Hey Google, What Makes a Great Team?

Jan 1, 2019

In 2012, Google embarked on an initiative — code-named Project Aristotle — to study hundreds of Google’s teams and figure out why some stumbled while others soared. They gathered some of the company’s best statisticians, organizational psychologists, sociologists, engineers and researchers.

They began by reviewing a half-century of academic studies looking at how teams worked. Were the best teams made up of people with similar interests? Or did it matter more whether everyone was motivated by the same kinds of rewards? Based on those studies, the researchers scrutinized the composition of groups inside Google: How often did teammates socialize outside the office? Did they have the same hobbies? Were their educational backgrounds similar? Was it better for all teammates to be outgoing or for all of them to be shy?

Then they hit a wall. There were very few trends to be found. One of the most successful teams, for example, was made up of best friends who spent all their time together outside of the office. Another equally successful team was comprised of complete strangers. The takeaway? Any team can be successful. There is no secret sauce.

It is a common misconception that the best teams will be made up of the best players. Wrong. One player cannot make a team great. In fact, a team full of incredibly smart, talented individuals could still fail. What really matters is how the team works together. Here’s what they discovered:

Dynamics of Effective Teams

1. 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.

We've all been in group meetings and, due to the fear of seeming incompetent, have held back questions or ideas. It's unnerving to feel like you're in an environment where everything you do or say is under a microscope. But imagine a different setting – a situation in which everyone is safe to take risks, voice their opinions and ask judgment-free questions. That's psychological safety.

2. Dependability

On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time.

Dependability creates a level of trust that allows your team to move forward. Think about the worst group project you’ve ever turned in. What made it bad? We’ve all had that feeling before – “I’d rather just do this on my own. Other people aren’t pulling their weight. I need to do this person’s part because I don’t think they’re going to get it done or do it well.” A strong team is made up of dependable people. Team members trust that others will do their best work in the timeline they’ve set forth. 

3. Structure and clarity

An individual’s understanding of what’s expected of them, 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.

Before they can create great work, a team needs to be on the same page. As a team, they must define what their ideal outcome is, what it will take to get there, and establish each individual’s role in getting there.

4. 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.

Each person on a great team knows his/her own “why.” Individuals have their own purpose that drives them to work hard. That might be a passion for the charity that your chapter is fundraising for, or it could be the desire to hear his/her name called at ICDC. The “why” is important because it’s what gets individuals through the hard days. It’s what motivates them to get up early or make sacrifices for the good of the team’s goal. Everyone in the group should take the time to really dig deep and determine their meaning. Then, assuming they are comfortable, each group member should share that with the rest of the team.

5. 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 a larger goal can help reveal impact.

The best teams believe their work is purposeful and positively impacts the greater good. This is more obvious for some groups than others, but it’s important to take the time to determine the impact your group hopes to have. What will your group’s success mean for your school, your community or the larger organization of DECA?


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