Google identifies five norms that make for successful teams

The competitive environment of today demands innovation. Innovation requires collaboration and teamwork. However effective teamwork remains elusive for the majority of organisations.

Research published in the Harvard Business Review found that “time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more over the last two decades – at many companies more than 75% of an employee’s day is spent collaborating with colleagues.”. However, the research also found that:

”In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.”

So whilst we’ve moved to open plan offices and increased the number of creative thinking spaces, we still have a lot to learn about teaming and making collaboration work.

Google’s project Aristotle

Have you ever wondered what makes teams succeed? Why do some teams succeed, whilst others fail miserably? Google’s People Operations (Google’s name for their Human Resource department) have been looking for answer to these questions.

Like many HR departments, Google’s people operations has been focused on hiring “talent”. They were spend a lot of of their time evaluating, hiring and developing individuals. Yet the majority of work at Google get done in teams!

So in 2012 A group of researchers in Google’s People Operations launched “Project Aristotle” with the goal of answering the question, “what makes a Google team effective?”. Over a period of two years the project conducted 200+ interviews across hundreds of teams. Collecting all the data they could lay their hands on, seeking to find out what made for effective teams.

Project Aristotle reviewed academic studies and looked for patterns in data to answer questions like:

  • Does it matter who is on the team — their personalities, education and background?
  • Is it better to put introverts together on one team?
  • Are teams more effective when people are friends outside of work?
  • Do the best teams have people with similar interests?

How is more important than who

The first major insight came when the researchers found that the composition of a team made no difference to team performance. It turns out that how teams work together is much more important than who is on the team.

‘We looked at 180 teams from all over the company, we had lots of data, but there was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.’’ — Abeer Dubey, a manager in Google’s People Analytics division, “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team

The kind people on a team. Their personality, background, motivation, education and familiarity with each other made no difference to the effectiveness of the group. There was no perfect mix of personalities and skills the made for an effective team. What matters is the team dynamics – how a team works together.

Google researches found that team norms are the most important factor in successful teams. Team norms are the unwritten rules and standards that govern how a team works together. It’s the team norms that make for a successful team. 

The five norms that make for effective teams

”The researchers eventually concluded that what distinguished the ‘‘good’’ teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another. The right norms, in other words, could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team, even if, individually, all the members were exceptionally bright.” – Charles Duhigg, What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team

Next the project Aristotle researchers set out to identify exactly which team norms made the biggest impact on team performance. After sifting through the data the researchers found the following five norms that set part successful teamsart at Google.

1. Psychological safety

Psychological safety is a term coined by Harvard Business School professor, Amy Edmondson, who gave a TEDx talk on the topic.

In the TEDx talk Amy defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”. Julia Rozovsky an Analyst from People Operations found that ”psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five dynamics we found — it’s the underpinning of the other four”.

”Google sales teams with the highest level of psychological safety outperformed their revenue targets, on average, by 17%. Those with the lowest psychological safety underperformed, on average, by 19%.” – The Most Productive Teams at Google Have These 5 Dynamics

Google found that teams perform better when team members feel safe to take risks. Psychological safety occurs when team members are not afraid of asking difficult questionsand sharing opinions. Even when their opinions conflict with the rest of the team. Psychological safety is the foundation of effective teams.

2. Dependability

Dependability means that team members can be relied upon to get things done. The team can depend on their coworkers to complete their tasks on time and at an acceptable standard of quality.

3. Structure and clarity

Structure and clarity means the team members understand their roles, plans and goals.

4. Meaning

Effective teams have clear meaning and sense of purpose. The team members feel that what they’re working on is important to them personally.

5. Impact

Impact is when team members believe that their work is having a positive impact on the organisation. “Do we fundamentally believe that what we’re doing matters?” writes Julia Rozovsky

Your turn

Take a few moments to consider how your team works. Use the re:Work’s assessment tool and get your team to answer the following questions:

  • 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 organization’s goals.”

Are there opportunities for you to strengthen the five team norms for your team?