By Jennifer Alsever
April 10, 2014

FORTUNE — Some of the best performing corporations and institutions are those that encourage and enable teamwork—in the C-suite, within groups and across divisions. The secret to a great team is not simply about having the most experienced or smartest people on board. Here are 5 ways to build a top-performing team:

  • Push for casual conversations– not necessarily meetings

To boost collaboration at her Los Angeles skincare company Beautycounter, CEO Gregg Renfrew encourages her five-person executive team to spend more time talking one-on-one with each other—whether it’s a five-minute desk-side conversation or grabbing a cup of coffee. She tries to limit the number of people in conversations, avoid lengthy emails, scheduling phone calls and long formal meetings. Instead, she opts for quick stand-ups and group huddles.

It’s an about-face from her early days, when she found herself booked in meetings all day. Now, her team can be far more collaborative and gets far more done.

“It helps us stay in sync,” she says. “You can be decisive, you can be nimble, and you don’t get caught up in red tape.”

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Good communication is standard teamwork rhetoric. But casual conversations throughout the day can be vital to top-performing teams, according to researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Using badges with sensors that capture body language, gestures and tone of voice at people at dozens of companies, MIT researchers could predict with eerie precision a team’s performance based on the pattern of communication. The worst performing teams sat in more meetings, had a dominant team member or people who talked or listened but did not do both.

In fact, those informal conversations in the hallways or the break room may be even more important to team productivity than team members’ IQ, skill or experience, says MIT professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland.

Great teams don’t just talk amongst themselves either, he found. The more creative groups talked to people outside their own group—a lot. Yet it’s something most people forget to do. “The org chart says you talk to these six people,” says Pentland. “If you only do that then you get stuck with the same ideas going around and around again instead of new ideas.”

  •  Throw out the hierarchy

While most leaders think they must do the talking and set the agenda, teams really need them to be facilitators, bringing out the contributions of everyone, says Anita Woolley, a Carnegie Mellon University researcher who has studied teamwork. The best teams may be those that, to an outsider, it’s not entirely clear who is in charge. In fact, some teams need no leader at all.

Just look at the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in New York. For 40 years, the orchestra has worked in concert—literally –without a conductor. All of the 34 musicians get to make suggestions on what is played, how it is played, who can join the orchestra, and where and when they tour.

“Putting on a concert is nothing more than managing a short-term project,” says Krishna Thiagarajan, the orchestra’s executive director, whose role is akin to a band manager.

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The group selects a core group to oversee practice and performance for each music selection and elects three artistic directors for three-year terms. Anyone can give input and peers judge job performance.

Not every decision is a consensus, says Thiagarajan. But Orpheus has the highest job satisfaction of any professional orchestra and has catapulted to become one of the best in the world, delivering what Thiagarajan calls unique, “spirited” performances.

“You can see them breathing together, anticipating each other and working together as a team,” he says. “It’s a huge rush.”

  •  Seek out non-traditional diversity

When P.J. Pereira puts together teams for his San Francisco ad agency Pereira & O’Dell, he looks for diversity that goes beyond gender and race. He hires people based on their personal backgrounds. He has hired a wine industry veteran, a music producer, a Hollywood screenwriter – even a baker-turned-shark-wrestler. By combining different perspectives in one room, the team usually finds unexpected connections and original ideas. The combination has led to award-winning campaigns for Pereira & Dell and helped to land notable clients like Airbnb, Intel (INTC) and Skype. “The simplest way to help a company think outside the box,” says Pereira, “is to bring in people who have lived in different boxes.”

Pereira’s philosophy is backed by new research popping up around the idea of “thought diversity,” showing that teams of people with various backgrounds and cognitive styles are more willing to share ideas, make better decisions and deliver more innovation. “It is turning up over and over again as being the key ingredient for allowing teams to solve tough problems,” says Woolley.

  •  Be forthright

Harmony isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Teams suffer when the conversation is too polite, the debate muted and members don’t challenge each other –or their leaders. That lack of candor will inevitably debilitate decision-making and create a politicized culture, where people only speak their minds in private.

“The No. 1 erosion to shareholder value is conflict avoidance,” says Keith Ferrazzi, CEO of consulting firm Ferrazzi Greenlight. The firm studied 50 large companies and found the highest-performing teams were the most forthright.

He advises many large clients to appoint a team member to be a “Yoda,” inspired by the Star Wars character who will notice and speak up when something is left unsaid.

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One client, former Thomson-Reuters (TRI) CEO Devin Wenig, worked to make his executive team more candid, following the company’s 2008 merger. He started team meetings with personal check-ins and hosted dinners where teams share stories about past personal challenges. The idea: when people get to know each other better, they’re more likely to be honest about what they really think.

Eventually, his team opened up and established an environment where they could call each other out—even criticizing Wenig himself. Wenig has gone on to use the same approach as president of eBay’s global marketplaces (EBAY).

  • Keep what works

Common wisdom might lead executives to believe it’s a good thing to shake things up, perhaps rearranging individuals on teams or bringing in fresh faces. But those moves can actually hurt a team, says Woolley.

“If you have a high performing team, try to keep them together,” says Wooley. “If you move someone you may actually destroy value.”

Wooley points to a study by the Federal Aviation Administration that looked at major airline accidents between 1974 and 1990. The study found that 73% of errors occurred the first day of a first officer and a captain working together.

It’s not aviation science, but team continuity has paid off for the executive team at Whole Foods Market. (WFM) All seven executives have worked together for at least 18 years, something that co-CEO John Mackey compares to caring for a long marriage. Executives talk problems out and can even anticipate how one person will respond to an idea or a decision. “We’re synced up and we flow along,” he says.

 

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