Google organizes much of its work into projects. That means project team effectiveness equals productivity.
In 2012 the company launched a project code-named Aristotle to study why some teams worked better than others.
After a Yale MBA, Julia Rozovsky was hired by Google and assigned to Project Aristotle. In an environment full of over-achievers, there were lots of early theories about team make up, talent matching, and performance monitoring.
After looking at over a hundred groups for more than a year, Julia and the Project Aristotle team concluded it was something unexpected (group norms) were the key to better teams.
In particular, one factor stood out more than others: creating “psychologically safe environments.” Teams that encourage safe discussions and different viewpoints succeed more.
On the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, what researchers referred to as ''equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’' On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment.
The good teams had high social sensitivity, they had team members that could sense how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.
As Charles Duhigg reported in his new book Smarter, Faster, Better, there were other behaviors that proved important included clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.
Randy Hollenkamp, Site Director of Bulldog Tech, a project-based San Jose middle school heard about the Google research and talked to his staff. “We admitted, together, that while we are good at having empathy for each other, we could be better at making sure all voices are heard. Now we’ve adopted the practice, in a safe way, of inviting quiet people to give input during our meetings. If someone is not talking, someone will simply invite them in. They then will express their thoughts. It’s made a huge difference.” Hollenkamp said they also “state the goal of every collaboration up front. In doing this we are already finding that stating our meeting goal up front has made us much more effective as a team.”
Tips for Teachers
Buck Institute’s gold standard for project-based learning (PBL) includes Building the Culture. They recommend that “Teachers explicitly and implicitly promote student independence and growth, open-ended inquiry, team spirit and attention to quality.”
Buck editor John Larmer said, “It’s important to build student independence; you can’t just turn them loose and expect them to be able to effectively function autonomously. Scaffolding includes co-crafted norms, practices, and routines. And teachers should be clear and explicit when talking to students about how they are practicing the habit of independence.”
Here are a dozen tips from Larmer for when student teams aren’t working well together:
Young people are headed for a project-based world, and project based learning is the best preparation. Larmer said, “Do whatever you can to make the PBL environment more like a real-world workplace. If a team is not working well together, what would adults on the job do? If a co-worker gets sick, how might a team handle the situation? If deadlines are being missed and the project is falling behind schedule, how does a project manager adjust?”
“We constantly talk about collaboration and working in teams with students,” said Randy Hollenkamp. Teachers at the New Tech Network affiliate encourage students to create team norms and build contracts with each other prior to every project. “Teachers scaffold this with our students from day one,” said Hollenkamp, who added:
We also talk with students about how trust is crucial in team work. It is as important to students doing the lion's share of the work as it is to the students not doing the lion's share. If someone in the group is doing more work, then there is a group trust issue that needs to be discussed. This idea is carried into our "culture of critique" as well. The norm here is to be "kind, specific, and helpful" when giving critique. In doing this our students build trust and seek and expect critique with each other and adults."
In school, and in the workplace, successful projects start with a safe environment where diverse views are welcomed, differences are respected, and quality contributions are expected.
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