“What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team”: New York Times

Most working engineers work in teams on a daily basis, making teams important to a company’s productivity. Teams skills can be essential for improving and optimizing team performance. In fact, we’ve published several articles on team communication strategies over the last year, and in its 28 February 2016 issue, the New York Times Magazine published an article by Charles Duhigg: “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.”

1118339002Pam Brewer’s International Virtual Teams: Engineering Global Success, part of the IEEE-Wiley PCS book series, documents her work researching and consulting for virtual teams, where team members do not occupy the same physical space and can span cities, countries, and continents. Google’s findings resonate with her as very accurate, and may be even more important for virtual teams: “Google’s lessons learned closely parallel my own research regarding virtual team communication.” Brewer identified some key findings from Google’s self-study, expanding on their significance below for virtual teams.

“Business schools around the country have revised their curriculums to emphasize team-focused learning.”

At a much slower rate, schools are also beginning to emphasize virtual teaming, which present their own unique challenges for performance, most of which result from the remote work environment and are explored in depth in Brewer’s book.

Group norms are important to healthy teams.

These norms should be documented. Virtual teams, which can consist of engineers from multiple cultures, should work together to create an informal Communication Norming Guide as early in the team’s life as possible. They should refer to it to resolve conflicts, and update it regularly as those norms change.

Indirectly, Google commented on the need for teams to create their own cultures.

Virtual teams need to create their own intercultures based on team membership. Individual virtual teams should have their own interculture that is a blend of the cultures of its members. This is especially important in diverse teams and international teams where expectations can vary widely.

Psychological safety is important to the life of a healthy team—that is “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up” [2].

Social communication is important to the life of a healthy team. Research strongly indicates a process link from social communication to building trust to effective exchange of knowledge. Establishing group norms for communication before a project begins creates a safe space; before any problems occur, people identify what is important for them and their team.  Thus, everyone has a clear, shared understanding of communication expectations to help them safely navigate the complexities of work within the team.

Read more about strategies for improving virtual team performance from Pam Brewer in International Virtual Teams: Engineering Global Success.

[1] C. Duhigg. (2016, Feb 26) “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.”  [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html

[2] A. Edmondson. Administrative Science Quarterly. Vol. 44 Issue 2, p350-383, 1999.