Viewpoint: What We Can Learn from Google About Collaboration

By Douglas Richardson Jul 14, 2016
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​​Google Headquarters in Mountain View, Calif​.

You have to hand it to Google: This technology-centric innovator is not afraid to invest in professional development or to delve into the human factors of productivity. Clearly, Google takes its human resources seriously.

In 2012, faced with dozens of internal task teams (including HR teams) that displayed wildly disparate levels of both performance and morale, Google focused its attention on figuring out how to build the perfect team. It soon fastened on effective collaboration as a core component of team performance. Researchers for a January 2016 Harvard Business School study support that choice: They found that "time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more over the last two decades." Even in activity marked by individual expertise and enterprise (like information technology, to cite a Google-relevant example), more than three-quarters of a typical employee's time is spent interacting with others rather than in solitary activity.

Google Asks Itself a Question

Google commenced Project Aristotle, charged with figuring out why some of its teams stumbled while others consistently outperformed their peers. Google recognized that improving team collaboration is no easy task. Just saying, "Hey, folks, let's all be more collaborative" was not going to move the needle. Practical leadership focuses on influencing what people should do, not telling them what they should be.

Google leaders asked its people analytics division for, in effect, a universal recipe for team collaboration that would foster communication, trust, engagement and overall interpersonal effectiveness. They wanted a formula or algorithm to plug in and derive better performance and interpersonal effectiveness from employees. 

The people analytics division spent hundreds of man hours and millions of dollars measuring every aspect of its employees' actions and interactions. It looked at collaboration—and potential collaborators—from every possible angle: Was good collaboration a matter of who, a matter of what or a matter of how? Was it a result of process or psychology? A result of nuts-and-bolts methods and systems or of all that touchy-feely stuff?

Google's psychologists spent a lot of time on the human interaction part: Did high-performing teams, as a whole, have employees with similar personality types? Were the most collaborative teams made up of people with similar interests? Were their educational backgrounds similar? Was performance a matter of custom-tailoring personal rewards or group incentives? Did team members have the same hobbies? Did teams with overlapping memberships perform better?

Project Aristotle examined the performance of scores of teams, some that performed well and others marked by discord, diminishing productivity or generally poor performance. They reviewed 50 years of academic literature and drew on input from the company's best statisticians, organizational psychologists, engineers and managers. The researchers scrutinized both hard factors and soft factors, looking at everything from which traits were shared by the most highly-rated managers to how often particular team members ate or socialized together. They sought patterns of performance, canons of communication, unspoken rules of desired behavior. They looked at everything.

And what they found was … nothing.

To their very considerable surprise, in their exhaustive search for patterns of performance, the Project Aristotle researchers found that no matter how they crunched the data, it was nearly impossible to discern patterns or, remarkably, any evidence that the composition of a team made any difference in the team's collaboration and performance.

"There weren't strong patterns here," said Abeer Dubey, a manager in the people analytics division. "We looked at 180 teams from all over the company. We had lots of data, but nothing showed that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The 'who' part of the equation didn't seem to matter."

Aha: Culture Matters

Eventually, the fiercely determined Aristotle team did identify what appeared to be a cornerstone of constructive collaboration, but that crucial factor did not describe what successful collaborators do. Rather, Project Aristotle divined the importance of what collaborators need in order to commit heart and soul to the goals and operation of their teams.

What marked successful and collaborative teams, the researchers found, was that each tended to develop its own unique set of informal but powerful "group norms"—traditions, unwritten rules and informal standards—that govern how people should behave when engaged in pursuing this particular team's goals and objectives. After they tracked more than 100 groups for more than a year, Project Aristotle researchers concluded that understanding and reinforcing each team's group norms was the key to understanding team performance, if not necessarily improving it. In other words, they found, culture matters more than competency.

More specifically, the researchers found that one aspect of a team's culture made a particularly powerful difference in sustained morale and consistent commitment. (Morale and commitment, in turn, proved to be the building blocks of active collaboration and superior performance over time.)

That one aspect is what Project Aristotle researchers called "psychological safety." More than anything else, psychological safety was absolutely instrumental to an individual team member's willingness to trust and collaborate with colleagues, regardless of his or her personality type.

So here, then, was the answer: Psychological safety is what makes teams work, irrespective of the personalities, ages, genders or other characteristics of their members. Conversely, low psychological safety results in dramatically reduced collaborative communication and activity.

Next question: What factors foster psychological safety? Project Aristotle team members identified three interrelated attitudes and behaviors:

  1. Empathy—referring to team members' ability to connect and communicate on a personal level.
  2.  Equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, which is Google's way of saying that: 1) everyone should be accorded roughly equal air time in group communication, 2) active listening must be learned and supported, and 3) intrusive interruption and theft of ideas should not be tolerated. 
  3. Confidence that team members will not embarrass, reject or punish an individual for speaking up and expressing his or her feelings openly.

How Do You Create Psychological Safety?

So there you have it, Google's not so secret formula: Collaboration is a function of culture, and culture is a function of open communication (which, in turn, is dependent on psychological safety). Plug it in, foster the right cultural norms, and bingo, collaboration will flourish.  Easy, peasy.

These three canons of collaboration, above, may strike HR professionals as basic team-building common sense and not especially novel. What is news is that Google said it.

Furthermore, I must also point out that while Project Aristotle described the preconditions and cultural norms of collaboration, it has not succeeded in articulating practical action steps to take once psychological safety has been achieved.

Somewhere in Google's hallways, some frustrated HR manager, organizational development professional or team leader is crying, "All right. I believe. I trust, I feel safe. But what exactly do I do?"

If that question interests you, stay tuned for the next exciting article, "Getting a Grip on Collaboration," in which I'll describe (with the Google pundits out of the room), some eminently practical collaboration action steps. The next installment will provide a straightforward approach to planning, organizing and managing any enterprise that requires the participation of two or more people in order to, if I may borrow from comedian Larry the Cable Guy, "get 'er done!"

Douglas Richardson, J.D., M.A., is a principal of Legal Leadership LLC, of Philadelphia and Savannah, Ga., and a certified master coach. As a lawyer and consultant, he has been voicing opinions about leadership, communication and organizational effectiveness for over 40 years.

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