Dynamics of Effective Teams

Build­ing on the suc­cess of the Oxy­gen project, where Google has been explor­ing the char­ac­ter­is­tics of good lead­er­ship, in 2012 they launched Project Aris­to­tle, using the same data-dri­ven method­ol­o­gy to unrav­el the mys­tery of effec­tive teams. The name says it all, because Aris­to­tle is known, among oth­er things, for his say­ing that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. And at the same time this also describes the essence of the results of this inves­ti­ga­tion: a group of super­stars does not nec­es­sar­i­ly become an effec­tive team.

Super Chickens

In her TED talk Mar­garet Hef­fer­nan reports on the fol­low­ing exper­i­ment. William Muir from Pur­due Uni­ver­si­ty inves­ti­gat­ed the pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of chick­ens (which can eas­i­ly be mea­sured by count­ing eggs). For one group, he select­ed only the “high per­form­ers” and only the best of these Super Chick­ens were allowed to breed. On the oth­er hand, there was a group of aver­age chick­ens that were not fur­ther select­ed or influ­enced. After six gen­er­a­tions the chick­ens in this aver­age group were well fed, ful­ly feath­ered and their pro­duc­tiv­i­ty had increased sig­nif­i­cant­ly. Con­trary to naive expec­ta­tions, this was slight­ly dif­fer­ent in the Super Chick­en group: all but three were dead — picked to death by the others.

Coop­er­a­tion is the thor­ough con­vic­tion that nobody can get there unless every­body gets there.

Vir­ginia Burden

The expla­na­tion for this unex­pect­ed out­come of the exper­i­ment is quite sim­ple. The high­er pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of the Super Chick­en was accom­pa­nied by their abil­i­ty to pre­vail against oth­ers. The tar­get­ed selec­tion of exact­ly these indi­vid­u­als inten­si­fied the aggres­sion and the com­pet­i­tive behav­ior even more. But those who fight against each oth­er pre­vail as indi­vid­u­als, but waste ener­gy as a group. The focus on indi­vid­ual top per­for­mance thus pro­motes com­pe­ti­tion and dys­func­tion­al teams. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, com­pa­nies, school sys­tems and ulti­mate­ly entire soci­eties are built on this very principle. 

Five Characteristics of Effective Teams

Google also found out that super­stars don’t auto­mat­i­cal­ly become a team. As part of Project Aris­to­tle, Google inves­ti­gat­ed what turns a group of peo­ple into an effec­tive team. By far the most impor­tant ele­ment was psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty. In tru­ly effec­tive teams, there is a high lev­el of safe­ty, so mem­bers dare to express their opin­ions open­ly and take risks. This is the key ingre­di­ent that makes the whole more than the sum of its parts. It takes this feel­ing of safe­ty and trust to pro­duce real­ly good ideas, as Mar­garet Hef­fer­nan explains with this beau­ti­ful anal­o­gy in her TED talk:

And that’s how good ideas turn into great ideas, because no idea is born ful­ly formed. It emerges a lit­tle bit as a child is born, kind of messy and con­fused, but full of pos­si­bil­i­ties. And it’s only through the gen­er­ous con­tri­bu­tion, faith and chal­lenge that they achieve their potential. 

Mar­garet Heffernan

This main prin­ci­ple of psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty is fol­lowed at some dis­tance by depend­abil­i­ty (can we be sure that every­one does qual­i­ty work on time?), struc­ture and clar­i­ty (are team mem­bers’ goals, roles and plans clear?), mean­ing (are we work­ing on some­thing that is impor­tant to every­one in the team?) and final­ly the impact (do we believe that the work makes a difference?). 

Source: re:Work

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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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