In the VUCA world of today, collaboration lies at the heart of success for many organisations, including Google. Teams have become the fundamental building blocks for achieving goals, fostering innovation, and cultivating a positive work experience for employees. However, challenges can arise amidst the collaborative nature of teamwork, thwarting productivity and causing friction.
Recognising this, Google researchers undertook a study, Project Aristotle, drawing inspiration from Aristotle’s quote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Their objective was to uncover the essential elements that make teams effective within the context of Google’s dynamic environment. The question they wanted to answer was: “What makes a team effective at Google?”
Discovering the true essence of team effectiveness, the researchers at Google made a remarkable revelation: it was not so much about the individuals comprising the team, but rather the synergy and collaboration among team members that truly mattered.
In their quest to unravel the secrets of high-performing teams, they discovered that the key lay in the way these teams functioned and interacted. It was the collective effort, the shared values, and the collaborative spirit that propelled teams towards success, overshadowing the significance of individual team members.
When it came to determining the factors that truly made a difference, the Google researchers prioritised them in the following order:
- Psychological Safety: Teams with high psychological safety create an environment where members feel safe to take risks, voice their opinions, ask questions, and share new ideas. There is a sense of trust and mutual respect among team members, with no fear of embarrassment or punishment for mistakes.
- Dependability: Effective teams exhibit dependability, where members consistently fulfil their responsibilities, complete quality work, and meet deadlines. There is a sense of accountability and reliability within the team, minimising instances of shirking responsibilities.
- Structure and Clarity: A clear understanding of job expectations, processes, and performance consequences plays a vital role in team effectiveness. Whether through individual or group goals, setting specific, challenging, and attainable targets is crucial. Google often utilises Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to establish and communicate short and long-term goals.
- Meaning: Finding purpose and meaning in the work itself or its outcomes is essential for team effectiveness. The personal significance of work may vary from individual to individual, ranging from financial security and supporting the family to contributing to the team’s success or self-expression.
- Impact: Recognising the impact of one’s work and perceiving it as making a difference is significant for team members. Seeing how their efforts contribute to the organisation’s overarching goals helps instil a sense of purpose and motivation within the team.
By prioritising these factors and fostering an environment that nurtures psychological safety, dependability, clarity, meaningfulness, and impact, teams can unlock their true potential and achieve remarkable results.
the Google researchers also examined variables that were found to have no significant connection with team effectiveness at Google. These variables, despite being explored, did not emerge as crucial factors in determining team success:
- Colocation of teammates (sitting together in the same office)
- Consensus-driven decision making
- Extroversion of team members
- Individual performance of team members
- Workload size
- Team size
Insights Beyond Team Effectiveness
While certain variables did not emerge as significant factors influencing team effectiveness at Google, it is crucial to acknowledge that their importance may vary in different contexts. One such example is team size, which did not receive prominence in the Google analysis. However, extensive research indicates the significance of team size in other settings. In fact, several studies have identified smaller teams, typically comprising fewer than 10 members, as being more advantageous for achieving team success (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993).
Smaller teams offer a range of benefits that contribute to improved work dynamics and outcomes. They are associated with enhanced work-life quality (Campion et al., 1993), superior work outcomes (Aube et al., 2011), reduced conflict, strengthened communication, heightened cohesion (Moreland & Levine, 1992; Mathieu et al., 2008), and increased organisational citizenship behaviours (Pearce and Herbik, 2004). While these factors did not surface as significant in the Google study, it is important to acknowledge their relevance and impact in other research contexts.
Understanding the intricacies of team dynamics and the variables that influence their effectiveness is an ongoing endeavour. While certain factors may not have stood out in the Google analysis, their significance in other research highlights the need for contextual awareness when examining team dynamics and optimising performance.
Empowering Teams – Self-Assessment at Google
The Google research team went beyond the realm of simply communicating their study results. They recognised the value of empowering Googlers to understand the dynamics of their own teams and providing actionable tips for improvement. To achieve this, they developed a comprehensive survey for teams to take and discuss among themselves, fostering a culture of self-reflection and growth.
The survey items were carefully crafted, focusing on the five key pillars of team effectiveness identified in the study. These pillars included psychological safety, dependability, structure, and clarity, meaning, and impact. Team members were presented with questions designed to gauge these essential aspects, such as:
- 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 organisation’s goals.”
Once the survey was completed, team leads received aggregated and anonymised scores to share with their respective team members. This data served as a foundation for initiating a thoughtful discussion. In many cases, a skilled facilitator would join the conversation, or the team lead would follow a discussion guide, ensuring that the exchange was constructive and beneficial.