The secret to an agile, fast learning, and resilient team


Every organisation I speak to is trying to do more with less, faster than they did before. This requires the capacity to try many things, fail a lot, learn quickly, and adopt the successful ideas fast.

So what is the secret to an agile, fast learning and resilient tribe? Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School Professor, and Google have a surprising finding.

In 1998 I was working in executive search and I remember one of my researchers coming and saying, “I’ve found this website called Google. You won’t believe what it can do.” I remember going into her office and doing my first search. After seeing the search results, I thought that this changes everything. Twenty years later, many of my clients say that would like to be more agile and resourceful like Google.

Since that initial exposure 19 years, Google’s rate of innovation and success has been remarkable. They are now the second largest company in the world (by market capitalisation).

Let’s quickly review their last 20 years. They started off as an internet search engine but quickly evolved to launch Adwords, YouTube, Maps, Gmail, and other inventions featuring artificial intelligence such as seen in self-driving cars. By any measure they have outperformed, outlasted, and outmaneuvered their peers.

You might say that agility is second nature to high tech firms, but many high growth start-ups have imploded. So what do Google do differently?

In 2012, Google began a quest to understand the secret to their best teams. These were teams that would form and reform on multiple projects, and consistently exceed expectations. They examined 180 teams from around the world, and monitored 250 separate factors in each team.

They looked at individual employee factors like IQ, EQ, diversity, high potential vs. everyday employee mix, but they could find no correlation. What they discovered after 18 months was that it wasn’t individual members that could predict team success, but how the teams worked together. They referred to this as team norms.

They found that the five different norms that led to outperformance were:

  1. Psychological safety – Professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as: “A team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”
  2. Dependability – they could rely on each other. They had confidence that if someone said they were going to do something, they would.
  3. Structure and clarity – they have well defined responsibilities and desired outcomes.
  4. Meaning and purpose– believing in their mission
  5. Impact – knowing that what they are doing makes a difference.

While all five factors were shown to be important, by far the most important was psychological safety. So what do these teams do differently? Google found specific behaviours that were prevalent in these successful teams.

Employees speak approximately equally. They feel safe to try new ideas and make mistakes, and know that they won’t be crucified if things go wrong. They also welcome new ideas and are encouraged to contribute their own.

They also found there was one team ritual that consistently increases psychological safety measures. This was encouraging everyone to share a risk they had taken in the last week. Team leaders set the example and encourage everyone to participate.

Supportive and caring tribes are more productive and influential. This is also confirmed by Gallup research that shows that the more employees that strongly agree with this statement: “My supervisor or someone at work seems to care about me as a person” the higher the profit, the higher the productivity, the higher the customer service levels and the longer employees stay with the firm.

So the secret to a more agile, fast learning and resilient tribe is one that cares for each other, and has a continual improvement mindset.

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