?” explains Christianson. “This process applies in almost any organization and business function. Emerging technologies, evolving consumer demands and new regulations are forcing us to change how we do business.”

While updating sounds relatively straightforward, it can be difficult to do effectively.

In a recent study, Christianson, who is also a physician, closely analyzed 19 emergency department teams as they completed the same mock medical scenario. Each team was tasked with treating a young boy who was finding it harder and harder to breathe. The teams had access to medical supplies, were able to order blood work and chest X-rays and could consult with medical specialists.

There was one catch, however: one piece of medical equipment — a bag used for pumping oxygen into the lungs — was broken. If teams did not notice and replace the bag, their patient’s condition would get progressively worse.

While each team was faced with the same situation and had access to the same resources, the results varied. Eight teams were able to quickly realize the problem with the bag and replace it within five minutes, while other teams were slower or failed to reach these same conclusions during the simulation.

Christianson noticed that successful teams were skilled at making sense of the situation as it progressed. When effective teams realized that something was wrong, they quickly came up with a list of possible explanations for why, and got to work testing each possibility.

“It sounds easy enough, but in this scenario, there were a few different reasons that could account for why the patient wasn’t breathing properly,” says Christianson. “Staying focused and methodically testing each possibility — while managing with a case that becomes increasingly more urgent — can be especially challenging. The teams that followed through reaped the benefits.”

She observed that slower, less effective teams, on the other hand, tended to get stuck. They took considerably longer in coming up with possible causes for the problems they encountered and were slow at testing out the assumptions they had come up with.

As well, effective teams were able to strike a balance between completing the urgent tasks at hand while doing bigger-picture thinking.

In this study’s medical scenario, if a team didn’t replace the bag almost immediately, the patient would quickly deteriorate and eventually go into cardiac arrest — at that point, the demands become considerably more complicated. Successful teams somehow managed to tend to the patient’s immediate needs, without losing sight of their main goal of getting the patient breathing again.

This approach applies in business too, Christianson points out.

“I think many of us can relate to working in an environment where getting the pressing, day-to-day work done becomes overwhelming. The real challenge is not letting the daily responsibilities distract you from addressing the critical issues that your organization is dealing with.”

She recommends that teams do two things to ensure that they are effectively adapting to and making sense of complex, dynamic situations:

1. Admit there’s a problem.

“When you’ve developed a plan that you really believe in, it can be hard to recognize when it doesn’t make sense for your situation anymore,” says Christianson. “When you sense something is wrong, be willing to admit that there’s a problem.”

The sooner you admit that there’s an issue, the sooner you can get to work identifying the underlying causes.

2. Build interruptions into your work.

“Many of us have this natural inclination to keep the momentum going in our work, but sometimes that really works against us,” says Christianson.

She suggests setting up check-in points in the work cycle so that teams can step back to see how things are going. This should prevent them from becoming distracted or overlooking major problems.

“Commit to interrupting your work at set times and evaluating your progress. If you haven’t met your targets within a set timeframe, you have to admit that there’s a problem and make a change.”

Marlys Christianson is an associate professor of organizational behaviour at Rotman. Her work has been published in a variety of outlets, including Academy of Management Annals, Academy of Management Perspectives, Journal of Management Inquiry, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Organizational Research Methods, and Organization Science.