In 1969, Dr Meredith Belbin, a British researcher and management theorist, was invited to use this business game as a starting point for a study of team behaviour.
Having an interest in group as well as individual behaviour, but with no particular theories about teams, he enlisted the aid of three other scholars: Bill Hartston, mathematician and international chess master; Jeanne Fisher, an anthropologist who had studied Kenyan tribes; and Roger Mottram, an occupational psychologist. Together they began what was to be a nine-year task. Three business games a year with eight teams in each game, and then in meeting after meeting, observing, categorising and recording all the different kinds of contribution from team members.
The BUSINESS simulation
Those participating were invited to take psychometric tests plus a test of high level reasoning ability called the Critical Thinking Appraisal (CTA). Teams of various designs were composed on the basis of these individual test scores. Every half minute the contribution of the person speaking was recorded and classified into one of seven categories by trained observers. At the end of the exercise, which ran off and on throughout a week, the results of each team (operating as a company) were presented financially, which allowed more effective and less effective “companies” to be compared.
A battery of psychometric tests was assembled, comprising measures of:
- High level reasoning ability (the Critical Thinking Appraisal)
- Personality (the 16 scales of the Cattell Personality Inventory or 16PF)
- Outlook (the Personal Preference Questionnaire or PPQ, developed specifically for the purpose)
What was at first deemed to be likely was that high-intellect teams would succeed where lower intellect teams would not. However, the outcome of this research was that certain teams, predicted to be excellent based on intellect, failed to fulfil their potential.
In fact, it became apparent by looking at the various combinations that it was not intellect, but balance, which enabled a team to succeed. Successful “companies” were characterised by the compatibility of the roles that their members played while unsuccessful companies were subject to role conflict. Using information from psychometric tests and the CTA, predictions could be made on the roles that individuals played and ultimately on whether the company would be more likely to figure among the winners or losers.
One interesting point to observe from the experiment was that individuals reacted very differently within the same broad situation. It is a common experience that individual differences can cause a group to fall apart. People just don’t fit in. On the other hand, variation in personal characteristics can become a source of strength if they are recognised and taken account of. So understanding the nature of these differences can become an essential first step in the management of people, providing one can recognise what is useful for a given situation and what is not.
The most successful companies tended to be those with a mix of different people, i.e. those with a range of different behaviours. In fact, eight distinct clusters of behaviour turned out to be distinctive and useful. These were called “Team Roles,” and in fact, a ninth based on specialist knowledge was to emerge later. These Team Roles have been used in organisations and teams across the world ever since.
The NINE Belbin Team Roles
|Team Role||Contribution||Allowable Weaknesses|
|Plant||Creative, imaginative, free-thinking. Generates ideas and solves difficult problems.||Ignores incidentals. Too preoccupied to communicate effectively.|
|Resource Investigator||Outgoing, enthusiastic, communicative. Explores opportunities and develops contacts.||Over-optimistic. Loses interest once initial enthusiasm has passed.|
|Co-ordinator||Mature, confident, identifies talent. Clarifies goals. Delegates effectively.||Can be seen as manipulative. Offloads own share of the work.|
|Shaper||Challenging, dynamic, thrives on pressure. Has the drive and courage to overcome obstacles.||Prone to provocation. Offends peoples feelings.|
|Monitor Evaluator||Sober, strategic and discerning. Sees all options and judges accurately.||Lacks drive and ability to inspire others. Can be overly critical.|
|Teamworker||Co-operative, perceptive and diplomatic. Listens and averts friction.||Indecisive in crunch situations. Avoids confrontation.|
|Implementer||Practical, reliable, efficient. Turns ideas into actions and organises work that needs to be done.||Somewhat inflexible. Slow to respond to new possibilities.|
|Completer Finisher||Painstaking, conscientious, anxious. Searches out errors. Polishes and perfects.||Inclined to worry unduly. Reluctant to delegate.|
|Specialist||Single-minded, self-starting, dedicated. Provides knowledge and skills in rare supply.||Contributes only on a narrow front. Dwells on technicalities.|
I think what’s fascinating about this kind of study is how much more applicable it starts to become as roles facet more and teams diversify. Talent continues to grow from strength to strength and we, as managers of teams, need to consider the dynamics as much as the inputs and outputs. I’ve managed a lot of projects recently where the most talented of people produced the most disappointing of outputs (there are other variables of course – like ‘the brief’, and ‘the client’) but a lot of the time Talent ≠ Game Changing. Dynamic = Game Changing. It’s worth factoring that into your team decisions.