Author Archives: Lee Zukor

About Lee Zukor

Product development and user experience web start-up guy, Minneapolis songwriter and music lover, proud dad and husband

For heaven’s sake, apologize!

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It was just over a month ago, but it still makes me feel sick. I was presenting an important and sensitive topic to the team, something I’d worked hard to get right. There were two versions of the deck I’d created, and between the stress of the day and a variety of technical difficulties, I found myself presenting the wrong version to the team. The fact that this version and the scenario it described were old and outdated didn’t matter. There it was, for all to see.

The worst part of my mistake was that I wasn’t the only person who was embarrassed by it – the deck I’d accidentally presented had implications for others on the team too. It was not my best hour. In response, I did what a lot of reasonable people would have done in the same situation: I ignored the mistake and hoped it would go away.

Only – surprise! – ignoring the mistake did not make it go away. It was only after I acknowledged the mistake a full week later that the team could get past it. “I made a mistake,” I said, genuinely, “I’m really sorry I did that.”

In response, one of my team members said something that truly amazed me. “I’ve never had a boss apologize to me before,” he said, “that means a lot.” What took me so long?

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

It’s not just Elton John who thinks so. According Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D., in Psychology Today:

Apologizing is difficult because it requires humility. Apologizing temporarily reduces one’s self-esteem.  The offender who apologizes yields some power, some control.  Having announced their imperfection and error, the offender is now vulnerable.  It takes humility to make a sincere apology, and for some people humility is just too uncomfortably close to humiliation.

When we apologize, we acknowledge our “imperfection and error,” which makes us feel weak and vulnerable. But we are imperfect, and we do make errors. There’s nothing weak about it at all. I’d argue that you need self-confidence in order to admit your failures. As Plato said in The Republic:

I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.

I used to wonder at what age I’d be smart enough to stop putting my foot in my mouth, but that was a long time ago. Now I know that age will never come, that I’ll never be that smart. I may not be “the wisest man alive,” but I know I don’t know everything. And if I don’t know everything, sometimes I’m going to get things wrong – and sometimes that will require an apology.

“Sorry” can be overused

The internet is littered with articles describing people who apologize too much. According to Greatist:

If you’re someone who throws out “sorrys” like candy from a parade float, that can be a problem. While on the surface this might seem like a polite habit, overusing any word can devalue it—and more importantly, excessive apologizing can make you look guilty when you haven’t done anything wrong.

While according to Tonic:

Apologies aren’t always helpful—and sometimes they can be excessive. This behavior may stem from anxiety or depression, although research on the topic is scarce. What we do know is that, for some, the urge to say “I’m sorry” for every little thing is involuntary and often has little to do with actual remorse.

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According to the Child Mind Institute, this is especially problematic for girls:

Apologizing can be a good thing—a sign that a child is empathetic and has strong social skills. But saying you’re sorry too much can backfire. For instance, when a girl starts a statement by saying, “Sorry, but… ” or “I might be wrong, but …” she may think she’s being polite, but it undermines what she’s about to say. “It says ‘I don’t feel confident in what I’m about to say or my right to say it,’ ” explains Dr. Rachel Busman, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.

Got it? The point is not to apologize with abandon. It’s to acknowledge that we genuinely care when our actions hurt people, and to admit that we make mistakes.

Coda

We’re actively hiring at work – we’ve got lots of open roles on my team and lots of great candidates, both internal and external. In an effort to get the word out quickly and get the ball rolling, I rushed a few job descriptions out before checking them with the hiring managers.

Can you guess what happened? Candidates had applied for a job based on a description they’d seen last month, and we were planning to interview them based on a job description we’d updated last week. Not ideal.

As a believer in the Agile Manifesto, I’m committed to welcoming change, to favoring individuals and interactions over processes and tools, and to responding to change over following a plan. I move fast. I break things. My intentions were pure, but this issue was entirely my fault. As I called each of the candidates, letting them know how and why the job they’d applied for had changed and asking them if they still wanted to apply, I made at least one thing clear.

“I’m really sorry about this,” I said, “I made a mistake.”

