“The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts”: The Implications of Google’s Project Aristotle.

by Susanna Savage

In today’s workplaces and organizations, much work is done by teams or groups of employees, working together as one body. While such group work can be extremely effective at its best, not all groups function at the highest caliber. Some groups simply don’t work well, causing detrimental effects such as decreased productivity, or stunted creativity. To answer questions about what makes some groups effective and others ineffective, a team of Google’s researchers began working on Project Aristotle in 2012. The project was named after Aristotle because the team believed in Aristotle’s famous words, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” and wanted to apply the concept in their search for answers about group work (Re-Work). Several years later, after analyzing massive quantities of data and examining hundreds of groups, Project Aristotle finally found answers about the components that make an effective group (Duhigg, 2016). This case study critically examines the findings of Project Aristotle, specifically with regard to implications for leaders of work teams.

Project Aristotle

The researchers of Project Aristotle found that across the board there were five characteristics that successful groups shared (Re-Work).

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The Five Characteristics of a Successful Group – Photo Credit: https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/

Psychological safety refers to the degree to which group individuals feel it is safe for them to openly express their ideas and feelings without fear of negative social consequences. In effective groups, members feel safe to express themselves without fear of embarrassment, or disapproval from other group members (Re-Work). Another important quality of effective teams is dependability.  For a group to be dependable, group members must be accountable for the tasks that they are responsible for. All of the members complete tasks that are expected of them in a timely manner and are reliable (Re-Work). Effective groups have both structure and clarity. This means that goals are clearly defined, measurable and realistic. Group members have a clear idea of their roles, not only as part of the group as a whole, but on specific tasks (Re-Work). For a group to be effective, individual members must find some kind of meaning, either in the group itself or the work that is being done by the group. Meaning gives group members a sense of investment into the group and accentuates its effectiveness (Re-Work). Finally, group members must have a sense of the impact that their work has. They must feel that their ideas and contributions to the group are beneficial and valuable, and that the work of the group as a whole has some kind of broader impact (Re-Work).

Critical Analysis

The findings of Project Aristotle have strong implications for any organization that uses team work. In the past, organizations have worked hard to form groups out of individuals that were the best matched to work together. However, the findings of Project Aristotle show that this is not nearly as important as the atmosphere created by the group. This means that as organizations seek to make their work groups as effective as possible, they should shift their focus away from group formation, and towards establishing the five characteristics of an effective group dynamic within each individual group (McManus, 2016).

Project Aristotle’s findings also call for a shift in the role of groups. While traditional groups generally focus on work related goals, the potential of the group to fulfill those aspirations cannot be fully realized unless the group can foster all five of the characteristics identified by Project Aristotle. In order to achieve the primary goals that define the purpose of the group, the team must first create a conducive team environment.

The extensive and thorough nature of Project Aristotle give its findings considerable credibility. They also match my own personal experience. When working in groups, I have found that when there is no structure or clarity the performance of the group goes down. If group members are not responsible for the tasks that have been allotted to them, or if I am unsure what my role is in the group of on specific tasks, the group seems chaotic. On the other hand, when I have worked in effective groups, I have found that not only are group members dependable, but I feel that the group is a safe environment where everyone’s ideas are welcome and valued.

I hope to make use of Project Aristotle’s findings in the future when leading work teams. I would do this by focusing first on developing a kind of group environment that is conducive to effective team work. It would be necessary to explain to group members how important it is that they all strive to foster a positive group environment. Establishing an effective group atmosphere would be the first goal of the group and would have to be accomplished before seeking to achieve work related goals.

 

References

Duhigg, C. (2016). What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html?_r=1

McManus, P. (2016). What Google learned about teams (and implications for the rest of us). [Web log]. Retrieved from http://interactionassociates.com/insights/blog/what-google-learned-about-teams-and-implications-rest-us#.V-vNUOS2Fqo

Re-Work – Guide: Understanding team effectiveness. (nd). Retrieved from https://rework.withgoogle.com/guides/understanding-team-effectiveness/steps/introduction/

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