What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team
(Adapted from the New York Times 28 /02/2016 by Dr. M Heffernan, O.A.M.)
By the time Julia Rozovsky was 25 years old she had had many experiences but felt she was not a good match for any of them. Julia had worked at a consulting firm, and as a researcher at a top university in America which was interesting but lonely. All she knew for certain was that she wanted to find a job that was more social. ‘‘I wanted to be part of a community, part of something people were building together,’’ she said. Julia thought about various opportunities but decided to complete a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) degree.
At university Julia was assigned to a study group carefully planned to foster tight bonds. Study groups were considered a way for students to practice working in teams and a reflection of the increasing demand for employees who need to be able to understand and work within group dynamics. A worker today might start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers, and then send emails to colleagues marketing a new brand, then jump on a conference call planning an entirely different product line, while also juggling team meetings with accounting and the party-planning committee. To prepare students for that complex world, business schools emphasise team-focused learning.
Every day Julia and her four teammates gathered to discuss their studies, and prepare for assignments. Everyone was smart and curious, and they had a lot in common: they had gone to similar universities and had worked at comparable firms. These shared experiences, Julia hoped, would make it easy for them to work well together. But it didn’t turn out that way. ‘‘There are lots of people who say some of their best business-school friends come from their study groups, but it wasn’t like that for me.’’ Instead, Julia’s study group was a source of stress. ‘‘I always felt like I had to prove myself,’’ she said. The team’s dynamics could put her on edge. When the group met, teammates sometimes argued who would take the leadership role or criticised one another’s ideas. There were conflicts over who was in charge and who got to represent the group in class. ‘‘People would try to show authority by speaking louder or talking over each other. I always felt like I had to be careful not to make mistakes around them.’’
So Julia started looking for other groups she could join. Teams were being formed for business case-competitions, contests in which participants proposed solutions to real-world business problems that were evaluated by judges, who awarded trophies and money. The competitions were voluntary, but the work wasn’t all that different from what Julia did with her other study group. The members of her business case-competition team had a variety of professional experiences: Army officer, researcher at a think tank, director of a health-education non-profit organization and consultant to a refugee program. Despite their different backgrounds, however, everyone clicked. They emailed one another silly jokes and usually spent the first 10 minutes of each meeting chatting. “When it came time to brainstorm we had lots of crazy ideas. We all felt like we could say anything to each other. No one worried that the rest of the team was judging them,’’ Julia said. They won the competition.
Julia’s study group disbanded in her second semester. Her business-case competition team, however, stayed together for the two years she was undertaking her study. She found it odd that her experiences with the two groups were dissimilar. Each was composed of people who were bright and outgoing.
When she talked one on one with members of her study group, the exchanges were friendly and warm. It was only when they gathered as a team that things became troubled. By contrast, her case-Page 2 of 5
competition team was always fun and easy-going. In some ways, the team’s members got along better as a group than as individual friends.
Our technology-saturated age enables us to examine our work habits with detailed scrutiny. Today, researchers are devoting themselves to studying everything from team composition to email patterns in order to understand personal productivity; to understand how to make employees into faster, better and more productive versions of themselves, and why some people are more effective than everyone else. Five years ago, Google became focused on building the perfect team. The company’s top executives long believed that building the best teams meant combining the best people. The technology industry is not just one of the fastest growing parts of our economy; it is also increasingly the world’s dominant commercial culture. And at the core of Silicon Valley are certain beliefs:
everything is different now, data reigns supreme, today’s winners deserve to triumph because they are clear-eyed enough to discard yesterday’s conventional wisdoms and search out the disruptive and the new.
In 2012, Google embarked on Project Aristotle to study hundreds of Google’s teams and figure out why some stumbled while others soared. Julia was hired by Google and was soon assigned to Project Aristotle. Some groups that were ranked among Google’s most effective teams were composed of friends who socialized outside work. Others were made up of people who were basically strangers away from the conference room. Some groups sought strong managers. Others preferred a less hierarchical structure. Most confounding of all, two teams might have nearly identical makeups, with overlapping memberships, but radically different levels of effectiveness. As they struggled to figure out what made a team successful, Julia and her colleagues kept coming across research that focused on what are known as ‘‘group norms.’’
Project Aristotle’s researchers began looking for norms. After looking at over a hundred groups for more than a year, Project Aristotle researchers concluded that understanding and influencing group norms were the keys to improving Google’s teams. But Julia, now a lead researcher, needed to figure out which norms mattered most. Google’s research had identified dozens of behaviors that seemed important, except that sometimes the norms of one effective team contrasted sharply with those of another equally successful group. Imagine you have been invited to join one of two groups.
