What Google Learnt about Building the Perfect Team

The A-Team

The perfect team – what does it require? What is its make-up? What are its norms? Can it even exist? And why is it important to try and figure this out?

The ‘A’ Team – readers of a certain age will remember them.  Each episode started with the following….“In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... the A-Team."  A more diverse set of people would be hard to imagine – so what was it that made them so successful (at least in the imaginary world of tv!)?

Working as we do across sport and business, we are fortunate enough to spend a lot of time supporting all kinds of teams. We work with teams to drive their performance through: self-awareness; understanding of the team as a whole; communication; and attitude and mindset approaches, all aimed at ensuring a high performing unit.  Many factors go into this, but we were delighted to see a recent piece in the New York Times that picks up on some key areas around high performing teams.  It confirms one of our mantras – that the behavioural side is key.


Julia Rozovsky was one amongst hundreds of students at the Yale School of Management, assigned to a study group carefully engineered by the school to foster tight bonds.  However, despite the effort and thought that had gone into selection of her group, it was not a success.   Instead, her 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 jockeyed for the leadership position or criticized 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,’’ Rozovsky told me. ‘‘I always felt like I had to be careful not to make mistakes around them.’’

Frustrated by this, Rozovsky started looking for other groups she might join.  A classmate mentioned that some students were putting together teams for ‘case competitions’ – contests in which participants proposed solutions to real-world business problems with trophies and cash awarded.  The members of her case-competition team had a variety of professional experiences: Army officer, researcher at a think tank, director of a health-education nonprofit organization and consultant to a refugee program. Despite their disparate backgrounds, however, everyone clicked. They emailed one another dumb jokes and usually spent the first 10 minutes of each meeting chatting. When it came time to brainstorm, ‘‘we had lots of crazy ideas,’’ Rozovsky said. They also happened to win the competition….

This experience provided the spark that Rozovsky needed to decide what to do for the rest of her career – study people’s habits and tendencies.

Why is this important?

One study, published in The Harvard Business Review last month, found that ‘‘the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more’’ over the last two decades and that, at many companies, more than three-quarters of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues. In Silicon Valley, software engineers are encouraged to work together, in part because studies show that groups tend to innovate faster, see mistakes more quickly and find better solutions to problems. Studies also show that people working in teams tend to achieve better results and report higher job satisfaction. In a 2015 study, executives said that profitability increases when workers are persuaded to collaborate more. Within companies and conglomerates, as well as in government agencies and schools, teams are now the fundamental unit of organization. If a company wants to outstrip its competitors, it needs to influence not only how people work but also how they work together.

Google takes up the mantle

Five years ago Google became focused on building the perfect team, and in 2012, set up Project Aristotle to study Google’s hundreds of teams. Researchers (including Rozovsky, hired by Google after graduating from Yale) began by reviewing a half-century of academic studies looking at how teams worked. Were the best teams made up of people with similar interests? Or did it matter more whether everyone was motivated by the same kinds of rewards? Based on those studies, the researchers scrutinized the composition of groups inside Google. But no matter how they arranged the data, it was impossible to find patterns.

As they struggled to figure out what made a team successful, Rozovsky and her colleagues kept coming across research by psychologists and sociologists that focused on what are known as ‘‘group norms.’’ Norms are the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather. Project Aristotle’s researchers began searching through the data they had collected, looking for norms. Then they had to work out which were the norms that successful teams (which could look very different) shared. This built on some research carried out in 2008 by psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, M.I.T. and Union College.

What they discovered:

  • The right ‘norms’ could raise a group’s collective intelligence.

  • Two behaviours in particular were shared by the ‘good’ teams: equality of distribution in conversational turn taking; and high ‘average social sensitivity.’

  • In other words, psychological safely - a group culture that the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

How can you get there?

So how can you engineer these norms - essentially listening to one another and showing sensitivity to each other’s needs? What Project Aristotle taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We have to bring the ‘human’ to the workplace.

We cover many areas in our programmes and workshops which act to promote this feeling of psychological safety and can vouch for the dramatic impact this can have on boosting the effectiveness of teams.  If you’d like to find out more, do get in touch via info@sportandbeyond.co.uk

The full article published in the New York Times can be accessed here:


Catherine BAKERComment