CategoriesCasesProject Team

Case: Project Aristotle at Google – Finding the best way to work in teams.

Google is a well-known American technology company with approximately 140,000 employees. Google’s People Operations (HR department) aimed to conduct a project that identified the characteristics of a successful team, initiating “Project Aristotle” in 2012. The working hypothesis was that employees could perform better by working together than individually.

Abeer Dubay, Director of People Analytics, was appointed to lead the project. Julia Rozovsky joined him, and together they assembled a project team comprising experts with diverse professional skills. They gathered the best statisticians, as well as leading researchers in organizational psychology, engineering, and sociology, to determine what distinguishes the perfect team.

Two years into the project, they had studied over 180 teams, conducted over 200 interviews, and analyzed over 250 different team attributes.

Despite analyzing the data, they were still unable to find any distinctive patterns that could help them create a perfect algorithm for a dream team. It’s worth noting that the project team had also reviewed nearly fifty years of academic studies on how teams function, and the findings from those studies appeared quite inconsistent. Perplexed by the lack of clear patterns in their own data, they particularly focused on group norms.

Typically, one would expect to find a correlation between team membership, such as compositions based on skills, personalities, and so forth, and the team’s success. However, they found no such connection. So, they shifted their focus from “who” to “how” they interacted. After closer investigation, they discovered something significant. The project’s findings revealed that the individuals’ participation in a team and their individual qualities had little impact. What truly mattered was how these people interacted, i.e. the way they treated each other. As long as there was a certain culture of respect and equality, they could relax and collaborate. More specifically, they identified the following key elements:

  • Equality in conversations: This means that during meetings and discussions, everyone spoke roughly the same amount.
  • Intense, active listening: It implies that those listening to the person speaking must show attentiveness. Through body language, eye contact, mirroring, repeating what the person said, or similar actions, they encourage people to speak and ensure that what is said is understood.

This creates what Professor Amy Edmondson and other experts refer to as psychological safety. Based on these findings, the people involved in “Project Aristotle” concluded that psychological safety was the most significant factor associated with a team’s success.

Based on these findings, they further examined their own data in light of academic studies on collective intelligence and collaboration. They identified five characteristics of an improved team and developed some guidelines for teamwork. The five characteristics, briefly presented, are as follows:

  • Psychological safety:
    • Encourage seeking input and opinions from the team.
    • Share information about personal preferences and approaches to work, and encourage others to do the same.
  • Reliability:
    • Clarify team members’ roles and responsibilities.
    • Develop concrete project plans to provide transparency in each person’s work.
  • Structure and clarity:
    • Regularly communicate team goals and ensure team members understand the plan to achieve them.
    • Ensure team meetings have a clear agenda and a designated leader.
    • Consider adopting Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to organize the team’s work.
  • Meaning:
    • Provide team members with positive feedback on something outstanding they’ve done and offer assistance with anything they are struggling with.
    • Express gratitude to someone who has helped you.
  • Impact:
    • Create a clear vision together that reinforces how each team member’s work directly contributes to the team’s and the broader organization’s goals.
    • Reflect on the work you do and how it affects users or clients and the organization.
    • Adopt a user-centered evaluation method and focus on the user.

Key conditions for effective teamwork at Google:

  • Psychological safety: Can we, as a team, take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  • Impact: Do we believe that what we are working on truly makes a difference and contributes to improvement?
  • Meaning: Are we working on something that is personally meaningful to us?
  • Structure and clarity: Are our goals, roles, and implementation plans clear and well-defined?
  • Reliability: Can we trust each other to deliver high-quality work within the deadline?

Of all these elements, psychological safety was the most crucial. Feeling safe was the factor that mattered the most for the team’s performance. You can and should be open to others in the team and be an active listener. Everyone should speak and have approximately equal time to express themselves, and it’s essential to avoid making anyone feel inhibited, excluded, or criticized for what they say when speaking in front of the team.

Results and project follow-up
Dubay, Rozovsky, and their team members began sharing the results from “Project Aristotle” with the leaders and employees at Google. The company is now more aware of the factors that contribute to creating a great team, resulting in guidelines and a change in the culture of teamwork.

How would you argue for the importance of team composition and build upon findings from “Project Aristotle,” and what aspects would you emphasize if you were to present these recommendations to a project owner as a project manager?

