What makes a great team?

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There are many factors that help a team perform, from diversity to experience, from grit to getting enough rest but Google’s Project Aristotle found that the most important indicator was psychological safety. As Amy Edmondson describes in her TEDx talk, a team where there is psychological safety is one where anyone can speak up and question the status quo, or the viability of the latest project. They can ask questions or raise concerns without fear of judgement by other team members.

In startups, teams operate under a very high level of uncertainty, with minimal information and the necessity to innovate and change in order to grow. If you aren’t able to foster an environment where ideas are questioned and new perspectives are gained more mistakes will be made and opportunities squandered.

As a product manager, a large part of my job is to facilitate the right conversations between customer success, sales, user experience and engineers so that we can use everyone’s experience to enhance the product. I’m especially conscious that it’s engineers that point out the challenges with implementing new features and that, without a safe environment to raise objections, valuable feedback is missed. So how can you help your team become a safe place to ask questions? Amy Edmondson identifies three simple behaviours that can help.

Frame work as a learning problem

When looking for product market fit, everything is a learning problem. Reminding people that each issue you talk about is full of uncertainty and that no one, from the CEO to the CTO, has the answers, no matter how confidently they speak, helps to create the expectation that everyone should contribute.

Acknowledge your own fallibility

Admit the assumptions on which you based your opinion, acknowledge you might have missed something. Ask someone explicitly what they think, especially if you notice they have not had the space to voice their opinion. It is often the person quietly contemplating the nascent idea or doubt in their head that holds the perspective that the rest of the group are missing.

Model curiosity

Ask questions yourself and others will begin to ask questions. Ask questions even if you think everyone understands the problem, especially if you have written it down. As Jeff Patton says in User Story Mapping, shared documents aren’t shared understanding.

If you want to assess how safe your team feels you can run a quick anonymous survey in Google forms or similar. In the Google re:Work guide they recommend team members rank the following questions from strongly disagree to strongly agree:

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.

For greater depth try these survey questions. Even when you discover that your team members feel able to raise issues, they may not be actively raising them. If a safe team disagrees with a statement such as “Members of this team often raise concerns they have about team plans or decisions” this can highlight a gap between the perception of safety and the expectation that you should raise the concerns that you have.

Psychological safety is not the only indicator of a great team but it is especially important for product development teams dealing with complex problems and uncertainty, as teams at Google and any tech startup do.