What makes a high performing team (at Google)? [Guest post by Tasha Merrington, Google]

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    Hi readers,


    I hope everyone is having an enjoyable February? I'm very jealous of those of you in the Southern Hemisphere who've been having a lovely summer... it is *still* cold and mostly pretty miserable here in London...


    We've got many exciting initiatives going in the Cloud Change Management team - including new joiners (welcome to both Sarah & Tanu!) as well as the launch of new professional service offerings, so we are keeping very busy.


    One topic that I am very passionate about and regularly speak about to our customers and also at external events is the importance of teamwork. So this month I am especially excited to introduce you to Tasha who just happens to be an expert on that very topic. Big thanks Tasha for taking the time to share your insights.


    Given we all work in teams at some point - I hope you'll agree that this is a super relevant and interesting post!





    Hello there!

    I’m Tasha, and most of the time at Google I’m designing and facilitating educational programmes about digital marketing and transformation for our clients and agencies, but as a side project I also consult other teams at Google on their team dynamics and help them to improve their effectiveness. I’ve recently been doing some work with Kim and she has asked me to share my thoughts and insights on this topic as she thought it would be relevant for this audience - specifically for teams working to deploy and support adoption of Cloud technology.


    I find team development fascinating, as I’m a firm believer that our experience of work is very much defined by the quality of the people we’re working with. Most of my work at Google is done collaboratively, in-fact most of the work we do in Google is done in teams, so it’s something we care about very much. And as many businesses are becoming increasingly global and cross-functional, teamwork is becoming recognised as a very important factor for success.


    While we’ve always understood that team effectiveness was important at Google, up until quite recently we didn’t have a data-driven understanding of what makes some teams great, and others less great. This is Google - we love data! So Researchers from our People Operations team set out to determine whether certain team dynamics and which individual characteristics of team members were associated with highly effective teams.


    The People Operations team conducted hundreds of interviews with Google employees, surveyed nearly 200 teams across different areas of the business including Engineering, Product Management, Sales and others, and analysed data from several other different internal sources to understand what drives team effectiveness internally at Google.


    When the team started they imagined that building an effective team would be like putting together a human puzzle. You’d just find rockstar individuals and put them together in a team, right? Maybe there would even be a new algorithm discovered that could predict how to assemble teams neatly for us? Well, that wasn’t the case.


    Researchers found something incredibly surprising: at Google who is on a team matters less than how team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions. Infact, given the right set-up, every team at Google can be effective.


    More specifically, 5 team dynamics separate highly effective teams from less effective ones.  What’s also important to note is that this framework holds across all types of teams at Google. Whether you were in Sales or Engineering, San Francisco or Singapore, we found that these five dynamics consistently differentiated our top-performing teams from bottom-performing teams.


    Here are the 5 team dynamics, in order of importance:

    • Psychological Safety - a shared belief among team members that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.   
    • Dependability - the ability to depend on team members to deliver quality results on time.             
    • Structure & Clarity - the existence of clear individual roles, well-defined goals, and a concrete plan to achieve those goals.    
    • Meaning of Work - the sense of personal meaning from the work.                                        
    • Impact of Work - the belief that the team is focused on high-impact work.

    While the above may seem like common sense, it’s not always easy for teams to incorporate these dynamics.


    Psychological safety:

    Psychological safety was the biggest differentiator between highly effective and less effective teams.  The concept of psychological safety came from Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who gave a TEDx talk on this topic a few years ago. You can watch Amy’s TEDx talk on this here. In a nutshell, it means a team members’ willingness to take interpersonal risks as they work together and to bring their true selves to work.
    Members of psychologically safe teams are more likely to feel included, accepted, respected, and to feel safe to share mistakes and show vulnerability. Psychologically safe teams foster a culture of learning and innovation because team members feel safe to learn from mistakes and explore new (potentially crazy) ideas.


    Psychological safety even affects the bottom line; it was proven in our research that sales teams high in psychological safety brought in more revenue as compared to sales teams that were in low psychological safety.


    At Google this research made us realise that to feel ‘psychologically safe’ we must know that we can be free enough, to share the things that scare us, or share mistakes we've made, without fear of recrimination. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We must ask the ‘silly’ questions and we should suggest the ‘wild and crazy’ ideas.


    So how do you know whether your team has strong psychological safety? You can use these signs to recognise whether this is something your team needs to improve. Do you:

    • Struggle to have tough conversations?
    • Feel judged and that team lacks respect for each other?
    • Fear of asking for or delivering constructive feedback?
    • Hesitance around expressing divergent ideas and asking “silly” questions?
    • Can't make mistakes or take risks?
    • Is there the presence of few strong voices that marginalize other people/perspectives?
    • Are team members competitive with one another?


    If you answered yes to one of more of the questions above, it might be worth taking a look at this tool that we've published as part of our Re:Work with Google initiative to help teams improve their psychological safety.


    Regarding our findings, one thing I think it is important to highlight, is that we did this research internally at Google to find out what works well for us - not with the intention of telling the world how they should ‘do teamwork’. You might find that if you were to do a similar research project at your company you could find different attributes - so do keep that in mind. Having said that we’re pretty sure that what we learnt is relevant outside of Google too - which team wouldn't benefit from creating an environment of psychological safety?


    If this article has sparked your interest in the topic of teamwork you might also find these models interesting to take a look at; Patrick Lencioni’s popular Five Dysfunctions of a team, GRPI (Goals, Roles, Procedures, Interpersonal Relationships), and Tuckman’s model of team development.


    I’d love to hear from any readers on research done within their organisations regarding team development, or particular models they’ve used that have worked well. Please do share! Additionally, if this topic has been of particular interest to you and you’d like to know more, perhaps with a focus on certain areas, again, please let me know and I can work with Kim to create a follow-up article in the future. Either way, looking forward to hearing your feedback.