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How to build great teams

Amal Ravindran
December 19, 2022
How to build great teams

Times are hard amid the tech talent freeze, but assembling a great team – not just a collection of talented individuals – could help any business ride out the storm. Here, we examine the case that teamwork makes the dream work.

What makes a team effective?

Google’s People Analytics team embarked on a project called Project Aristotle (named after the famous quote, ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’) to answer a simple question: what makes a team effective at Google? The findings may be of interest to any hiring leader looking to build a strong and cohesive team culture.

It’s often difficult to talk about teamwork without descending into clichéd babble, or as the write-up puts it, an “existential thought exercise”. But Google’s researchers sought to put some flesh on the bone and define what teamwork actually means.

First, they encountered a challenge. When the researchers captured different perspectives on teamwork from executives, team leads and others, “their answers showed that each was focused on different aspects when assessing team effectiveness”. For example, “executives were most concerned with results (e.g., sales numbers or product launches), but team members said that team culture was the most important measure of team effectiveness”.

To overcome this, the researchers studied a whopping 180 teams (including 115 engineering project teams and 65 sales pods) and collected answers from a whole bunch of themes – personality traits, emotional intelligence and group dynamics – while taking into account variables like tenure, level and location.

And what did they discover was the key to an effective team?

“What really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together”.

Following their research, Google’s team helpfully ranked which dynamics make for an effective team (in order of importance) in this snazzy graphic:

As a talent leader, how can you use these conclusions to assess behavioural dynamics, eliminate distrust, and ultimately build a successful group chemistry where everyone can fire on all cylinders?

‘The new science of building great teams’

Elsewhere, a piece in the Harvard Business Review by Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland, who leads MIT’s Connection Science and Human Dynamics research laboratories, describes a similar study on teamwork.

This time, the research aimed to identify the “elusive group dynamics that characterise high-performing teams”, and concluded that the way people interact with one another, or “sociometrics” such as tone of voice, and how much colleagues talk, listen and interrupt, are more important than many understand. In fact, here’s what Sandy lists as the defining characteristics of a successful team:

The importance of team dynamics in a downturn

The cooling of the tech industry continues apace, with much-publicised layoffs at Netflix, Zwift and Carvana, among others, and a hiring freeze at the likes of Meta, Twitter and Wayfair. But perversely, does the hiring slowdown present an opportunity to press the reset button on how we think about team building? 

A piece on LinkedIn titled ‘The upside of a downturn’ suggests that in these uncertain times, companies can “reduce the pace of hiring, focus more on quality, and gain access to people who weren’t necessarily ‘recruitable’ before”. We’ve covered how to poach an A+ talent before in our guide to hiring executive talent.

Moreover, it’s worth having a read of Andreessen Horowitz’s blog post, ‘Navigating down markets’, for some wisdom on how companies can recalibrate their goals and “control [their] burn multiples”.

There’s no ‘i’ in ‘team’ (although there is in ‘recession’), but it’s clear that creating a strong team dynamic, with a consolidated-yet-committed workforce, can help an organisation achieve its goals. When you’re hiring, is it enough to simply appoint the A-player with all the credentials if they’re never going to gel with the team as a whole?

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