Last year, Google’s approach to team effectiveness was featured in an extended New York Times Sunday magazine story by Charles Duhigg - What Google Learned from it’s Quest to Build Perfect Teams. That quest was based on years of research and analysis on the nature and practice of effective teams the distillation of which brought to light five core dimensions of healthy, productive teams.
The Silicon Valley Organizational Development Network hosted a conversation with Mark Ball, of Google’s People Operations early in September. Mark’s work with People Operations is to put Google’s research-based model for team effectiveness into practice and he indicated they've worked with hundreds of teams across the company.
Some baseline characteristics of teams are groups of nine to fifteen individuals, not reporting to a manager per se, but have some sort of shared workflow. Groups beyond fifteen people becomes unwieldy. In their research phase, Google worked to identify shared characteristics of high performing teams - the teams themselves see their performance as high, their manager(s) do as well, and a senior leader recognizes their high performance.
As the New York Times article notes and Mark Ball elaborated, Google took time to survey their own teams, review leading research and try to determine the fundamental dimensions of team effectiveness. Was co-location correlated? Are they consensus-driven? Was there a particular introversion-extroversion balance? Was there a particular kind of leadership?
After years of rigorous study, they identified in order of importance these five dimensions of healthy, productive teams.
- psychological safety - it’s safe to take interpersonal risks
- dependability - teammates do excellent work, on time
- structure and clarity - we are good at making decisions and have clear goals
- meaning - my work is personally important to me
- impact - our work matters to the company
It must be noted that teams at Google operate within a company-sanctioned 'policy of obligatory dissent’ - individuals are encouraged, if not required to bring forward questions or disagreements no matter “rank” or “level” of people in the discussion - so the cultural organizational norm already establishes psychological safety. Ball also observed that people at Google are not arrogant, they listen to each other.
Once Google identified these five dimensions, Mark Ball and the People Operations group developed responsive services to teams within the organization that are designed to help them assess their team effectiveness and supports team development towards high performance. While some of their work can be customized for team needs, they do have an internal tool that teams is used to look at a team's current team culture and operations.
The People Operations team provides trained facilitators to conduct a post assessment session structured to review the results of the assessment, facilitate a conversation about their teaming practice and to guide them towards things they want to change.
- 10 minutes of what the report surfaced
- 30 minutes on whatever the team wants to talk about
- The tool gives them a structure to have the conversation about their teaming
- Allows topics to be brought up that are of interest or highlight challenges
- 45 minutes - what’s the action the team will take
Ball indicated that they encourage teams to focus on taking simple actions that might improve various dimensions. To strengthen psychological safety, Ball had some easy habits and interventions - have lunches together, put laptops down during meetings, if there’s been a bit of tension don’t talk bout anyone else on the team until 24 hours have passed.
Psychological safety is about humanizing team members to one another (and a powerful story to that effect was highlighted in the NY Times article). Humanization comes from spending time with one another, telling each other stories. As the group accepts their members' authenticity and even vulnerability, they begin to operate in an environment where people can take risks and see that the entire team is supporting them.
Other kinds of small, but effective interventions can help strengthen other dimensions. For meeting agenda items, note if the item is a Decide or Discuss topic. This can be helpful when a team wants to improve decision-making. A note-taker for the meeting could say “what did we decide?” to help clarify if people are really on the same page. Mark Ball observed that non-productive conflict happens when a team doesn’t have a clear goal.
Managers need to understand what is meaningful for different team members. It’s very different for each individual, but supporting them as individuals helps them be strong team members. Senior leaders have to communicate how a team’s work fits in and helps the larger whole.
I spoke with Ball for a few minutes and shared that we use some of the Google material in the Information and Knowledge Strategy Master’s program at Columbia University School of Professional Studies where I am on the faculty. In one of the courses I co-teach, Networks and Collaboration, we explore how we effectively use team and network collaboration for impact. Collaboration through networks, communities, alliances and project teams is essential in the modern organization, and we use the Charles Duhigg article and Harvard's Amy Edmondson readings on teams.
Ball noted that a culture of productive teams also creates a continuous learning culture that is so vital for a company to thrive. People need holistic context to engage deeply and effectively in their work and the five dimensions of the Google teams approach brings together the elements people need to sustain that context for productive and meaningful work.