Google Project Aristotle Helps Teams Take Action
Collaboration is core to innovation. Google shares their study's insights to foster more inclusive and positive team outcomes.
Much of the work done at Google, and in many organizations, is done collaboratively by teams. The team is the molecular unit where real production happens, where innovative ideas are conceived and tested, and where employees experience most of their work. But it’s also where interpersonal issues, ill-suited skill sets, and unclear group goals can hinder productivity and cause friction.
The first step in answering this question of “what makes an effective team?” is to ask “what is a team?” More than an existential thought exercise, actually figuring out the memberships, relationships, and responsibilities of individuals all working together is tough but critical to cracking team effectiveness.
The term team can take on a wide array of meanings. Many definitions and frameworks exist, depending on task interdependence, organizational status, and team tenure. At the most fundamental level, the researchers sought to distinguish a “work group” from a “team:”
Work groups are characterized by the least amount of interdependence. They are based on organizational or managerial hierarchy. Work groups may meet periodically to hear and share information.
Teams are highly interdependent - they plan work, solve problems, make decisions, and review progress in service of a specific project. Team members need one another to get work done.
Organizational charts only tell part of the story, so the Google research team focused on groups with truly interdependent working relationships, as determined by the teams themselves. The teams studied in Project Aristotle ranged from three to fifty individuals (with a median of nine members).
The researchers found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together. The five key dynamics of effective teams that the Google researchers identified are rooted in the wider world of team performance research. Whether you’re coding at Google, riffing in a writers room, preparing for a trip to Mars, or skating in a hockey rink - teams are essential to the work experience and output. At Google, now that the Project Aristotle team has identified what makes for an effective team at Google, they’re conducting research to figure out how take the next steps to create, foster, and empower effective teams.In order of importance:
Psychological safety: 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.
Structure and clarity: An individual’s understanding of job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations, and the consequences of one’s performance are important for team effectiveness. Goals can be set at the individual or group level, and 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. The meaning of work is personal and can vary: financial security, supporting family, helping the team succeed, or self-expression for each individual, for example.
Impact: The results of one’s work, the subjective judgement that your work is making a difference, is important for teams. Seeing that one’s work is contributing to the organization’s goals can help reveal impact.
Beyond just communicating the study results, the Google research team wanted to empower Googlers to understand the dynamics of their own teams and offer tips for improving. So they created a survey for teams to take and discuss amongst themselves. Survey items focused on the five effectiveness pillars and questions included:
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 goal
Of the five key dynamics of effective teams that the researchers identified, psychological safety was by far the most important. The Google researchers found that individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.
Organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard first introduced the construct of “team psychological safety” and defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Taking a risk around your team members may sound simple. But asking a basic question like “what’s the goal of this project?” may make you sound like you’re out of the loop. It might feel easier to continue without getting clarification in order to avoid being perceived as ignorant.
To measure a team’s level of psychological safety, Edmondson asked team members how strongly they agreed or disagreed with these statements:
If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
It is safe to take a risk on this team.
It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.
In her TEDx talk, Edmondson offers three simple things individuals can do to foster team psychological safety:
Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
Acknowledge your own fallibility.
Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.
Here are some tips for managers and leaders to support the behaviors the Google researchers found important for effective teams. These are based on external research and Google’s own experience:
Solicit input and opinions from the group.
Share information about personal and work style preferences, and encourage others to do the same.
Watch Amy Edmondson's TED Talk on psychological safety (above).
Clarify roles and responsibilities of team members.
Develop concrete project plans to provide transparency into every individual’s work.
Talk about some of the conscientiousness research.
Structure & Clarity:
Regularly communicate team goals and ensure team members understand the plan for achieving them.
Ensure your team meetings have a clear agenda and designated leader.
Consider adopting Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) to organize the team’s work.
Give team members positive feedback on something outstanding they are doing and offer to help them with something they struggle with.
Publicly express your gratitude for someone who helped you out.
Read the KPMG case study on purpose.
Co-create a clear vision that reinforces how each team member’s work directly contributes to the team’s and broader organization's goals.
Reflect on the work you're doing and how it impacts users or clients and the organization.
Adopt a user-centered evaluation method and focus on the user.
Article Published by Google: re:Work Guide: Understand team effectiveness
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