Measuring success

One of my monitoring/evaluation (M&E) colleagues has challenged me some time ago to explain what exactly happens when the teams in our leadership development programs (LDPs) show ‘leadership’ and improve whatever it is they want to improve. What’s in that black box we call ‘transformation?’ I had already formulated some thoughts that take into account everything I am learning about the brain but this remains guess work, not the kind of reasoning that our M&E colleagues would find acceptable.

Getting hard data about transformation in the social sciences is not easy. I actually thought it was impossible until I read Sandy Pentland’s The New Science of Building Great Teams (HBR April 2012, reprint number: R1204C). The article describes fascinating research at MIT’s Human Dynamics lab about measuring what makes teams effective and high performing using metrics of success as indicators.

Sandy (whose real name is Alex Paul) and his team of researchers created electronic badges full of sensors for people to wear at work for weeks on end. These badges produced thousands of data points; measuring tone of voice, acts of verbal and non-verbal communication, proximity to others, etc.  Using the data thus produced, over a period of several weeks, they were able to say exactly what distinguished the teams that did well (as measured by their indicator of success) and teams that did not.

We won’t be able to repeat the high-tech approach of the MIT team in Africa quite yet but we can ride on their coat tails by using their conclusions: three factors seemed to make a difference:  energy (which we have to eyeball but they could actually measure), engagement (the number of verbal exchanges between team members, both in one-on-one settings and in group settings) and exploration (the number of exchanges with members from other teams).

The winning formula is thus: energetic action to move towards the desired result (as opposed to passively waiting for higher ups to solve problems), engagement with each other in frequent conversation, working on a task together, asking for ideas, perspectives (as opposed to retreating to one’s office or computer and trying to solve problems on their own without asking for input from others) and exploration (going outside one’s own ‘tribe’ to listen to other parts of the organization, reading about what others are doing, soliciting advice from experts in other domains (as opposed to staying in one’s own small circle of familiar contacts, one’s bubble).

After reading about the MIT work I realized that our intuitions were not that far off the mark. Listening to our trained facilitators here in Cote d’Ivoire, these are exactly the things they mention when we ask them ‘what changed?” Their responses are consistent: “I used not to work with others as a team before; I did things on my own. Now we talk more with each other about the work, we get input from people we never asked input from, we even work with people from other ministries or other parts of the health system.”

A few of my colleagues will remember what happened in Egypt in the early 2000s when we first tested our approach to leadership development which became our ‘’LDP’.  There is a video (Seeds of Success) on YouTube about this experience. You can see people talk about their transformation. Viewing it again through MIT’s new 3 ‘E’ lens, I am excited, seeing energy, engagement and exploration. They were all there, and I knew it intuitively, now supported by the MIT Human Dynamics lab’s Big Data.

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