Last week I came across a New York Times article which spoke to an effort at Google: Project Aristotle (February 2016). I had heard about this Google venture before but never had looked into it. The article broke down lots of details about organizational and team dynamics that they studied. What really piqued my curiosity however was the fact that they were looking to see if they could find the keys to team success and building the perfect team.
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Project Aristotle, started in 2012, was headed up by Abeer Dubey, a manger in Google’s People Analytics division. They then assigned to it a recent new hire from Yale School of Management named Julia Rozovsky who became the lead researcher. Prior to this effort, Google had already had spent millions of dollars over decades trying to build that perfect team and understand team effectiveness. When those initiatives delivered insufficient results, Project Aristotle was born.
Google Project Aristotle Background and Findings
- Data was gathered and assessed from 180 Google teams.
- Two-year long effort started in 2012.
- No patterns detected to correlate why some succeeded and others didn’t.
- Teams with similar makeup or even some of the same members demonstrated varying results.
- Metrics like personal friendships, strong management, team structure, personal interests, gender, longevity provided no clear insight.
- Group norms were found to be key to teams’ success. Group norms are unwritten and often unspoken rules guiding the behavior of the teams.
- Final determination was that a group of superior individuals was less important than the collective ability of the team.
There are many more detailed findings but generally speaking, the results will make lots of sense to any good manager or coach. Team success comes when everyone works well together and respects each other. When a bunch of individuals try to be superstars, teams don’t generally succeed. I have seen this first-hand in organizations I have consulted with.
We also see this all the time in sports when the “Cinderella Story” team surpasses expectations. In my opinion, the common thread to team success that they found is how they played/worked together. As a longtime sports coach and executive adviser, I always convey the message that the team is more important than the individual achievements of the team members. Also very important is that each member knows they are supported by their teammates. Google was able to deduce all of this and more in Project Aristotle. Fortunately for us, they shared the five key areas that they found to be the basis for team success.
Five Keys to Success
- Psychological safety: Team members must be comfortable in taking risks and speaking their minds. They need to know that their team members will support their actions and not ridicule them. Everyone on the team has to feel as though they won’t be made examples of if something doesn’t go right which they suggested or promoted.
- Dependability: Everyone needs to contribute to the best of their ability and
deliver high quality work. They must do this within the time parameters allotted and agreed upon. Dependability means that they can count on each other to do their job.
- Structure and clarity: Clear direction and goals is vital. Everyone needs to understand what part they play on the team. Everyone on the team also needs to understand how they should go about getting their job done so as to help the team succeed.
- Meaning of work: Google’s researchers seemed to find that individual personal satisfaction in the job they were performing was also a key element in the success of the team. I find that this falls in line with a lot of the material in Daniel Pink’s Drive which speaks to what motivates us as humans.
- Impact of work: How does the work that people are doing actually benefit the company? Team members want to feel that they are not simply wasting their time when doing things. This again supports many ideas in Daniel Pinks’ book.
If I picked one word to collectively describe the five components from Project Aristotle, it would have to be value. Teams and organizations must show that they value everyone’s contribution and not waste their time on useless efforts. Just as important is that all team members are doing their fair share to contribute to the greater effort. This unity and sense that the whole is great than the sum of the parts is key to team success and ultimately for the organizational success.
You need to ensure that the five keys are part of your new teams during any organizational change. At minimum, you research which existing team(s) might exhibit these characteristics within your organization. Google has provided two tools to help analyze your team characteristics. The first helps determine what your team needs and the second helps foster psychological safety.
Google had over the years spent a lot of money studying the characteristics of the perfect team before Project Aristotle. The two year analysis of nearly 200 teams finally delivered metrics they sought. You should take advantage of these findings in your efforts. Organizations are always looking to improve team effectiveness. It doesn’t matter if you’re adopting more Agile and Lean methods or new approaches such as DevOps. You owe it to your teams and organization to spend the time and review the five keys to team success.