Spark #

Surgeons & Signals

This is why we work; this is what we’re aiming for.

Spark #
Surgeons & Signals
What We're Talking About

The principle we're discussing

In this Spark, you'll understand how patterns of real-time signals help teams perform fast and well.

A great way to measure a group’s culture is through their “learning velocity,” i.e. how quickly they can learn a new skill together. 

Sometimes it’s easy to assume which teams will move fast and perform well, but you know what they say about assuming… 

Take these surgical teams for example. In 1998, Harvard researchers tracked how 16 different teams learned to perform a new heart surgery technique. The list of hospitals included some big names, like the elite Chelsea Hospital—favored as the stand-out team. 

However, a small rural hospital named Mountain Medical Center learned “fast and well,” completing surgeries an hour before Chelsea with high marks of efficiency and patient satisfaction. 

Upon further discovery, the 16 hospital teams fell into two categories: high success and low success. They either clicked, or they didn’t. Let’s take a look at what’s required for better connections.

Why it Matters

Why this principle is important and matters to you

Why did an elite, favored team like Chelsea Hospital fall behind, while Mountain Medical Center learned a new surgical technique so quickly in lockstep? Researchers found that the answer lay in the “patterns of real-time signals.” And these signals consisted of five basic types:

  1. Framing: Successful teams conceptualized the technique as a learning experience that would benefit patients.
  2. Roles: Successful teams were explicitly told by the team leader why their individual and collective skills were important for the team’s success.
  3. Rehearsal: Successful teams did elaborate dry runs of the procedure.
  4. Explicit encouragement to speak up: Successful teams were told by their leaders to speak up if they saw a problem. They were also coached through the feedback process.
  5. Active reflection: Between surgeries, successful teams went over performance, discussed future cases, and suggested improvements.
How You Can Use It

This provides practical ways to apply learnings from this Spark

Teams that perform together quickly and in sync don’t usually exhibit the traits we often associate with success: experience and status.

When conquering a new skill, procedure, or practice, groups need to channel their attention toward a larger goal with a “steady pulse of real-time signals.” These various signals create narrative links between the problem at hand and what their efforts mean on a grand scale. Patients will benefit. You have a future with this team. This drumbeat of communication orients the team both to the task, and to each other.

Learn from the researcher of this study: Amy Edmondson about a key observation from the hospital results:


An opportunity to reflect on yourself and/or your team and how you can apply these insights

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