What makes teams successful? What Google's Project Aristotle concluded


Google’s Project Aristotle.  Google spent 2 years and enormous amounts of resources studying over 180 teams to figure out the answer to the question – What makes teams successful?  These are the five factors they found are essential to any high-performing team. The most important factor is “psychological safety,” a term coined by Harvard Professor Amy Edmonson. It affects organizational culture and team effectiveness.

The Why of Google’s Project Aristotle

Individual brilliance vs. team effectiveness

Individual brilliance is great, but team cohesiveness is more important.  Most of the work done today is in projects involving multiple people working in teams. An article, published in The Harvard Business Review in Jan-Feb 2016, title “Collaborative Overload,” states the following.  Over the last two decades – ‘‘The time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more.’’

Talent management’s primary focus has been on measuring and managing individual performance.  But it is not enough. Analyzing and improving individual performance does not translate into the performance of teams or workgroups.  Hence the focus on what makes teams successful led to Google’s Project Aristotle.

To quote Michael Jordan – Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.

It is true in sports and business.  In cohesive teams, the whole is a lot greater than the sum of its parts.  When teams work in synergy, they achieve extraordinary performance.  In dysfunctional teams, it is vice versa.  The whole ends up being a lot less than the sum of the parts.   You can put a group of 6-10 high-performing individuals on a team. Yet, their performance together as a team may be disappointing; how a group of individuals performs together as a team is unpredictable at best.

Google’s Project Aristotle – What makes teams successful? What makes the team effective?

In 2012, Google set out to answer this important question – What makes teams successful?  Google coined it “Google’s Project Aristotle.”  The name Google’s Project Aristotle comes from the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s quote – “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” 

Obviously, this is not a new idea!  Many companies, academicians, sociologists, and psychologists have attempted to find the answer to this exact question.  A lot of this previous research on what makes teams successful often included easy subjects.  These experimental teams often comprised Graduate students – in an artificial college environment and not real-life work at the office.

However, Google wanted to study real work teams. With Google, things are a little different. Google is a very successful company with access to enormous amounts of resources.  They spent 2 years studying 180 real and diverse teams at Google.  These were not experimental teams but were real teams doing “real” work in a corporate setting.

Google has a data-driven approach.  They conducted over 200 interviews conducted.  They analyzed over 250 different attributes of teams. They defined what comprised a team.  They also defined how to measure team effectiveness.  They measured it in terms of the leader, team manager, and team members’ performance and opinions.  They collected both quantitative and qualitative data and used their brainpower to analyze the data.  They sought to find the “algorithm” that would predict what makes teams successful.

The “recipe” for what makes teams successful

Google wanted to find a “recipe” for what makes teams successful.  Initially, the Google researchers thought that ingredients could be

  • put in a few of the high performers on the team
  • add an experienced manager
  • please give them a free pass to all resources

And the expectation was that you would have the output in terms of a high-performing team. Google found that this wasn’t true at all!  The constitution of the team or its Geographical location didn’t matter a lot.  What mattered more were the “team norms.”  Team norms are how the teams interacted.  Who was on the team didn’t matter much?   Instead, how the teams worked together made the difference.

What factors didn’t matter a lot for the team effectiveness

To their surprise, Project Aristotle researchers discovered that several common factors thought to impact team performance and effectiveness didn’t matter much. 

The variables that didn’t matter much to the team effectiveness at Google:

  • The collocation of teammates (sitting together in the same office)
  • Consensus-driven decision making
  • Extroversion of team members
  • Individual performance of team members
  • Workload size
  • Seniority
  • Team size
  • Tenure

5 Factors common to effective teams at Google

Google found 5 factors common in their quest to answer – what makes teams successful.   These five factors are listed below in the order of their importance.

Psychological safety:

Team members feel safe taking risks and being vulnerable in front of each other without the fear of being embarrassed, ridiculed, or face any other consequences.  Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk-taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.

Read an article on Psychological safety at work – Why you need it and how to develop it.

Dependability:

On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time.  The opposite of dependability is shirking responsibilities.  Team members get things done on time and meet Google’s high bar for excellence.

Structure and clarity:

Team members have clear roles, plans, and goals.  Every team member clearly understands job expectations.  He/she also knows the process of fulfilling these expectations. The consequences of the individual team member’s performance are also clear.   They can set goals individually or at a group level.  The goals must be specific, challenging, and attainable. Google often uses Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to help set and communicate short and long-term goals.