Team A is composed of people who are all exceptionally smart and successful. When you watch a video of this group working, you see professionals who wait until a topic arises in which they are expert, and then they speak at length, explaining what the group ought to do. When someone makes a side comment, the speaker stops, reminds every one of the agenda and pushes the meeting back on track. This team is efficient. There is no idle chitchat or long debates. The meeting ends as scheduled and disbands so everyone can get back to their desks.
Team B is different. It’s evenly divided between successful executives and middle managers with few professional accomplishments. Teammates jump in and out of discussions. People interject and complete one another’s thoughts. When a team member abruptly changes the topic, the rest of the group follows him off the agenda. At the end of the meeting, the meeting doesn’t actually end: Everyone sits around to gossip and talk about their lives.
Most of all, employees had talked about how various teams felt. ‘‘And that made a lot of sense to me, maybe because of my experiences while I was studying my MBA,’’ Julia said. ‘‘I’d been on some teams that left me feeling totally exhausted and others where I got so much energy from the group.’’Page 3 of 5
For Project Aristotle, the research pointed to particular norms that are vital to success. Julia and her colleagues had figured out which norms were most critical. After Julia gave one presentation on their findings, an employee named Matt approached the Project Aristotle researchers. Matt had an unusual background for a Google employee. Twenty years earlier, he was a member of a security team but left to become an electronics salesman and eventually landed at Google as a midlevel manager, where he has overseen teams of engineers who respond when the company’s websites or servers go down. ‘‘I might be the luckiest individual on earth,’’ Matt said. ‘‘I’m not really an engineer. I didn’t study computers in college. Everyone who works for me is much smarter than I am.’’ But he is talented at managing technical workers, and as a result, Matt has thrived at Google.
Matt was particularly interested in Project Aristotle because the team he previously oversaw at Google hadn’t jelled particularly well. ‘‘There was one senior engineer who would just talk and talk, and everyone was scared to disagree with him,’’ Matt said. ‘‘The hardest part was that everyone liked this guy outside the group setting, but whenever they got together as a team, something happened that made the culture go wrong.’’ Matt had recently become the manager of a new team, and he wanted to make sure things went better this time. Matt asked researchers at Project Aristotle if they could help.
They provided him with a survey to gauge the group’s norms. The team completed the survey, and a few weeks later, Matt received the results. He was surprised by what they revealed. He thought of the team as a strong unit. But the results indicated there were weaknesses: When asked to rate whether the role of the team was clearly understood and whether their work had impact, members of the team gave middling to poor scores. These responses troubled Matt, because he hadn’t picked up on this discontent. He wanted everyone to feel fulfilled by their work.
Analyse the case and write a response. Your response should be written in a case study format, and address the following sections. Refer to the Learning Lab resources for examples of writing a case study.
A. Reading and analysing the case
Analyse the case by asking questions
a. What are 2 to 3 problems I can identify in the case?
b. Why do they exist?
c. How do they impact the organisation?
d. Who is responsible for them?
B. Writing the Case Study report
Before writing your report read the “ITM Guidelines for writing a case study assignment”.
a. Include a brief general statement about the sector the case study is from.
b. Identify the challenges managers face when managing complex organisational environments in this organisational sector.
c. Identify the particular company that is being analysed.Page 4 of 5
The ‘Background’ section is to set the scene so the reader has some information about the background of the company being analysed.
Use your own words to paraphrase background information, relevant facts, and the most important issues from the case.
Do not just copy or restate information from the case study: be brief and summarise.
3. Identification of issues and problems
In this section you identify the major problems and their causes
a. What are the major problems? What caused them?
b. Describe the positive and negative aspects of the management approaches and activities in the case.
Integrate the information in the case study with relevant management theories and approaches. Apply your knowledge and theories from Topics 1 to 6 ( management practices; organisational behaviour; groups and teams; managerial communication; managing socially responsible and ethical behaviour; and managerial leadership)
Use concepts from class (scholarly readings, tutorial discussions, lectures) and your research to show which management theories and approaches apply to the problems you have identified. This research will help you develop possible solutions.
Read https://emedia.rmit.edu.au/learninglab/content/case-studies-tutorial to help you understand how to integrate theories
4. Possible Solutions
This section should link to the issues and problems you identified in the previous section.
a. Outline 3 possible alternatives that could resolve the issues and/or problems that you identified in section 3 (you are not required to write all alternatives…just the 3 key alternatives you consider are having the most impact on the organisation).
b. What needs to change?
c. Support your solutions by using evidence from your research.
5. Proposed Solution:
a. Given the company’s resources discuss one of the possible solutions in further detail;
b. Explain why this solution was chosen;
c. Support this solution with solid evidence from your research for this assignment and concepts from Topics 1 to 6 (scholarly readings, tutorial discussions, lectures);
d. Consider strong supporting evidence, pros, and cons: justify why this solution is realistic and beneficial for the organisation;
e. When justifying your solution consider the resources within the organisation to enable the implementation of each solution.