Why Dental Team Familiarity is Key to Performance



In December 2013’s issue of Harvard Business Review, Robert Huckman (professor at Harvard Business School) and Bradley Staats (associate professor at the University of North Carolina), reviewed studies on the benefits of keeping teams intact to optimize performance and the probability of highest success.


They reported that even though managers understand intuitively that team familiarity influences how well a team performs, most managers do not realize the full importance of team familiarity in this era when fluid teams are constantly “forming, disbanding and regrouping” with the goal of getting things done, preventing staleness and ensuring fresh thinking.


In the case of dental practices, the economy of the last few years has motivated some dentists to downsize, relocate, and regroup in shared operations. It has motivated new dentists to try their wings in various “managed” practices and group settings. If this is you, pay particular attention to what Huckman and Staats discovered. Do you need to develop and maintain your own personal practice team? Do you need to work with a finite set of personally selected specialists (OMS, ceramist, etc.) to develop true collaboration through familiarity.


Back to Huckman and Staats to learn why team familiarity is so important to high performance and success…


Studies of flight crews indicate they do better as their team members become familiar with one another. Studies of basketball teams indicate they do better the longer the players are together. In a study of Bangalore-based software services firm Wipro, the University of Oxford professor David Upton studied 1,004 development projects involving 11,376 employees. This study determined which employees worked together before and to what extent. The number of defects in the software, staying on the development schedule and within budget was positively correlated with the number of people on the team who had worked together before. Familiarity was a better predictor of performance than looking at the experience of the team members.



What do Huckman and Staats say is creating this effect?


1.    Members new to one another do not understand when and how to communicate with each other leading to conflict and confusion. Familiar teams communicate well. When members learn how and when to communicate with each other on one project, it carries over to the next project.


2.    Members who are not familiar with each other do not know who has what information and what strengths. When they know each other well, they can tap each other for information, training, and immediate help. The result? Fewer bugs, fewer re-dos, increased productivity and amortized investment leading to higher satisfaction!


3.    When emergencies or stress in the workplace require team members to pivot mid-project, team familiarity provides a common understanding of how to meet the demands. “We’ve been here before, and ah yes, this is how we successfully handled it.”


4.    Familiarity even fuels innovation. How? Innovative solutions come from new combinations of existing knowledge. Teams that are communicating well, share bits of knowledge viewed from multiple perspectives, and integrate their knowledge and perspsective in collaborative solutions.


5.    In a team with familiarity, the higher performance edge is based on interdependency. A competitor would have to hire away your entire team and build familiarity with it in order to out compete your performance. Members recognize they will not be as successful standing on their own. They value working together; ergo, familiarity fosters retention.



How can we create better teams through familiarity?


1.    Allow team members to work together frequently.  They can also work independently and rotate — but some togetherness will go a long way.


2.    Like a good soccer coach, observe the frequency at which members are combined to work on a project. Make sure everyone gets time on the field to work with other members of the team.


3.    Create bonding times for discussion and team recognition. And don’t forget the kind of hospitality that contributes to high morale and motivation.


4.     When a new employee is added to the team, make sure everyone is looking out for that new member to offer information and to include the newcomer in conversations, teamwork, and the moments you gather to enjoy each other as people.


5.    Overcome the instinctive desire to shake things up. Work for long-term satisfaction on the job so employees want to stay.


6.     Think outside the office walls. Who in the wider world is part of your team? Specialists you refer to? Your supply rep? Your practice management consultant? Your team’s favorite continuing education instructors? Your accountant? Your marketing consultant? The local deli that delivers lunch when you are crushed? Allow flexibility and remote participation to keep familiar people involved with your team.