Google Project Aristotle: How to build more effective teams

Over the last couple of decades Google’s People Analytics Team have been busy doing research around company, team and individual performance. In this article we focus on the inner workings of a team and what it takes to thrive as a business with healthy, happy and highly effective teams.

One of Google's most important research projects was, Project Oxygen, which launched in 2008. The focus of this project was to discover what impact a Manager can have on a team’s performance. Not surprisingly the conclusion was that Managers have a big impact, triggering Google to create the 10 key behaviors of a great Manager.

Following on from understanding Managers, Google moved towards teams, specifically looking to understand what it takes to be an ‘effective’ team. And so Project Aristotle was born, named as a tip of the hat to the famous Aristotle quote “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts".

What makes an effective team?

Before diving into the research they needed to clarify the question of ‘what makes an effective team?’. They did this by defining what the words ‘team’ and ‘effectiveness’ mean explicitly. With many different ways of describing a team, they landed on the definition; a group of people who are highly interdependent, from problem solving to decision making, team members need each other to get things done.

Defining effectiveness however wasn’t so clear cut. They realised that more output does not necessarily mean more effective teams, for example more bugs fixed means more bugs were created in the first place which is not necessarily a good thing. Researchers decided they needed both the qualitative (context) and the quantitative (metrics) insights to get the full picture of ‘effectiveness’, so they requested input from executives, team leads and team members. With a broad range of responses across the organization it became clear that each layer of the business had different priorities, and therefore had different ways to measure effectiveness. So they chose to define effectiveness by collective information from:

  1. Executive evaluation of the team
  2. Team leader evaluation of the team
  3. Team member evaluation of the team
  4. Sales performance against quarterly quota

After defining the study parameters it was time to begin collecting data. Google gathered global input from 180 teams with varying levels of performance, and tested both team composition and team dynamics. In combination with the hundreds of double-blind interviews they conducted (to help remove bias), Google also scraped other data points such as engagement surveys and other internal research projects, including additional variables such as tenure, seniority and location. Here is an example of some questions they asked participants to agree or disagree with:

5 key variables that make up an effective team

Whilst processing the data using statistical models Google was sure to remain impartial, taking into account different kinds of teams and looking at multiple circumstances which can influence the data. The findings showed that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together. Diving deeper into the data, they found 5 key variables that make up an effective team. In order of importance they are:

Google Project Aristotle
  1. Psychological safety: when team members trust each other and know they will not be punished for trying new things or making mistakes
  2. Dependability: all team members complete their work to a high standard and on time
  3. Structure & clarity: setting clear expectations for each member both from an individual and team contribution pov, this can include OKRs
  4. Meaning: team members want to feel a sense of purpose and belonging
  5. Impact: people don't want to create work for the sake of it, there needs to be an understanding of the wider contribution and real impact

These 5 variables sum up the complex nature of teams and organizations, highlighting that there is no magic bullet or one size fits all solution to having highly effective teams. Each variable has an influence on the next and requires continuous conscious effort to sustain healthy, happy and highly effective teams.

With a better understanding of the data and what it takes to have an optimal team, it begs the question why does it matter and how can you get there?

Sticking with the original definition of ‘a group of highly interdependent people’, the team environment is often where strategy turns to output and where employees spend most of their time. The quality of these relationships can have a huge impact on engagement, performance, and innovation. Like any great relationship, if you are able to trust the other person, you are willing to take more risk, experiment, and think more laterally knowing someone always has your back. This is the same for a team in any kind of environment, especially within a business setting if you want to be successful and scalable. As Patrick Lencioni say:

If you get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time."
Patrick Lencioni
Patrick Lencioni
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

How to develop these traits in your team

As a leader it can feel daunting to have to get it right the first time and do it all on your own. However what we have learned over the years in conducting our own research, is that individuals and teams are a great source of inspiration and knowledge, and more often than not they are willing to put in the work. Here are a few ways you can begin working towards optimal team effectiveness:

  1. Ask your team: solicit input and opinions when you are making decisions
  2. Safe space: create regular moments for open and honest team communication
  3. Lead by example: model the behavior you expect to see and acknowledge that it is a continuous learning process

Working in teams is an ever changing and dynamic environment, with each day, week or month providing new opportunities and challenges (especially in remote times). It is important to be proactive and check in with individual team members or as a team, carve out time to have fun, be creative and experiment, and continue to build strong relationships. With these relationships intact and built on solid foundations, the benefits will continue to grow both from a personal and a business perspective.

There are many tools out there to help deconstruct and understand team dynamics, providing you with a framework and also guide you with next steps. Impraise is one of them! We have been working closely with HR, Managers and teams to develop Impraise, enabling you build highly collaborative and happy teams, learn more here.

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