Meaning:

Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output is important for team effectiveness.  Work is personally important and meaningful to the team members. The meaning of work is personal and can vary amongst many factors.  These factors can be: financial security, supporting family, helping the team succeed, or self-expression for each individual.

Impact:

Teams have to feel that their work and their output are making a difference. When teams see their efforts contributing to the organization’s goals, they feel that their work impacts. Team members believe that their work matters to the company and the customers.

Image credit – https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136/

How to apply the learning of Google’s Project Aristotle to your teams at our organization?

Google’s research team wanted team members to understand what was going on with their teams. So they created a survey for teams to take and discuss amongst themselves. Survey items were questions based on the five factors of team effectiveness.  Your team can use these same questions in your organization.

Psychological safety – “If I make a mistake on our team, it is not held against me.”

Dependability – “When my teammates say they’ll do something, they follow through with it.”

Structure and Clarity – “Our team has an effective decision-making process.”

Meaning – “The work I do for our team is meaningful to me.”

Impact – “I understand how our team’s work contributes to the organization’s goals.”

After everyone on the team had anonymously completed the survey, the scores were shared with the team.  A facilitator would be present to start a dialogue and a discussion to understand the survey scores’ details and plan to improve team effectiveness.

Our team coaching helps your teams improve on the Five factors of team effectiveness.

Learn more about our team coaching process that delivers measurable and guaranteed team growth.  

Read Team coaching – Everything you wanted to know about it.

Amy Edmondson’s research on “psychological safety.”

Harvard professor and organizational behavior researcher Amy Edmondson coined the term psychological safety.  She defines psychological safety as “a shared belief held by team members that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

How to measure psychological safety?

Amy Edmondson observed that the level of psychological safety varied considerably, even on teams within the same organization.  She has devised a 7 question survey to measure the level of psychological safety within a team. Team members anonymously answer these questions on a scale of 1 to 7.   Here are the 7 questions.

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  2. Members of this team can bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

FREE team assessments

We are happy to offer a FREE assessment for your first team based on the five factors of team effectiveness.  We also offer the psychological safety assessment, FREE for your first team.  The teams with a higher level of psychological safety outperform teams with a low level of psychological safety.  The FREE assessment allows you to gauge the level and work on improving psychological safety, usually through a team coaching process.  If you would like to take advantage of the complimentary assessments, click below to schedule a quick conversation and get the process started

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Watch the webinar: Webinar on Google’s Secret Recipe to Build a High-Performance Team

Conclusion of  Google’s Project Aristotle

Google spent a lot of time and used its enormous resources to provide a research-based answer to the question of what makes teams successful.  They also studied “real work teams” at Google.  To their surprise, the team constitution (who was on the team) didn’t matter a whole lot.  What mattered was how the team members interacted – or the team norms or culture.  They found five factors common to effective teams at Google.  The most significant factor was “psychological safety” – a term coined by Harvard researcher Amy Edmonson.  The 7 question survey and ensuing discussion with a facilitator are the best way to improve your teams’ effectiveness.

Google’s Project  Aristotle in the new normal

In 2020, the world faced an unprecedented crisis of the Covid pandemic.  For a few months, the world came to a standstill.  Eventually, companies figured out ways to let employees work from home.  They installed the required technology and processes to allow remote teams to work together. 

Is Google’s Project Aristotle relevant in the new normal?  I want to discuss a couple of interesting factors from the study.

The collocation of teammates (sitting together in the same office):  Google found that teammates’ collocation didn’t impact team effectiveness much.  It wasn’t in the top five factors that impacted team effectiveness. Due to the pandemic, a large number of employees are working from home.  Although work from home is a work in progress, whether the team works in the same office or works from home shouldn’t be much of a team effectiveness factor.  This is an interesting point.  As of March 2021, many companies are considering a hybrid workplace – in-person plus remote work.  While many companies are concerned about the productivity and effectiveness of remote teams, it shouldn’t be a significant factor, especially after the processes and habits have been installed properly.

Psychological safety is even more important in the new normal:  Google found that psychological safety was the linchpin of the five factors that impact team effectiveness.  Psychological safety is even more important to help teams collaborate during the pandemic and thrive in the new normal.  The pandemic has caused disruptions and uncertainty, which increase the need for team learning and team collaboration.  Without a climate of psychological safety, team members may have difficulty sharing their concerns, ideas, and issues.  Without psychological safety, remote teams may remain ineffective.  The culprit, in such a case, is not the remote work or remote teams.  The lack of psychological safety on the teams is whether the teams are remote teams or collocated teams.

