How to Create Google’s Perfect Team

By Phillip Sandahl


You would expect Google to do the search for “what makes great teams?” better than most anyone. These masters of search and analysis were on a quest some years back with that question in mind. Google was motivated by research that shows that software engineers that work together in groups “tend to innovate faster, see mistakes more quickly and find better solutions to problems”.

This references a New York Times article by Charles Duhigg, entitled, “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team”.

Google was ideally positioned for this quest and set about the process of discovery by looking first in their own nest. Back in 2012, the company pulled together researchers under the code name “Project Aristotle” with the mission to study hundreds of Google teams looking for the code, the pattern, the magic ingredient. Google isn’t the first company to want to solve that puzzle. Decades of research has focused on trying to isolate the formula. “What are the predictable, and therefore repeatable conditions that breed and sustain great teams?”

The list of possible criteria used in Google’s review is long and thoughtful and mostly ended up leading to dead ends. They looked at personality types, gender, common interests or values, background similarities, or differences, and more—none of it led to a successful conclusion: here’s the formula. The only reliable conclusion was “it’s inconclusive.” Conventional wisdom suggests that membership matters. Get the right people on the bus. According to Google’s vast and conscientious review, it’s not true. “Who” doesn’t seem to matter.

Over the course of their research one theme began to emerge and by following that thread, the conditions needed for effective teams became more visible and more consistent. The research pointed to an underlying quality: the inherent power and near invisibility of behavioral norms.

Teams naturally operate under group norms. These are the rules the team lives by, works by, and they are not in the employee handbook or policies and procedures manual. New team members learn them by observation, and by the subtle positive stroke or punishment, the encouraging pat on the back or the rolled eyes. They are, “the way thing are done around here” and the norms form an unspoken code that lives in the team operating system.

What separates effective teams from ineffective teams? It’s not the membership, the intelligence, the skills, the structure, not even the leadership role—it’s the way team members treat each other. How they interact. When the norms are supportive, empowering, and rewarding, teams thrive.

Within those norms, there were two that consistently showed up on better teams—and the two are related. On better teams, members contributed about equally. It varied, naturally, according to the topic, but the long view showed proportionate participation. Which leads to a question, “what made it possible for team members to all feel like they could contribute?” In fact, that there was an invitation, even an expectation they would contribute. The answer to that question leads to the second observation: one of the core pieces of code for effective behavioral norms is psychological safety. The team norms create a container in which team members either feel safe, and are willing to contribute, or not safe and therefore hold back or are careful. On effective teams it feels safe to participate, safe to disagree; safe to align and safe to be different. Google had successfully identified the keys to team performance effectiveness.

But the story can’t end there. Finding that there is a code, even the keys to the code, is not the same as implementing the code. Google answered the first question, “what makes great teams” leading to the next obvious question, “how do you do that?

It starts with a clear understanding that the team is a system and, as all systems do, behavioral norms are created to protect the system and its function. Norms represent the rules of survival and success for that team, that system. Norms become visible in action team members take, or avoid taking. In the Team Diagnostic™ model, we look in 14 separate categories to identify team norms. By looking closely at these 14 areas and engaging the team in conversation, the invisible is made visible.

If the goal is improved performance and team norms are the key, it makes sense to get clear about what’s working and what’s not working in order to implement changes. You can’t change what you can’t see so the very first step in improving team performance is to look at the current state—the operating conditions under which the team abides. Where is the team today? What’s working? What’s not working? Google accurately identified behavioral norms as the key to creating effective teams. Team Diagnostic™ provides a way to see the norms in action and for the team to talk about the impact.

This initial conversation, “where are we today?” is just the beginning. Putting a pin in the map, “you are here” is essential but the real work that leads to better performing, more sustainable teams, is in an ongoing commitment to action, practice, and continuous learning.

This is an approach that builds psychological safety in many different ways. It starts with a self-assessment by the team that creates a self-portrait and the beginning of awareness—a light coming on. There is safety in the fact that it is “our picture; we drew this”; it is not a judgment by others. The 14 indicators are familiar areas in language that team members already use when they talk about team performance. There is safety in familiar language. Because each of those areas has a team score, the data itself helps create safety: this is what the numbers show. What do we make of that?

There is more than 10 years of data using the Team Diagnostic™. Thousands of teams, worldwide have experienced the assessment and the coaching process that helps teams identify and practice new behavior—effectively creating new norms and in a process that naturally builds sustainable psychological safety.

The two dimensions of the Team Diagnostic™ model

Creating and integrating new practices, new norms is an investment of time and attention that pays off. Change does not happen by decree; it happens by degree. It is also cumulative.

When we look at the scores for these 14 Team Performance Indicators for high performing teams one of the most visible aspects of the data is how uniform the high scores are. Teams that are not high performing have scores with a mix of highs and lows—sometimes dramatic ranges. As teams become more aware of how they interact with each other and make new choices, improvement in one area leads to improvement in another, and the ripple effect grows.

Google’s search results confirm the experience we have seen with teams worldwide over the last 10 years. It’s not the parts. It’s how the parts work together to support, encourage, and empower each other. Behavioral norms are always present on teams. The core question is, “are they working for you?” On most teams, the answer is—not as well as we like. The team conversation starts a process of looking at how the team interacts and where the team wants to improve. This leads to action, practice, and learning.

Google’s search revealed the fundamental code—effective norms in a psychologically safe environment. The Team Diagnostic™ model and methodology turn “what” into “how”—a practical way to implement the learning.

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