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In Praise of Small Data: 3 Guidelines for High-Performing Teams

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As soon as the idea of Big Data was introduced, its buzz grew to rival any massive dataset. According to MIT’s visionary computer scientist Alex Pentland, Big Data would overturn the “classical way of understanding society” and usher in a “new era of social physics.” Others predicted it would cause a “management revolution.” 


We admit to being awed by large-scale statistics and inspired by such bold pronouncements. But we also understand that even Big Data has its limitations. We've become convinced it never will be able to solve all your business problems -- least of all, one of the biggest and most important issues you face very day: working with others.

For that, you need small data. Small data is about picking up on subtle cues that reveal a group’s conflicting interests, assumptions and underlying motivations. Any of these can kill trust and derail productivity. 

Mastering small data is essential in what we call the new world of work. Look around you: Work is becoming flatter (less top-down), looser (more reliant on temporary project-based jobs), wider (more dependent on virtual communication) and faster (driven by high-speed electronic information). As working relationships become more fragmented in this rapid-fire environment, mastery of small-data skills will grow ever-more important. 

Related: Why Entrepreneurs Should Look Beyond Big Data

What makes the difference between Big Data's shortcomings and small data's capacity to fill this role? It's all in the ability to notice team interactions. If you can spot the patterns, you can initiate productive conversations as a group. From that perspective, it's clear that gathering large amounts of data about individuals in the aggregate won't help you much in this new world.

Small data hit a national stage.

The current political season has highlighted the importance of using small data to understand earth-shaking trends. The results from the major parties' national conventions blindsided many experts. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, two outlier candidates, outperformed nearly every pundit’s expectations. 

What happened? As Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi wisely observed, we ignored small data: “Nothing exceeds the value of shoe-leather reporting, given that politics is an essentially human endeavor and therefore can defy prediction and reason." Business is a human endeavor, too. So do some shoe-leather reporting on your team and note the little details that matter.    

Analytics tell the real story.

Feeling skeptical about the importance of those details? Before you dismiss our paean to small data, consider a recent discovery from the temple of data-analytics: Google. When Google’s numbers-driven engineers turned their attention to the mysteries of high-performance teamwork, they learned that good relationships matter. So does trust. Team members need to feel comfortable speaking their minds. These psychological factors appeared to have a bigger impact than even technical knowledge and raw intelligence.

We reached similar conclusions in our research at the Wharton School of Business. The Executive Development Program (EDP), a two-week immersive course for global leaders, provided us a living laboratory in which to observe behaviors that help and hinder team performance. Much of our findings confirm what Google engineers learned. Observing 100 groups over 100 simulated years, we discovered the highest-performing teams go through a regular process of discussing shared ground rules and periodically checking in on those guidelines to make adjustments. 

Related: Become a Fantastic Listener With These 9 Techniques

Sounds easy, right? It’s not. Personal lives change, organizational priorities shift, and competitors produce innovations that require a response. To contend with unceasing change and pressure, the best teams maintain an open conversation that enables give-and-take and keeps each person engaged. This helps get the most out of a group.

A few guidelines make all the difference.

In the new world of work, you need remember only three directives. Applying them consistently and well is the hard part.

  1. Be your own observer: The great management theorist Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Follow Yogi’s lead and pay attention to cues that your team members aren't on the same page. The best team leaders adopt an “observer’s mindset” by working hard to avoid two common cognitive biases: overvalued positive outcomes and motivated blindness. Even when your team enjoys a success, take a moment to reflect on what could have gone wrong. Always seek out evidence that disconfirms basic assumptions about how a problem should be solved.
  2. Have one-on-ones: Once you've noticed issues bubbling up in your team, the best strategy to create an environment of open communication is focusing on one conversation at a time. How? Forget the worn-out advice to avoid the “meeting before a meeting.” Individual sit-downs are the most effective way to hear people out before a big group decision. These low-pressure conversations allow everyone to feel heard and also reduce the risk of being surprised by objections or criticisms. Remember a few key tips for these conversations: show humility, respect differing interpersonal styles, and listen and inquire without judging what you hear. That last one's much harder than you'd think, so practice until you get it right.  
  3. Take small steps: As an outcome of these conversations, aim for incremental, manageable adjustments to your team’s behavior rather than drastic changes. Research on behavioral change shows it works best when you focus on small changes that matter. For example, you might ask a domineering team member to try to sit back and listen for the first 10 minutes of major meetings. Highlighting simple, specific changes is more likely to work than launching major reforms, and you'll also benefit from meaningful interaction with your people.

Related: 5 Attributes All Winning Teams Share

Ultimately, the highest-performing groups are the ones that pay attention to these guidelines. It might not be revolutionary to believe that people perform best when they're part of a respectful, supportive group. But here's a bit of real news: It might be rare to find such a group. It takes hard work to create highly functional teams, especially in the distracting environment of today’s results-driven, data-rich, always-on office cultures. Make it a little easier for you and your employees by paying attention to details even as you struggle to stay informed on Big Data trends.

Mario Moussa and Derek Newberry

Written By

Mario Moussa and Derek Newberry are co-authors of the book, Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance. Moussa is the pesident of Moussa Consulting, a strategic planning and leadership-development firm. Newberry is an affiliated faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania and a consultant at Wharton Executive Education. Connect with Moussa at, and with Newberry via Twitter.