“No problem,” they responded, “thanks for taking the time to explain what happened. See you next week.”

 

I’ll be voting tomorrow

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I believe diversity is a strength and not a weakness.

I believe all Americans should have the opportunity to earn a living wage.

I believe we’re obligated to provide for those in need.

I believe we’re all equal, no exceptions.

I believe we should strive to create a world that’s better for our children.

I believe we’re in it together.

I believe scientists.

I believe the world and our country are less safe, less compassionate, and more violent since the current president was elected.

I believe facts.

I believe my vote matters, and I’ll be voting tomorrow.

A quick word about estimating work

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A Google search for “creating accurate estimates for development work” yields more than 121 million results. A Google search for “why are teams so bad at estimating development work?” yields more than 47 million. If there’s one thing we all know about estimates, it’s that they’re almost always wrong. The reasons for this are well documented:

  • No two developers have exactly the same skill set or develop at exactly the same speed
  • Code issues are difficult or impossible to predict
  • Availability of other project resources (UX, QA, etc.) can be an issue
  • And so on (this article does a good job of outlining more)

And yet we continue to estimate, to make promises and commitments, and to convince ourselves that these wildly optimistic guesses (because they’re always wildly optimistic and they’re always guesses) are more than just that. I don’t need to add to the many millions of Google search results on this topic, but I do want to highlight the clear and direct connection between the commitments we make and our ability to give our teams work that’s both achievable and manageable.

Every product leader I know actively tries to avoid setting deadlines and making commitments, partly because we know our estimates are inaccurate, and partly because we know that deadlines don’t help teams create better products. And yet, making commitments is often unavoidable. When we’re in this situation, I like to remind my team of one very important fact: nobody outside of our team actually knows how long it takes to do our work.

There are lots of strategies for padding development estimates (a Google search for “how much should we pad our development estimates?” yields 35 million results), but this isn’t my point. My point is that, in an effort to force our estimates into pre-determined timelines, we sometimes leave out things that are critically important, like QA and UX. Instead of estimating what it would take to deliver a quality project, we jump right to how we’ll hit a deadline. When we do this, we miss all sorts of great opportunities to negotiate – we give up before we even get started. We also make it impossible for our teams to deliver a quality product on time.

Nobody outside of our team actually knows how long it takes to do our work. This gives us the power to estimate our work as it should be, and to include all the critical pieces that are sometimes thought of as nice-to-haves. It also gives us the chance to bring our business partners along, to help them understand what it takes to build great software, to enlist their help when making trade-offs, and to get their buy-in and support for the recommended approach.

Let’s not forget to take advantage of it.

 

Feeling overwhelmed? Channel Kurt Vonnegut and get to work.

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Every company I’ve been a part of has had more work to do than people to do it. (Has there ever been a company with too many people and not enough work to do? Not for long.) Sometimes the gap between need and output is relatively small, and a team can almost keep up, but more often – especially if a company is aggressive about identifying opportunities – the gap is much, much bigger.

This can lead to lots of frustration. In my last post, I wrote about how great leaders help their teams win by defining success in ways that are achievable. In this post, I’ll focus on getting to work and making it manageable.

My current product organization is responsible for a lot more products than we have teams, including nearly a dozen products built by companies we’ve acquired over the past two years. Inevitably, at any given time, there are products we’re not working on, or even thinking much about. This can be hard to stomach. But the reality is that we’ll never have enough people or time to adequately address all of the issues and opportunities in front of us. In order to wrap our heads around the challenge, we need a different way to think about it.

That’s where I turn to Kurt Vonnegut.

In his article, On the Work to be Done, first published in the May 28, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Vonnegut writes brilliantly in the topic of getting to work. Although he’s writing about building a better world, Vonnegut’s words apply to building better software too. Here goes:

As I read the Book of Genesis, God didn’t give Adam and Eve a whole planet.

He gave them a manageable piece of property, for the sake of discussion let’s say 200 acres.

I suggest to you Adams and Eves that you set as your goals the putting of some small part of the planet into something like safe and sane and decent order.

