How to create perfect teams

From this article by Cath Everett about some of the rather desperate tactics some companies in Silicon Valley are experimenting with to get more out of their people:

“As to how to go about creating the perfect team, Forsgren cites a study undertaken by Google in 2012 called Project Aristotle, which set out to do just that by analysing lots of studies and observing the way that people interacted in a group.

Rather than finding, as expected, that the secret to success would boil down to having the right mix of skills in place, the vendor discovered instead it actually depended on whether individual team members felt psychologically safe or not. This was because feeling safe meant they were comfortable enough with their colleagues to open up personally and confident enough to take risks without fearing that other team members would embarrass, reject or punish them for speaking up.”

Let’s just repeat the salient points: The researchers were expecting to find that having the right mix of skills would be the thing to get right. What they discovered was something quite different. It matters more that each individual on the team feels psychologically safe.

Here’s how the Google re:Work team put it themselves:

Over two years we conducted 200+ interviews with Googlers (our employees) and looked at more than 250 attributes of 180+ active Google teams. We were pretty confident that we’d find the perfect mix of individual traits and skills necessary for a stellar team — take one Rhodes Scholar, two extroverts, one engineer who rocks at AngularJS, and a PhD. Voila. Dream team assembled, right?

We were dead wrong. Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions. So much for that magical algorithm.

[Emphasis, theirs. I would have liked to emphasise the sentence “We were dead wrong”.]

As Hunter Walk noted, this result really goes against what they would have expected – and he should know, given that he worked at Google for 9 years as Director of Product Management.

I can only imagine how shocking this would be to Googlers who often prided themselves on raw intelligence and generally believe throwing data and brains at a problem is the surest solution

With so much research and experience of this already out there, it is surprising to me how many organisations remain ignorant about the power of teams. This is one of the most basic ways to tilt the playing field, and yet we still see companies trying to create their own systems that optimise for some other parameter. The most common parameter I see people optimising for is “efficiency”, which turns out to be one of the very worst things to optimise for. Product Development is not a manufacturing line.

Upton_Beall_Sinclair_JrI’m not saying that growing teams where each individual feels psychologically safe is easy, but the concepts are pretty simple to understand. Which leaves me with the hypothesis that we are possibly in Upton Sinclair territory – that there is some system incentive that encourages people to cling to an alternative –but flawed– belief:

It is difficult to get a person to understand something when their salary depends upon them not understanding it. – Upton Sinclair

If this is the case, the only way to change this system is to reach the people for whom the ‘higher order bit’ of organisational success really does matter. The potential upside to this change is unbounded. The potential downside is limited. Asymmetric payoff, FTW.

To get started on this, the Google re:Work team have published a handy, useful guide for those who want to get started.

Go, make some kick ass teams!