An interesting article from the NY Times about a 2012 Google initiative— code-named Project Aristotle — to study hundreds of Google’s teams and figure out why some stumbled while others soared.
The article itself is a longer and more narrative recount of what has been posted earlier by one of the lead researchers, Rozovsky. Following is a summary and highlights, see the article for the entire text.
After months arranging and looking at the data, Rozovsky and her colleagues were not able to find any patterns or even an evidence that the composition of a team made any difference.
We were dead wrong. Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.
As they struggled to figure out what made a team successful, they looked at what are known as ‘‘group norms’’: the traditions, behavioural standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather.
Team members may behave in certain ways as individuals but when they gather, the group’s norms typically override individual proclivities and encourage deference to the team.
Project Aristotle’s researchers began searching for instances when team members described a particular behaviour as an ‘‘unwritten rule’’ or when they explained certain things as part of the ‘‘team’s culture’’ and which norms mattered most.
There were other behaviors that seemed important as well — like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.
Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’
However, establishing psychological safety is, by its very nature, somewhat messy and difficult to implement.
What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.
Finally, Google created a 10-minute exercise that summarises how the team is doing on five key dynamics:
- Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
- Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
- Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
- Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
- Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?