If God had given Adam and Eve the entire world, what would they have done? It’s easy to imagine them running naked through the jungle, shaking their fists, fighting back tears, screaming, “we’re not ready to take care of all these animals – we don’t even have clothes yet!”

In Vonnegut’s telling, God doesn’t overwhelm Adam and Eve, he gives them “some small part of the planet” – just as much as they can handle.  Adam and Eve weren’t responsible for the entire planet, I remind my team, and you’re not responsible for the entire platform. You’re divided into product teams for a reason, so that one group can focus on financial management while another focuses on mobile applications and so on. If you try to eat the elephant (or the forbidden apple?) in one bite, you’ll get sick. Vonnegut continues:

What painters and sculptors and writers do, incidentally, is put very small properties indeed into good order, as best they can.

A painter thinks, “I can’t fix the whole planet, but I can at least make this square of canvas what it ought to be.” And a sculptor thinks the same thing about a lump of clay or marble. A writer thinks the same about a piece of paper, conventionally eleven inches long and eight-and-a-half inches wide.

A product manager is responsible for creating an awesome product. A user experience designer is responsible for creating an awesome experience. A software architect is responsible for creating an awesome technical architecture. And so on. Often this work happens incrementally, over time. The good and bad news? The work is never done.

So here’s the challenge: take your 200 acres (or lines of code) and put them in decent order. Make them exactly what they’re meant to be, or make them even better. After that, there’ll be another 200 acres to worry about, and then another 200 acres after that.

That sounds manageable, right?

Great teams want to win. Great leaders make it possible.

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I was just a few months into my new position as Director of eCommerce and, although the team was delivering lots of work, the work itself was underwhelming: shortcuts were being taken, errors were being made, and deadlines were being missed. And while members of the team told me they were overworked, I was pretty sure none of them was working more than a 40-hour week, and a few were working less.

My first thought was that my team was lazy, that they’d gotten away with putting in less than a full effort in the past and needed to recommit to their jobs. Wasn’t it obvious that if they put in more hours they’d get more work done? In an attempt to get more hours out of the team, I put a few carrots in place (a free meal, a small bonus) and a few sticks (unpleasant meetings, the threat of disciplinary action). Neither worked. At the end of my rope, I called a team meeting.

The meeting started with lots of venting, as you’d expect: the job was hard, there was too much work and not enough people, the team was under-appreciated. I wondered if pulling everyone together was a bad idea. And then, suddenly, one of my employees said something so simple – and so perfect – that I’ve literally thought about it every day since:

“We come to work each day to win,” he said, “but we always lose.”

The rest of the team nodded their heads in agreement, and I dug in. When I pressed them to describe what it meant to win, they said they felt like they were on a treadmill – no matter how many hours they worked, they could never keep up. And if, miraculously, they could keep up with their workload, their only reward was to do it all over again the next week. What’s more, “keeping up” wasn’t something the team could rally around. They wanted to do great work, improve the process, and add value to our company and our customers. They wanted to be proud of not just the quantity of their work, but the quality as well.

The team wasn’t working longer hours because couldn’t see the point – no matter how many hours they worked, they couldn’t win.

#Winning
Remember the movie “Groundhog Day”? In it, Bill Murray is forced to relive the same day over and over again until he gets it right. The movie works because every time Murray’s character wakes up in the morning we see small improvements in his behavior – we can see that he’s learning – so we know he’ll eventually be waking up next to Andie MacDowell. For too many of our teams, there’s no difference between one day and the next. They can’t see forward progress, and a happy ending seems like an impossibility. They want their chance to wake up next to Andie MacDowell, but their experience tells them they never will.

As I mentioned, the eCommerce team above defined winning as doing high quality work, improving the process, and adding value to our company and our customers. But leadership at the company we worked for defined winning for the team as simply keeping up with their aggressive workload. Who was right? The team was, of course.

When a company sets a low bar for its employees and teams, the best employees – the kind you want to keep – have just two choices: set the bar higher or move on. Too often a company takes the view that repetitive, operational roles are best staffed by people who just want to put in their time. Even these roles need a version of winning.

