What Makes a Successful Team? Inside Google’s Project Aristotle

What makes a successful team? This was a question that Google’s Project Aristotle set out to answer in earnest through an intensive study of teams throughout the company.

Researchers began by examining how employees at three tiers evaluated team performance. “Executives were most concerned with results (e.g., sales numbers or product launches), but team members said that team culture was the most important measure of team effectiveness,” the researchers reported. “Fittingly, the team lead’s concept of effectiveness spanned both the big picture and the individuals’ concerns saying that ownership, vision, and goals were the most important measures.”

With an understanding of what effectiveness meant at each level, the project turned to an analysis of high-performing teams. What they found was surprising. These teams weren’t the result of stellar individual performers, but of the team’s ability to work together. Ranked in order of importance, Project Aristotle concluded the following five conditions as the most impactful drivers of team success:

  1. Psychological Safety: Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other
  2. Dependability: Team members get things done on time and meet Google’s high bar for excellence
  3. Structure & Clarity: Team members have clear roles, plans, and goals
  4. Meaning: Work is personally important to team members
  5. Impact: Team members think their work matters and creates changes

Only two of the five drivers — dependability and structure & clarity — relate to the hard skills of management: setting goals, creating plans, and measuring results. The remainder require the soft skills: setting a vision, instilling a purpose, and most important, creating a safe, trusting environment.

The project also revealed some surprising evidence that certain conditions commonly associated to successful teams didn’t have significant impact on team effectiveness. These include colocation of teammates (sitting together in the same office), extroversion of team members, workload size, team size, and tenure.

Of course, understanding what makes a successful team and putting these ideas into practice are two different things. Project Aristotle compiled a few tools and exercises that you can adapt for just this purpose:

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Originally published at Manager Companion.