New normal needs a new kind of leadership

The pandemic has drastically changed the way we work.  Many remote work and remote teams are likely to stay even after the crisis is over; the new normal needs a new kind of leadership.  The new normal requires rapid learning, quickly adapting, and using the entire team’s collective intelligence to stay ahead of disruptions.

Are your leaders prepared?

In other words, the new normal needs a culture of psychological safety.  Are your leaders ready to not just survive but thrive in the new normal?  Are you supporting your leaders to adapt to lead in the new normal?  Or are you taking the sink or swim approach?

Taking a sink or swim approach can be costly.  Rapid disruptions create both threats and opportunities.  Taking advantage of the opportunities and avoiding the threats requires a leadership that is prepared.  Please don’t leave it to chance. Support your leaders with our leadership and team coaching programs and set them up for success!  

Watch the webinar: Building Your Leaders to THRIVE in a post-Covid World.

Set up your leaders and teams for success in the new normal

Our team coaching delivers guaranteed and measurable growth in team effectiveness.

We offer stakeholder-centered team coaching that delivers a measurable and guaranteed improvement in team effectiveness. 

Team coaching a very effective and cost-efficient way to grow leaders, change teams, and develop the organizational culture that ensures that teams deliver results.

TEAM coaching engagements create measurable leadership growth for the leader and the team using our unique process.

Benefits of team coaching 

Resource-efficient

Since one executive coach works with all team members supporting each other in this TEAM coaching process, the whole coaching program is very time efficient. It reduces coaching investment per team member while still delivering a majority of the benefits of 1:1 coaching for the leader.  For the cost of a group training program, you can deliver team coaching for your leaders and teams.

Changing leaders and teams at the same time and culture

The team articulates one leadership growth area, and each team member defines their leadership growth area that relates to the team focus. This creates an interdependent team effort, focusing on producing results for their effectiveness and team productivity simultaneously.

Create a Team culture of openness to continuous change

When team members collaborate as stakeholders in the TEAM coaching programs, it creates an open culture for leadership and team culture change. Team members feel comfortable using feedback and feedforward to drive change for themselves and their teams.

Insider expertise

Team members should provide expert advice and an insider view of each other related to their business, their people, and their team culture challenges. They become de facto coaches.  It also allows the organization to utilize the collective intelligence of the team members.

Coaching culture is a leadership skill.

Some organizations use coaching as an ‘executive intervention’ or to ‘fix a problem,’ but this is a suboptimal approach to coaching. Coaching is a leadership skill, and leaders in organizations should be skilled coaches to help their teams develop and grow. As we expect effective leaders to be highly skilled in, e.g., communication, decision making, and empowerment, leaders should be highly skilled in coaching others. TEAM coaching is a great program to instill coaching as a leadership skill in the organization.

We offer our New Age Leadership – NAL Triple Advantage Leadership Coaching.

That delivers guaranteed and measurable leadership growth.  It is based on a stakeholder-centered coaching process with a 95% effectiveness rate (in a study or 11000 leaders on 4 continents).  It is used by companies ranging from startups to 150 of the Fortune 500 companies to develop their leaders.

Here are some of the salient benefits of NAL Triple Advantage Leadership Coaching

Time and resource-efficient: The leader does not have to leave work to attend training programs.  We go to the leader and her team.  And it only takes 1.5 hours per month. The rest of the time, the leader is working to implement with her team.

Separate and customized improvement areas for each leader: Every leader is different.  One size fits all approach doesn’t work.  Individual development areas for each leader aligned to the business strategy.

Involves entire team: Unlike most leadership programs, NAL Triple Advantage Leadership Coaching involves the leader’s entire team, and it has a cascading effect – increasing the team effectiveness and improving organizational culture.

The leader becomes the coach: for continuous improvement for leaders themselves and their teams. It is like kaizen for your leadership development.

Cost-Effective: Our entire one-year coaching engagement often costs less than sending the leader to a short duration leadership program at any reputed B school.

Guaranteed and measurable leadership growth: as assessed – not by us – but anonymously rated by the leader’s own team members.

Pay us only after we deliver results! : We work with many of our clients on a pay for results basis.  What does it mean?  If the leaders don’t improve, you don’t have to pay us.

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References

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html

https://hbr.org/2016/01/collaborative-overload

https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136/