Winning means different things to different teams, but in my experience working with lots of them, forward progress is a must. If a team isn’t moving forward, it can’t possibly be winning.

Before you can set your team up to win, you need to know what winning means to them. If you don’t know, ask them.

The definition of insanity
For teams that feel like they’re living “Groundhog Day,” you need to find a way to show forward progress. That way, even if your team continues to experience the operational pain of a never-ending task, they can start to get a sense that tomorrow’s problems will be different from today’s. You know that line about how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? That’s what we’re trying to avoid.

For the team above, that meant doing a deep dive into their process and tools, holding weekly meetings to discuss progress, creating a shared vision of success, and resetting expectations across the organization.

Work hard and show progress
The risk of gathering information and committing to helping your team win is that they’ll hold you accountable for making it happen. But you don’t really have a choice, do you? It’s your job. One of your most critical responsibilities is to make sure your employees can do their best work every day.

This is really hard to do! Articulating what it means to win is one thing, but setting your team up to win is something else. Often, the things that get in the way are expensive, enormous, complicated, and largely out of your control. Fortunately, your team doesn’t expect you to be a superhero. Your job isn’t to fix everything immediately, it’s to work hard and show progress.

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No more clockwatching
At the start of this post, I mentioned that my team wasn’t putting in more hours even though they were falling behind in their work. This makes complete sense. Until a team buys into their goals and approach – until they think they can win – they’re unlikely to invest more than the absolute minimum amount of energy and time required.

Once your team believes there’s a connection between their effort and their success, their work will be better, they’ll be happier, and they’ll see the benefits of working harder. They’ll stop worrying about how many hours they’re putting in, and you will too.

A new hope
The conversation described above was more than five years and several jobs ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. The employee who made the comment about winning is still one of the most valuable employees I’ve ever had – he’s been on every one of my teams since.

I continued to work with that eCommerce team for another year or so, and although we never replaced their software or hired as many people as they wanted, we made a lot of progress. Within a few months, I’d replaced their manager, introduced new KPIs and reporting, gained organizational alignment, and scheduled regular meetings to help the team understand the context of their work and think more strategically. I didn’t fix everything, but I was able to show progress. The team started making fewer errors, taking pride in their work, and even working longer hours.

Finally, the team had hope. Winning wasn’t going to be easy, but maybe, if we all worked hard enough, it was possible.

“Leadership by tweets” is still not a thing

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This is from the New York Times on December 3, 2017, but it could be from almost any news source on almost any day this year:

In a series of early-morning tweets, Mr. Trump said the F.B.I.’s standing was now the “worst in history.” The attack was one of the harshest in a generation on an independent agency that two days earlier had helped secure a guilty plea and a pledge of cooperation from the president’s first national security adviser.

Yesterday Mr. Trump took to Twitter to criticize the F.B.I., but unless you’ve been living under a big, heavy rock wearing noise canceling headphones and a sleep mask, yesterday’s news didn’t surprise you. Heck, yesterday’s news wasn’t even news. Tweeting whatever comes to mind – good or bad – is just what the man does, several times a day or more. It helped him get elected to the highest office in our country.

As a leadership challenge, leading the United States has to be about as tough as it gets. So the fact that Trump leverages Twitter so frequently and enthusiastically is worth considering, particularly for those of us who lead companies and teams that are invariably smaller and less complex than the United States government. As it turns out, we can learn a lot of things from the way Trump uses Twitter. Here are a few things I’ve learned – or been reminded of – in just the last few weeks:

Build trust
One could argue that one of our president’s primary responsibilities is to keep Americans safe. This surely includes preventing nuclear war. And yet, while Rex Tillerson, our Secretary of State, works to build trust around the world, his boss can’t help but chime in:

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There are a couple of key leadership lessons here:

  • Calling an employee “wonderful” while criticizing his work publicly – especially in front of 44 million Twitter followers – sends a mixed message, and probably won’t result in the behavior you seek. Critical feedback should be given directly, and privately.
  • Name calling is never a good idea, even if the name is something cool like “Little Rocket Man.” (If the person you’re calling “Little Rocket Man” has access to nuclear weapons, it’s an even worse idea.)

