Building on the success of the Oxygen project, where Google has been exploring the characteristics of good leadership, in 2012 they launched Project Aristotle, using the same data-driven methodology to unravel the mystery of effective teams. The name says it all, because Aristotle is known, among other things, for his saying that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. And at the same time this also describes the essence of the results of this investigation: a group of superstars does not necessarily become an effective team.
In her TED talk Margaret Heffernan reports on the following experiment. William Muir from Purdue University investigated the productivity of chickens (which can easily be measured by counting eggs). For one group, he selected only the “high performers” and only the best of these Super Chickens were allowed to breed. On the other hand, there was a group of average chickens that were not further selected or influenced. After six generations the chickens in this average group were well fed, fully feathered and their productivity had increased significantly. Contrary to naive expectations, this was slightly different in the Super Chicken group: all but three were dead — picked to death by the others.
Cooperation is the thorough conviction that nobody can get there unless everybody gets there.Virginia Burden
The explanation for this unexpected outcome of the experiment is quite simple. The higher productivity of the Super Chicken was accompanied by their ability to prevail against others. The targeted selection of exactly these individuals intensified the aggression and the competitive behavior even more. But those who fight against each other prevail as individuals, but waste energy as a group. The focus on individual top performance thus promotes competition and dysfunctional teams. Unfortunately, companies, school systems and ultimately entire societies are built on this very principle.
Five Characteristics of Effective Teams
Google also found out that superstars don’t automatically become a team. As part of Project Aristotle, Google investigated what turns a group of people into an effective team. By far the most important element was psychological safety. In truly effective teams, there is a high level of safety, so members dare to express their opinions openly and take risks. This is the key ingredient that makes the whole more than the sum of its parts. It takes this feeling of safety and trust to produce really good ideas, as Margaret Heffernan explains with this beautiful analogy in her TED talk:
And that’s how good ideas turn into great ideas, because no idea is born fully formed. It emerges a little bit as a child is born, kind of messy and confused, but full of possibilities. And it’s only through the generous contribution, faith and challenge that they achieve their potential.Margaret Heffernan
This main principle of psychological safety is followed at some distance by dependability (can we be sure that everyone does quality work on time?), structure and clarity (are team members’ goals, roles and plans clear?), meaning (are we working on something that is important to everyone in the team?) and finally the impact (do we believe that the work makes a difference?).