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The New York Times
What Google learned when it tried to build the perfect team

analyzing and improving individual workers ­— a practice known as ‘‘employee performance optimization’’ — isn’t enough. As commerce becomes increasingly global and complex, the bulk of modern work is more and more team-based.

Google’s People Operations department has scrutinized everything from how frequently particular people eat together (the most productive employees tend to build larger networks by rotating dining companions) to which traits the best managers share (unsurprisingly, good communication and avoiding micromanaging is critical; more shocking, this was news to many Google managers).

academic studies looking at how teams worked.

Project Aristotle’s researchers began by reviewing a half-century of academic studies looking at how teams worked. Were the best teams made up of people with similar interests? Or did it matter more whether everyone was motivated by the same kinds of rewards? Based on those studies, the researchers scrutinized the composition of groups inside Google: How often did teammates socialize outside the office? Did they have the same hobbies? Were their educational backgrounds similar? Was it better for all teammates to be outgoing or for all of them to be shy? They drew diagrams showing which teams had overlapping memberships and which groups had exceeded their departments’ goals. They studied how long teams stuck together and if gender balance seemed to have an impact on a team’s success.

Most of all, employees had talked about how various teams felt. ‘‘And that made a lot of sense to me, maybe because of my experiences at Yale,’’ Rozovsky said. ‘‘I’d been on some teams that left me feeling totally exhausted and others where I got so much energy from the group.’’ Rozovsky’s study group at Yale was draining because the norms — the fights over leadership, the tendency to critique — put her on guard. Whereas the norms of her case-competition team — enthusiasm for one another’s ideas, joking around and having fun — allowed everyone to feel relaxed and energized.

Rozovsky and her colleagues had figured out which norms were most critical. Now they had to find a way to make communication and empathy — the building blocks of forging real connections — into an algorithm they could easily scale.

‘‘I might be the luckiest individual on earth,’’ Sakaguchi told me. ‘‘I’m not really an engineer. I didn’t study computers in college. Everyone who works for me is much smarter than I am.’’ But he is talented at managing technical workers, and as a result, Sakaguchi has thrived at Google. He and his wife, a teacher, have a home in San Francisco and a weekend house in the Sonoma Valley wine country. ‘‘Most days, I feel like I’ve won the lottery,’’ he said.

There was nothing in the survey that instructed Sakaguchi to share his illness with the group. There was nothing in Project Aristotle’s research that said that getting people to open up about their struggles was critical to discussing a group’s norms. But to Sakaguchi, it made sense that psychological safety and emotional conversations were related. The behaviors that create psychological safety — conversational turn-taking and empathy — are part of the same unwritten rules we often turn to, as individuals, when we need to establish a bond. And those human bonds matter as much at work as anywhere else. In fact, they sometimes matter more.

‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well. But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.

Which isn’t to say that a team needs an ailing manager to come together. Any group can become Team B. Sakaguchi’s experiences underscore a core lesson of Google’s research into teamwork: By adopting the data-driven approach of Silicon Valley, Project Aristotle has encouraged emotional conversations and discussions of norms among people who might otherwise be uncomfortable talking about how they feel. ‘‘Googlers love data,’’ Sakaguchi told me. But it’s not only Google that loves numbers, or Silicon Valley that shies away from emotional conversations. Most work­places do. ‘‘By putting things like empathy and sensitivity into charts and data reports, it makes them easier to talk about,’’ Sakaguchi told me. ‘‘It’s easier to talk about our feelings when we can point to a number.’’

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