As a project manager, you can argue for the importance of team composition and build upon the findings from “Project Aristotle” by presenting the following recommendations to the project owner:

  • Emphasize the significance of psychological safety: Explain that psychological safety is a critical factor for successful teamwork. Team members need to feel safe enough to share their opinions, take risks, and be open to learning from one another. This fosters creativity, innovation, and better problem-solving abilities.
  • Focus on equal participation: Stress the importance of equal participation and an even distribution of speaking time in team meetings and discussions. Encourage all team members to contribute actively and feel included. This helps create an environment of respect, where everyone feels heard and valued.
  • Encourage intense, active listening: Highlight the need for intense, active listening within the team. Team members should show attentiveness, engagement, and respect when listening to each other. This enhances understanding, promotes empathy, and strengthens communication within the team.
  • Point out the significance of clarity and structure: Explain that clarity and structure are crucial for the team’s success. Clear goals, defined roles and responsibilities, as well as regular communication of team objectives and plans, help ensure that everyone in the team understands what is expected of them. This promotes collaboration, avoids misunderstandings, and increases productivity.
  • Emphasize the importance of reliability: Stress that reliability and accountability are essential factors in effective teamwork. Team members must be able to trust each other to deliver high quality and meet deadlines. Clearly defined roles, well-defined project plans, and open communication contribute to establishing a culture of reliability and mutual trust.

When presenting these recommendations, emphasize that team dynamics and interaction between team members are of paramount importance to the project’s success. Building a strong and collaborative team climate based on psychological safety, equal participation, active listening, clarity, structure, and reliability will contribute to fostering engagement, innovation, and optimal outcomes.

Compare and discuss the five elements identified by Google, with activities for team kickoff, and how this can be applied in the context of creating a team contract.

The five elements identified by Google in “Project Aristotle” – psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact – can be compared and discussed in the context of activities for team kickoff and the creation of a team contract as follows:

Psychological safety: In team kickoff activities, one can encourage open communication and create an atmosphere where everyone feels safe to express their opinions and concerns. This can include icebreaker exercises, team-building activities, and establishing norms for respectful communication. In the team contract, one can make it clear that all members have the right to express themselves freely and that their opinions and ideas will be respected.

Dependability: During team kickoff, discussions can revolve around clarifying expectations for each person’s role and responsibilities. This can be achieved through role clarification and defining the team’s goals. The team contract can outline these expectations and areas of responsibility, emphasizing the importance of maintaining dependability and fulfilling commitments to the team.

Structure and clarity: In team kickoff, establishing a clear agenda and meeting structure for team meetings can be done to ensure effective meetings and well-defined objectives. The team contract can include guidelines for meeting planning, communication channels, and expectations for meeting attendance. This ensures that the team shares a common understanding of the structure and clear guidelines for collaboration.

Meaning: During team kickoff, promoting a culture where acknowledging and providing positive feedback to team members is valued can be encouraged. This can be accomplished through exercises such as sharing successes and identifying individual strengths and contributions. The team contract can include a commitment to giving positive feedback and showing appreciation for each other’s efforts.

Impact: During team kickoff, working together to create a shared vision for the project and identifying how each member’s work contributes to the overall goal can be done. This can be achieved through workshops or exercises that connect individual tasks to the bigger picture. The team contract can include a section on the team’s vision and the significance of each member’s contribution.

Compared to team kickoff activities, a team contract can help document and formalize these elements. It serves as a written agreement between team members that defines their common understanding of goals, responsibilities, expectations, and norms for collaboration. The team contract acts as a reference point and helps hold the team accountable for maintaining the five identified elements from “Project Aristotle” throughout the project.

What is the most important expected project outcome, and what kind of value creation would you argue the project has contributed to?

The most important expected project outcome for “Project Aristotle” was to identify factors that characterize successful teams and develop guidelines that could be used to enhance teamwork at Google. The project aimed to understand what makes teams successful and how to create a culture and work environment that fosters effective collaboration.

The value creation contributed by the project can be divided into several aspects:

  • Improved team dynamics: “Project Aristotle” has helped increase awareness of the importance of psychological safety and equal participation in discussions. By highlighting the significance of active listening, encouraging participation, and creating a safe atmosphere, the project has helped teams improve collaboration and build strong relationships.
  • Cultural and work environment change: The project has led to a change in Google’s culture and work environment. By emphasizing the significance of team dynamics and creating an atmosphere of psychological safety, the project has contributed to promoting a more inclusive and collaborative culture. This has created an environment where employees feel secure and are encouraged to share ideas, contribute actively, and collaborate across departments and hierarchies.
  • Increased efficiency and productivity: By implementing the guidelines and principles from “Project Aristotle,” Google has been able to improve team efficiency and productivity. Psychological safety and active listening have created an environment where all voices are heard, allowing teams to benefit from diverse perspectives and ideas. This has led to better problem-solving, innovation, and decision-making.
  • Enhanced employee engagement and well-being: Through a focus on team dynamics and psychological safety, the project has contributed to increased employee engagement and well-being. When employees feel secure and included in the team, they are more motivated and inclined to actively participate in the work, which positively impacts their well-being and job satisfaction.

Overall, “Project Aristotle” has contributed to improving teamwork, changing the culture, and creating an environment that fosters collaboration, innovation, and well-being. The value of the project lies in identifying and implementing factors that contribute to creating successful and efficient teams, which, in turn, have positive consequences for the organization’s performance and success.

This case is taken from the book “Verdiskapende Prosjektledelse” – 2022, 2. Edition, by Torgeir Skyttermoen og Anne Live Vaagaasar.

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