It’s Wednesday. I am meeting with the two owners of a company, an SME. I truly admire them because they forged their company with passion, sweat and desire, against all odds. An inspiring story that should be told with epic music. They grew up and want to “professionalize.” There we are, sitting and talking about objectives, metrics, processes to implement… when the door opens.
A production manager apologizes for interrupting and tells the owners something, he needs a replacement. One of my interlocutors says “I have other priorities” and the other adds “I’ll go later and see how I can solve it for you.” The expression on the boss’ face is not cheerful. He thanks, apologizes again for interrupting, and closes the door gently.
This is an anti-example of what Google discovered in the Project Aristotle. Google wanted to find the alchemy of a “perfect team”, and started a study that sought to answer why some teams were successful and others failed constantly. They identified 180 teams around the globe, and began a series of interviews with executives, team leaders, and members of each one of them. The name of the project, alluding to the Greek philosopher, responds to the famous phrase that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” And boy did they check the hypothesis.
The most interesting thing is how the criteria for measuring the effectiveness of the team members were different from the executives. Executives relied heavily on hard data, sales, results, profit, the number of products that had been launched. Team members talked about “team culture” and put this issue above metrics. It is not surprising, by the way, that this is so. However, this simple truth deconstructs a maxim that favors the persistence of teams: to build and consolidate a successful team, results and culture must be balanced.
What if a team with certain success is made up of dissatisfied members?
What if a team with members who enjoy a wonderful team culture sustains insufficient results?
They both have the same fatal destiny.
But if the company manages to make individual team members feel safe and confident while challenging them to achieve the best results, we will be faced with this time-honored alchemy of the ideal team.
Google measured each team with variables that represented both that quantitative world of results and the qualitative world of team spirit, and built data from the four available visions: that of the executive, that of the team leader, that of the members, and that of the results.
The end of the story is that it didn’t matter so much who was on the team but how the team worked together. And luckily, Google was also able to identify five factors that I was able to list to my two interlocutors at that meeting. The first, and most important, was that of psychological safety: the ingredient that encourages team members to take risks, knowing that no peer will embarrass you and no boss will torment you for doing … and eventually, failing. That you can ask questions, that you can offer your ideas. And most importantly, know that your boss doesn’t know. He does not know everything, he builds, like everyone else, knowledge and experience that draws on both what we know as a team and what we are willing to learn while risking.
Nobody likes to look useless, incompetent, weak. The options are always two: hide the not knowing, stop asking, do not risk opinions, or take advantage of and foster an environment in which not knowing is a learning opportunity and not proof of incompetence. Where the boss does not have all the answers and supports the team to generate new solutions. And that’s just the base. On these foundations, trust can be built, which is ultimately the philosopher’s stone on which a sustainably successful team is built.
A few minutes after I finished telling the owners about Aristotle, another boss opened the door and one of my interlocutors smiled at him, listened patiently to the question and replied: “The truth is that I don’t know, but I’ll finish with Ezequiel and we’ll see together how we can solve it.”