How to Build a Successful Team: What Years of Research Taught Google

The year was 2012. Google had been around for over a decade, and was on pace for its first $50 billion year.

But company executives grappled with a problem. They knew the key to Google’s success wasn’t just great employees, but getting those employees to work together. After all, even a star employee was only capable of so much on their own. But a great team, that was different.

Great teams identified mistakes more quickly; they solved problems more effectively. Great teams innovated.

The problem was, while some teams at Google flourished, others faltered.

So, the company set out on a multiyear project to see if they could figure out a formula for the perfect team—in hopes they could bottle that up and reproduce it.

The code name: Project Aristotle.

There exists a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. —Aristotle

What Google discovered

So, to have the best team, you need the most talented people, right?

Wrong.

Think about it: We’ve all seen a team of A-players who couldn’t exactly get the job done.

[Perfect case study: The 2004 NBA Finals.]

No, the key is not individual talent. Rather, it’s getting everyone to work well together—greater than the sum of its parts, remember?

Google researchers pored over tons of data. They conducted countless interviews. In the end, they concluded that the most successful teams shared five traits:

  • Psychological safety
  • Dependability
  • Structure and clarity
  • Meaning
  • Impact

Let’s take a close look at each of these.

Psychological safety

Psychological safety is when team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of one another.

It’s really a fancy word for “trust.”

If team members trust each other, they have no problem admitting mistakes—and what they’ve learned from those mistakes. They praise each other when they see something good… And give candid feedback when necessary—but in a way that helps, not harms.

Dependability

Google defines dependability as getting things done on time and meeting the company’s high bar for excellence.

Most people don’t realize how far they can get in life if they simply do what they say they’re going to do. Now, imagine a team where everyone follows that rule.

Of course, there are valid reasons that could prevent you or your teammates from reaching a deadline. But when that happens, communicate and get help.

Structure and clarity

Great teams have clear roles, plans, and goals.

They make sure everyone knows the answers to questions like:

  • When do team members need to be available?
  • How quickly should they respond to emails and instant messages?
  • What’s the big picture?
  • Where are we right now? Where are we headed?
  • What have we done? What needs to be done? Who is going to do it? How much time will it take?

Knowing the answers to these questions helps everyone stay on the same page.

Meaning

Work has “meaning” when it is personally important to team members. They must feel needed and appreciated, and see how they contribute to the success of the team.

Be generous with commendation for your teammates—but also make your praise sincere and specific. Then, if you see them struggle with a task, offer to help.

Impact

It’s important for team members to see that their work matters, inspires change, and makes an impact on others.

Great teammates help each other to see how their work has contributed to the goals of:

  • Clients and customers
  • The organization
  • The team itself

Don’t just show numbers, charts, and figures. Share real-life stories from customers and fellow employees.

Show them how their work made someone else’s life better.

One step at a time

If this sounds a lot different from the teams you’ve worked on, don’t feel bad. No team will be perfect at doing all of these things—whether at Google, or anywhere else.

But knowing what makes a great team is a great place to start.

So, pick one or two things to work on; then, strive to improve. Once you’re happy with your progress, work on the next thing.

If you do this, you’ll set the example of being a great team member…

And if everyone buys in, you’ll have a team that’s much greater than the sum of its parts.

(Read what Google learned about what makes a great manager in another project code named “Project Oxygen.”)

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