I speak to many leaders and owners of companies that tell me projects are not getting completed as quickly as they should. It could be a variety of different things that are slowing them down. Things such as lack of communication, ego, no sense of urgency, to just having the wrong people on the team.
However, recently I started sharing another thing that could be preventing their teams from accomplishing the goal. And it doesn’t have to do anything with the personalities of the team. It is instead the distance of the team from each other while working on the project.
At the height the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union both, had teams of engineers working on multiple projects trying to develop and create more more weapon systems and satellite systems. Between the government projects and private enterprise projects, teams of engineers spent countless hours working trying to develop something that had never been done before.
And like in most organizations, there were teams that consistently outperformed other teams in developing and implementing new things and completing projects. The government commissioned a study to determine why some teams were just better at doing this than other teams. So they called on Thomas Allen who was a MIT Professor.
Allen started off his research by locating what he called “twin projects”, which was when two or more organizations, either private firms and the government were both working on the same problem. Or it could have been two groups with the government or two groups of private firms. Allen then measured the quality of their solutions and came up with a list of success factors that two teams had in common for completed projects.
What Allen determine pretty quickly was that the most successful projects were driven by individuals in groups that were very good communicators. After determining this, he wanted to see where these good communicators learned the skill. Did they all go to the same school? Did they have more experience? Were they better at basic leadership skills? Were they just smarter IQ? Did they know each other better? Allen looked at all of these factors and none of them gave any significance to being the reason for their superior communication skills.
Then he discovered something unique about where and how the teams of engineers were placed in their working environment. At first Allen didn’t think proximity of these teams had anything to do with their ability to get the jobs completed. But after looking at it further he determined that the most successful teams worked closer together physically.
“The ability to see each other everyday” Allen said, “is more important than you think.”
After determining this Allen researched it further by looking at the frequency of the communication between the teams. They started looking at this across all teams and determined something very interesting. The further away people worked from each other, the frequency of their communication rapidly decreased. Allen said “It is really a serious thing, if you’re on a different floor in some organizations, you may as well be in a different country.”
Allen plotted the frequency of interactions against distance, and he ended up with a line that resembled a steep hill. It was almost vertical at the top and flat at the bottom. This became known as the Allen Curve.
As you can see by the curve that the steepness starts right at the eight meter mark. At eight meters or less that communication rises off the charts.
In today’s world with digital communications research has also found that teams still obey the Allen Curve. One study found that workers who shared a location emailed one another four times as often as workers who did not, and as result they completed their projects 32 percent faster (Daniel Coyle; The Culture Code, Bantam Books 2018).
As a trainer I work with organizations daily on the importance of communication in the workplace and how do it more effectively. One of the biggest things I will now share with them is the importance of proximity amongst the team.
The fact is that if we see each other and we know we have to face each other, we will communicate more effectively and more often, these two things determine success on projects and in the workplace.
To your success and your future.
Notes: I originally read about the Allen Curve in Daniel Coyles book The Culture Code. I highly recommend this book to anybody who wants to create a better working team. Proximity matters. Google has also understood the importance of this and have designed all of their facilities accordingly to create the most opportunities for teams to collaborate and work together.