Google's been up to more than just tweaking the algorithm. In addition to running the core search engine, the technology company explores thousands of new ideas at any one time. Because of their continuous improvement culture, Google is much more than a technology company. They're an incubator for all kinds of ideas of how we work.

Their success and size has afforded them the opportunity to explore the frontiers of employee productivity, work/life balance, and diversity. And, it seems they've been pretty generous in sharing their findings. They recently concluded years of internal research on the effectiveness of teams referred to as Project Aristotle.

When I first heard about the study, I was interested but didn't have high expectations. There has been so much written and said about the importance of teams and the increasing reliance on teams that I couldn't imagine there was much more to say.

From my own personal, and sometimes raw experiences, I know teams are important. I see that we can't help but form teams at work. Teams are, at once, highly desired and inescapable. We crave the comradery of the good ones and count down the days when we can break up with the bad ones.

Being a part of the team is an amazing, satisfying feeling. Few other professional accomplishments mean as much as when your team succeeds after slogging through a tough problem and coming out the other side together. A good team challenges you and makes your work better than it would have been otherwise--and perhaps just as important--you share a gazillion laughs along the way.

As it turns out, one Yale MBA turned Google Project Aristotle team member, Julia Rozovsky, found a lot more to say on the topic. Rozovsky participated in the study to look at precisely what made some teams soar and others fall flat. She was motivated to do this research based on her past professional and educational experience. And after getting Google's buy-in to study team effectiveness, Rozovsky and her colleagues hit on some surprising findings.

Basically, teams are really important yet all of the effort we put into matching up people based on skills and disposition doesn't work. Instead, the key characteristics of successful teams were these shared team norms (or unspoken operating principles):

  • Everyone talks roughly the same among each other--without any one person having to monitor and control the dialogue. The distribution of "talk time" happened naturally.
  • All of the team members had a higher than average ability to read other people's emotions based on their facial expressions.

These findings are interesting and puts into words what we've all experienced but may not have been able to describe in quite the same way. The unanswered question for all of us is, though, what can we do now to improve our teams? We know that improving how teams function offers tremendous potential for both productivity and individual employee connectedness but how?

Given that we all work in teams in some form or another and that these teams are comprised of the people who are already employed at our respective firms, there are only so many combinations that can be formed--especially when specific skills are needed to address the project's technical challenges.

What can you do?

Based on my past experience, and a little research, there are two things that managers and leaders can do to create more effective teams.

  1. Ask team members to read Google's study and each reflect on their team norms. Is there an equal distribution of talking time or is the balance off with one or two people dominating the discussion? The manager or leader in charge might need to pull those people aside for some mentoring or coaching. Further, those most reluctant to speak up need to consider how they're most comfortable contributing. If it's not in a live action meeting setting, can they better convey their contributions via email or through analysis, writing, and final product reviews?
  2. Invest in training to increase the team's emotional intelligence. There are a number of training and coaching programs such as The Junto Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership that instruct employees on "how to" better read coworkers verbal and nonverbal communications and reactions.

Team composition can't be an afterthought or purely driven by the technical challenge the group is working to solve. Without proactively thinking through the dynamics, there is a wasted opportunity to create a spark of something special--and incredibly productive--that not only helps to create the best possible product or solution but also improves employee morale and retention along the way.

If you're interested in this topic and want to increase your team's productivity, here are 5 steps to increasing team productivity that can be accomplished in a week.