“The whole,” wrote Aristotle, “can be greater than the sum of its parts.”
This was the quote ringing in the ears of Abeer Dubey, Google’s Director of People Analytics when he got handed a brief for a project adorned with that particular Greek philosopher’s name.
Project Aristotle, an internal initiative by Google, was tasked with solving one of the more complex problems in the workplace – exactly what is it that makes the perfect team?
As is so often seen in team sports, a team of champions doesn’t necessarily make for a champion team (sorry Italy, you will be missed from the World Cup).
There’s also a hard to define the collaborative aspect that can make apparently great teams average and apparently average teams great.
Unfortunately, the findings of Project Aristotle were hazy at best, offering up results that were more subjective than they were hard and fast. But by combining these findings with the real world experiences of people tasked with building great tech teams – Roby Sharon-Zipser, Co-Founder & COO of hipages, Jason Fischer, Head of APAC Development at Bambora, and Riley Smith, Technical Recruiter at Versent – a picture of the perfect cog in a tech team machine begins to materialise.
So what do both Google and our experts have to say about creating collaborative greatness?
What Makes a High-Performance Team?
In every tech company, high-performance teams are extremely coveted. Everyone wants to be a part of one, and other teams want to work with them. But what is it that separates a regular team and a high-performance team?
Before identifying the personal traits of ideal team members, we must first look at what we want from the group as a whole.
“A high performing team works in a collaborative way,” instructs Sharon-Zipser. “They challenge each other, but also give everyone the chance to communicate their ideas and thoughts. When a team is really working well you can see it in the quality of their ideas and solutions. You can also see it in terms of their passion and engagement. The best teams tend to enjoy their work and take the time to have a laugh.”
A high-performance team, adds Fischer, is one where “[team members] are not afraid to challenge each other. They fail or succeed together. They learn from their failures (which will certainly happen) and they grow together. They take pride in delivering the solution together and celebrate the wins as a team, not as individuals. They are able to check their ego at the door.”
The Need for Soft Skills
There is a lot of talk about soft skills versus hard skills when assessing individual candidates. But how does this play into the wider team?
When asked whether a candidate’s soft skills (the ability to work with people) or hard skills (technical skills, such as using software) are prioritised when trying to build a team, the response from our experts was resounding.
“I tend to look at the existence of soft skills first. Hard skills can typically be more easily learned. A naturally curious mind and a willingness to learn will mean that you can pick up the hard skills needed along the journey” noted Sharon-Zipser.
Smith agrees – “without wanting to sound too cliché, the weighting always leans towards soft skills. There obviously needs to be a fundamental level of skill that allows someone to do the job, but we can help round them out technically if they have the right attitude and are a good culture fit.”
“I definitely lean more towards soft skills,” adds Fischer. “In my experience, it is far easier to teach someone hard skills than it is to teach them personality…”
Which Soft Skills Are Employers Looking For?
When pressed about how a candidate for a team might exhibit their soft skills – and thus their value as a team member – during the interview process, our experts offered up more than a few suggestions.
“People who can problem solve and adapt to changing needs on the run always set themselves apart,” says Smith. “Humble and honest people who are good communicators naturally rise to the top.”
This theme is continued by Fischer – “[I look for people who] are always looking to help others, this could be by sharing their own knowledge and experiences or just pointing someone in the right direction when they are trying to solve a problem. It [makes for] a real open communication loop.”
For his part, Sharon-Zipser almost wants to be challenged during an interview. “I look for people that ask great questions about the business and the market, illustrating strong commercial acumen. I want people to ask me things that I don’t know. It means they are thinking. Being able to communicate and present your thoughts, ideas, findings and recommendations is also really important.”
The Importance of Psychological Safety
Project Aristotle identified 5 main traits that all successful teams share. The first four of these may not be of much surprise:
1. Dependability: The team completes tasks on time and to expectations.
2. Structure and clarity: The team has clear goals, and each member has a clearly defined role.
3. Meaning: The work has meaning and is therefore intrinsically motivating to each member.
4. Impact: The team believes their work is going to be impactful.
The fifth trait, however, may not be quite so obvious.
Psychological safety, as defined by William A. Kahn, is “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career,”
We’ve all had moments in meetings where we’ve held back from contributing for fear of being judged for what we say. Such restraint can have serious consequences in team environments, with moments of brilliance remaining unshared.
But with the intricacies of the human mind at play, creating a psychologically safe environment is an incredibly difficult task. So how do our tech professionals go about it?
How Do Modern Tech Companies Approach Psychological Safety
According to Smith, creating such an environments largely the responsibility of those at the top. “A successful team needs to have strong leaders who listen, but also cultivate a culture of openness so employees actually raise concerns or suggestions.”
Fischer and the team at Bambora attempt to identify psychological safety during the interview process.
“Based on responses to some initial technical exercises we decide whether we want to bring the candidate in for a face-to-face. This is with some of the team members that they would be working with and consists of some more in-depth technical questions as well as white-boarding some solutions. This allows everyone to ask questions and dig a bit deeper into the way everyone thinks. This also allows the candidate to ask questions of the team members they would be working with.”
There’s no hard and fast formula for group dynamics – no way to guarantee success on paper. Such a trial process can, therefore, be incredibly valuable in identifying how well a group works together, and how psychologically safe its members feel.
Aristotle understood that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. But until we better understand how these parts fit together, tech startups will continue to rely largely on human intuition to construct their teams.
As such, presenting yourself as a good collaborator with a full suite of soft skills is your best chance of becoming a vital player in a tech company team.