The Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts – Key Characteristics of Successful Teams

Di McEvoy-Robinson

Friday 11th May 2018

One of the many benefits of having non-executive directors on the 3aaa Board provides for strong governance but also a real opportunity to debate and, more importantly, listen to people not on the Senior team who can often be so bogged down in the detail that we can forget to take time to reflect. The 3aaa senior team are a very capable and dynamic group of people, but taking the time to talk about learning over a coffee and a cake with Richard Gerver as a non-executive director provided a chance to reflect and catch up on research about what actually makes a great team. We are all members of teams in the different aspects of our lives and especially in the work environment, where the sum of the individuals is always greater than the individual contributions.

Richard referred me to recent research by Google, where they had carried out a number of studies about what makes a great leader, what qualities their top employees have and, most recently, what 5 traits make the most successful teams.

As you can imagine, Google’s process of research was not soft and woolly, but focused on how they can continuously improve. Many of our levy paying employers have embarked on leadership and management apprenticeship routes specifically for continuous improvement of their own companies. So what did Google discover through their research? The first – Project Oxygen – was particularly interested in the effectiveness of the company’s leaders and managers. The results were a surprise to their founders – Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Eight important qualities were highlighted as characteristics of their most successful people and surprisingly knowledge of IT/Technology was not one of them: The 8 key characteristics were:

• Be a good coach
• Empower your team and do not micromanage
• Express interest in team members’ success and personal well being
• Don’t be a sissy: Be productive and results oriented
• Be a good communicator and always listen to your team
• Help your employees with career and personal development
• Have a clear vision and strategy for your team
• Have key technical skills so you can advise your team

In addition, the research identified 3 key pitfalls:

• Have trouble making a transition to the team
• Lack of consistent approach to performance management and career development
• Spend too little time managing and communicating

Google followed up Project Oxygen with Project Aristotle to explore what then made the perfect team. The project was named after the famous Aristotle quote: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. This research discovered that the outcomes were less dependent on who was in the team, rather how the team worked together. The 5 key findings in order were:

Psychological Safety: This refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being ignorant, incompetent, negative or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no-one in the team will embarrass or punish anyone for admitting a mistake or offering a new idea or even asking a simple question.

Dependability: Team members reliably complete quality work on time (vs shirking their responsibilities and letting other team members down).

Structure and clarity: An individual’s understanding of job expectations, the process for fulfilling these and the consequences of one’s performance are important for team effectiveness. Goals must be set, achievable, specific and challenging.

Meaning: Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output is important for team effectiveness. The meaning of work is different for all team members and can vary from financial security, supporting a family, self-expression or helping the team to succeed.

Impact: The results of one’s work; the subjective judgement that your work is making a difference and having an impact.

Specifically, for Google and indeed for many of us wanting to grow and develop our leaders – we need to understand our people and what makes them tick. Prior to their studies, Google believed that if they employed the brightest people with PhDs and degrees from the best universities then they would make successful teams. However, in the words of Julia Rozovsky, Google’s People and Analytics Manager – “we were dead wrong”. So, with lots of research with 1000s of employees – they have now reached the conclusion that Aristotle was right all along and the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts!

As we move into the summer months – we could all do with a moment’s reflection and ask the simple question – are we building our most effective teams?

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