Details matter
From The Washington Post, November 30, 2017:

Taking aim at Prime Minister Theresa May’s sharp rebuke of his actions, Trump wanted May to know he was unhappy with her response. In Trump fashion, he took to Twitter to air his grievances. But he targeted the wrong Theresa May.

Scrivener, now known as the “wrong Theresa May,” broke her silence later Thursday. “It’s amazing to think that the world’s most powerful man managed to press the wrong button,” she said, adding, “I’m just glad he was not contacting me to say he was going to war with North Korea.”

Calling out a strategic partner or employee publicly can be problematic (see above). But calling out the wrong person is worse. Strong leaders confirm that they’re talking with the right person, check their spelling, etc. before going down this path. If you’re a leader but not a perfectionist, consider leveraging a proofreader before sharing something important.

Check your facts
From Factcheck.org, November 29, 2017:

President Donald Trump retweeted a video that purported to show a “Muslim migrant” beating up “a Dutch boy on crutches.” But, according to the Netherlands Embassy in the United States, the attacker wasn’t an immigrant. He was born and raised in the Netherlands.

The embassy chastised the U.S. president for spreading false information. “Facts do matter,” it said in a statement on Twitter hours after the president’s retweet.

This single example contains additional leadership lessons as well. We are taught as leaders to acknowledge implicit bias, which cannot help but exist, and to look for ways to counter it, including training, better conflict management, and implementing systems that account for it. We are also taught to slow down. From Bentley University’s website, good leaders must:

Pause…leading to more thoughtful decisions. Taking a breath or a pause in the height of the decision making process can be the most meaningful action they can take. Often, that mental and/or physical space is needed to fully understand a situation and keep a clear head.

Show integrity
In one of Trump’s tweets from this past weekend, the President wrote that he fired Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI:

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And here’s the fallout, from NBC News this morning:

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer took responsibility Sunday for a tweet that Trump sent the previous day, in which the president said for the first time that he knew his former security adviser, Michael Flynn, had lied to the FBI before he fired Flynn in February.

The tweet caused an uproar in Washington because it implied Trump knew Flynn had committed a felony — lying to the FBI — when he told then-FBI director James Comey to go easy on Flynn the day after the firing.

In this case, Trump tweeted information that could, theoretically, get him impeached – probably not a great move. Then, instead of admitting he’d made a mistake, Trump allowed his lawyer to take the blame. Making mistakes is no fun, but it’s also unavoidable. Owning our mistakes shows integrity.

Focus on what’s important
Last week, Michael Flynn pleaded guilty and agreed to testify, Republican senators approved a sweeping tax bill, and several well-known politicians and TV personalities were accused of sexual assault. This week, a government shutdown looms. Trump spent most of last week tweeting about Hillary Clinton, James Comey, ABC News and Brian Ross, and – falsely – about Muslims behaving badly.

Many of us have intense jobs, with back-to-back meetings, large teams we’re trying to build and improve, projects with challenging deadlines that need to be met, and more. Very few of us are trying to simultaneously rewrite the tax code, change our healthcare system, prevent nuclear war, and keep ourselves out of jail. Still, we know how important it is to be able to separate the things that are critical from those that are not. If we don’t do this, we cannot be successful at our jobs.

The gift that keeps on giving
Trump is arguably the most powerful leader in the world, and his love of Twitter is beyond legendary. I’ve also recently watched Quit Social Media, Dr. Cal Newport’s compelling TED talk (thanks Jamie!), so my mind is on social media and its place in our lives and our work. I’ve been thinking about how social media makes our lives more full and also how it makes them more empty, how it creates revolution and how it spreads fake news, how it brings us together and how it pulls us apart.

The collection of the President’s tweets above is far from comprehensive, of course – we’ve got much more to learn from the tweets he’s already posted – and will likely continue to post – about war heroes, co-workers, competitors, movie stars, women, football players, and more. From a learning perspective, Trump on Twitter is the gift that keeps on giving.

