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.
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.