Google’s research on how to develop effective teams

by | Aug 3, 2017 | Collaboration, Digital workplace

I am indebted to Sam Marshall at Clearbox Consulting for alerting me to an article in Inc. magazine about a project that Google had undertaken to identify success factors in team work. Although the article has only recently been published (there is no date on the Inc. article, which is very unhelpful) it took a fair amount of work to find the source documents. The starting point turned out to be Google’s Re.Work blog. There is a 17 November 2015 post from project manager Julia Rosovsky, who was in the People Operations (i.e.HR) division of Google. The project was certainly on a large scale. Over two years  200+ interviews were conducted with Google employees and the analysis assessed more than 250 attributes of 180+ active Google teams. The main outcome was that team performance was far less dependent on who the team members were than how the team members interact, structure their work and view their own contributions.

The five traits of successful teams that emerged from the study were

  • Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  • Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
  • Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  • Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  • Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

Another section of the Re.Work site provides more detail on each of these elements as well as some additional background material. The concept of psychological safety has been developed in 1999 by Professor Amy Edmonson at Harvard Business School, though the paper was published when she was at MIT. It is well worth looking through the other papers listed on her site, all of which have teamwork as their theme. The Re.Work site lists out the ten elements of psychological safety. There is also a link to a short video with Amy Edmonson talking about the topic, which is also a superb example of how to engage an audience for ten minutes. The results of the project are very interesting.. Across the 300 Google teams that have adopted a new group norms — such as starting every team meeting by sharing a risk taken in the previous week — there was a 6% increase in psychological safety ratings and a 10% increase in structure and clarity ratings.

Amy Edmonson’s work is highly respected in the academic collaboration community and it did not come as a surprise to me to see the high rating for psychological safety in this study. (Incidentally the listing is not in the same order as in the Inc. article.)  It was a surprise that it came as a surprise to Google over 15 years later! The outcomes are also quite close to those in Stephen Covey’s 1989 book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’: Members of productive teams take the effort to understand each other, find a way to relate to each other, and then try to make themselves understood. The really useful elements of this work are the scale of the project, the fact that it was undertaken within Google and that the benefits were measured as a check. All three of these should help companies to appreciate the human factors involved in team work. It is of note that despite it being an internal Google project there is no reference to the role of collaboration tools. If companies do not get the basics sorted out, in line with this and many similar studies, then it is not possible to assess the possible return on investment in these tools.

Martin White