And so, acknowledging that there’s still lots to learn while Trump is in office, my current view on Twitter and Trump is this: while Twitter clearly helped Trump become a more effective candidate, it has yet to help him become a more effective leader. Based on what we’ve seen so far, I don’t think it ever will.

 

 

Google’s Project Aristotle and psychological safety

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After 18 months, the team was still struggling with the project. Lots of work had been done, but most of it was unfocused, and even at this late date, no one could articulate a clear set of requirements. Hitting the deadline, an aggressive goal from the start, was starting to feel like an impossible task. The team knew they were in trouble.

As the team started to miss internal deadlines, the rest of the company began to get concerned too. Meetings were called, presentations were given, and more deadlines were set. Unsurprisingly, these new deadlines – piled on top of old deadlines that were already being missed – were missed too.

People from across the company offered to help the team in any way they could – time, expertise, snacks – but the team politely declined. They knew that failure was not an option, but they didn’t know how to accept the help that was being offered. Worse, they were scared. In order to avoid painful conversations, they pretended they had a plan. What the team really needed was to talk with the customer, to establish a definitive set of requirements to deliver. But how could they tell the customer 18 months into a 2 year project that they still didn’t know what they were supposed to be building? They decided they couldn’t. Better to keep their jobs for the next six months than to risk being fired immediately.

The Emperor has no clothes

Everything changed when a new Product Manager came into the mix. On day one, he said the emperor had no clothes. On day two, he said we were back at square one. Then he started working with the team to gather a definitive set of requirements.

“How is it possible you’re just doing that now?” stakeholders asked, “this should have happened months ago.”

“You’re right, the new Product Manager said, “it should have. But since it didn’t, we’re going to do it now.” On day five, we had a meeting scheduled with our customer to make sure we had the requirements right.

One week after our new Product Manager was hired, we had a plan. Somehow, throughout the interview process and his first week, nobody told our new Product Manager he was supposed to be too scared to do his job. As a result, he wasn’t.

Google’s Project Aristotle

I recently re-read Charles Duhigg’s terrific 2016 New York Times article, What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build The Perfect Team. Here’s the setup:

Five years ago, Google — one of the most public proselytizers of how studying workers can transform productivity — became focused on building the perfect team. In the last decade, the tech giant has spent untold millions of dollars measuring nearly every aspect of its employees’ lives. Google’s People Operations department has scrutinized everything from how frequently particular people eat together to which traits the best managers share.

The company’s top executives long believed that building the best teams meant combining the best people. They embraced other bits of conventional wisdom as well, like ‘‘It’s better to put introverts together,’’ or ‘‘Teams are more effective when everyone is friends away from work.’’ But, ‘‘it turned out no one had really studied which of those were true.’’

In 2012, the company embarked on an initiative — code-named Project Aristotle — to study hundreds of Google’s teams and figure out why some stumbled while others soared.

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The article goes on to describe how the test was constructed and how challenging it was for researchers to identify which group norms consistently characterized successful teams. After studying hundreds of groups over several years, however, researchers made a breakthrough:

They noticed two behaviors that all the good teams generally shared. First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’

Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. 

Within psychology, researchers sometimes colloquially refer to traits like ‘‘conversational turn-taking’’ and ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ as aspects of what’s known as psychological safety, or ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

This finding is both intuitive and incredible. The highest performing teams, it tells us, may not have the smartest people, or the clearest goals, or the most inspiring leaders, or the clearest focus. The highest performing teams are those in which people feel “comfortable being themselves.”

Learning from failure

Psychological safety is not the only thing that makes a team great – according to the Times article, “there were other behaviors that seemed important as well – like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability.” But can a team be great if they don’t have each other’s backs? Can a team be great if they’re afraid to take chances? Can a team be great if they blame each other when things go wrong?

Google’s research is aligned with lots of great writing about learning from failure. Great teams take big swings, and when they miss (which all teams do), they learn from their mistakes and move on together. The conclusion is clear: as leaders, our job is to make sure our people feel safe enough to take chances, to challenge each other in productive ways, and to bring their very best ideas to work without the fear of being wrong. That’s the way we’ll build high performing teams, and the way our high performing teams will do amazing things.