Across all forms of organizations, teams are a fundamental element of work. The prevalent heuristic is that if an organization – be it a small startup, a non-profit, a large corporation or a hospital – wants to be successful it needs to influence how people work together. This is not a new or suddenly urgent problem. It has been researched, experimented with and written about for centuries. However, as the majority of work is increasingly and predominantly team-based, finding a reliable and replicable approach to building successful teams is vital. One study, published in the Harvard Business Review [https://hbr.org/2016/01/collaborative-overload] in the January-February 2016 issue, found that “the time spent by managers and employees over the previous two decades in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more” , and at many companies more than three-quarters of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues.

A lot of research in the twentieth century attempted to solve the teamwork challenge by focusing on personality and behavioural types. This is the idea that teams require people with a mix of different and specific complementary skills. For example, if the team is composed of creative people they require colleagues who are strong on execution and implementation otherwise their ideas won’t be realised. Conversely, a team that is composed of specialists are unlikely to see or retain the larger picture of what they’re trying to achieve.

Reflecting the importance of teams for work, there are numerous inventories and assessments to evaluate a person’s team role and help companies compose the ideal team for a particular project. The most well-known one is the Belbin Team Inventory, developed by Meredith Belbin in 1981. He found that rather than the perceived wisdom of individual or collective intellect predicting the likely success of a team, it was the balance of people performing various roles that determined successful teams. These include people whose preference is to be a coordinator, a specialist, an implementer or a finisher [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Team_Role_Inventories]

While it has not withstood the challenge of rigorous academic reviews, it provides a coherent and neat framework in which to think of team composition, and like many psychometric assessments is a useful barometer of balance rather than a totemic ideal to be applied amateurishly or indiscriminately.

 It does, however, leave the question of how to compose a successful team unanswered. Google, a company known for investing significant time and money into their data-driven people operations, established Project Aristotle in 2012 to research the challenge of building successful teams. Initially, they reviewed 50 years of academic research into teams worked. The team conducted interviews with hundreds of interviews with employees and reviewed data on people from more than 100 teams across the company.They also looked at the composition of teams across Google; did people socialise together out of work, did they have the same interests or educational background, what was the gender balance, were the teams composed of introverts or extroverts.

It does, however, leave the question of how to compose a successful team unanswered. Google, a company known for investing significant time and money into their data-driven people operations, established Project Aristotle in 2012 to research the challenge of building successful teams. Initially, they reviewed 50 years of academic research into teams worked. The team conducted interviews with hundreds of interviews with employees and reviewed data on people from more than 100 teams across the company.They also looked at the composition of teams across Google; did people socialise together out of work, did they have the same interests or educational background, what was the gender balance, were the teams composed of introverts or extroverts.

Their results were confusing. Rather than find one clear direction of results, there was no pattern. Sometimes hierarchical teams were successful, other times teams with little apparent structure or process were successful. There were occasions when teams with very similar make-ups and cross-membership had very different levels of effectiveness. This suggested that it is a far more complex problem than balancing teams with people of different personality and behavioural traits.

One concept that emerged in Project Aristotle’s research was the idea of group norms. These are unwritten rules that govern and determine how people interact and function together irrespective of how the team is composed. Two norms stood out in determining team success: team members spoke in approximately equal proportions and they had a high level of social sensitivity. Amy Edmonson defines these norms as psychological safety, the “belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”. The idea is that team members need to have a shared belief that it is safe to take risks, share ideas and express themselves without fear of being humiliated. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs. Google’s data and research indicated that psychological safety was more critical to creating successful teams than any other factor.

At Kuliza, we want people to bring their brains to work, not their egos. We encourage people to view their work as a learning opportunity and not just a set of tasks to be completed within a given time period. This ensures that people talk to each other and discuss how to solve problems. As a part of this, we expect people to continuously ask questions and be curious. It’s not easy with deadlines and pressure to deliver on time, but paired with a learning perspective, both aspects help us develop people who are not egotistical and instead nurture safe, respectful and productive environments for their colleagues.