What Makes a Winning Team? SNL and Google Have the Formula.

It's incredible to think that Saturday Night Live and Google, given their very different goals, create teams of people similarly. But as reporter Charles Duhigg discovered, they very much do.

Charles Duhigg:  About five years ago Google started this interesting experiment. They wanted to figure out how to build the perfect team. And so what they did is they started collecting huge amounts of data about all the teams within Google. And their initial hypothesis was you can make teams better by putting the right people together, right. If you have some introverts and some extraverts or maybe you have people who are friends away from the conference room or maybe you need strong leaders and followers. But who you put together they figured is the way to build the perfect team. That’s the thing you want to control. So they collected all their data. They spent millions of dollars and years looking at this stuff and they couldn’t find any correlation between who was on a team and whether that team was effective or not. So they decided to start looking at this question in a completely different way. They started focusing instead of who was on the team they started looking at how the team interacts. We’ve all felt this before that maybe away from a team setting we’re really outgoing. But then when we sit down we kind of are more sedate because that’s how the team behaves.

Or maybe there’s a group norm that it’s okay for people to interrupt each other. Or maybe it’s the alternative that the group norm is that everyone takes turns talking or you stay on the agenda or you start the meeting by gossiping. Groups develop these unwritten rules and that’s how they function. And it turns out those group norms that was the thing that determined whether a team was successful or not. In particular there were two norms that seemed to have a huge influence on whether a team could work together and really become productive. The first was what’s known as a quality and conversational turn taking. What this basically means is does everyone at the table get a chance to speak up. We’ve all been in team meetings where half the table is quiet, right. Maybe some expert is in the room and when a question comes up they just talk for 10 or 15 minutes and they tell everyone what they ought to do. That might be really efficient but that’s terrible for a team. The best teams it turns out are ones where everyone at the table regardless of whether they know what they’re talking about or not feels like they have an opportunity to make their voice heard. The second norm, the second behavior that makes groups more effective is what’s known as high social sensitivity. Essentially can I pick up on how you’re thinking and feeling based on nonverbal cues. If you’ve got your arms crossed do I say to you hey Jim, it looks like you’re kind of like not super into this idea. Can you tell us about that? Or if you look super enthusiastic do I say Susan, you look really like you like this idea. Like tell me what you think we should do next.

Teams in which people all speak up and where there’s high social sensitivity where people pick up on each other’s nonverbal cues, those according to the data are the most effective teams. What’s really interesting about this though is that if you were an outside observer and you got to look at effective teams at a glance they might not look like the most productive groups. The way that we encourage equality in conversational turn take and high social sensitivity is sometimes by doing these things like gossiping with each other or allowing someone to talk even if maybe they’re not an expert on a topic. Or getting to know each other in a way that if someone takes the conversation off agenda we say hey, I understand this is important to you, go with it for a little while. In other words the teams that at a glance look most productive oftentimes aren’t. But if you can create this conversational turn taking, equality of voices, if you can convince people to really listen to each other and be sensitive to the nonverbal cues we’re giving off then you create psychological safety. And psychological safety is the single greatest determinant in whether a team comes together or whether it falls apart.

One of my favorite examples of psychological safety and a team really coming together is the early days of Saturday Night Live. So when you think about it Saturday Night Live never should have worked, right. You have a bunch of comedians who are kind of misanthropes to begin with. And they’re all kind of egomaniacs. And yet for some reason when Loren Michaels put them in a room together everyone was willing to kind of get along. They were willing to put aside their ego and create this amazing show together. Not only an amazing show but a show that was put together under these incredible time pressures, right. They have a week to put together a live show. Now when I talked to the early writers and performers on Saturday Night Live and I asked them why happened all of them said the same thing. Because of Loren Michaels. So Loren Michaels has this very unique way of running meetings. He sits down and the meeting starts. And what he’ll do is he’ll make everyone go around the table and say something. And if someone hasn’t spoken up in a little while Loren Michaels will actually stop the meeting and he’ll say Susie, I notice that you haven’t chimed in. Like what are you thinking about right now? And if somebody looks upset, if an actor looks like he’s having a bad day or a writer sort of sees like they’re pissed off Loren Michaels will again stop the meeting and he’ll actually take that person out of the room and he’ll say look, it looks like something’s going on that’s bugging you. Like let’s talk about it. What’s happening in your life?

Now what’s crazy about this is that this actually makes meetings kind of go on forever. And Loren Michaels is like known for being productive, right. He’s known for this person who creates these amazing shows and is doing like 12 things at any given time. But the way he runs meetings is that he makes sure everyone in the room has something to say and if you look like you’re thinking something and not verbalizing it he makes you verbalize it or he takes you aside and he says what’s going on with you. Like why are you upset or are you happy. What Loren Michaels does is he creates psychological safety. He’s like a master of creating psychological safety. And as a result he’s able to take all these huge outsize egos and all these actors and writers who are comedians and so almost by their very nature they hate other people. And he’s able to bring them all together into this cauldron of pressure, of creating a live television show in a week, then it all works out. But it’s because he creates an environment that feels safe where everyone feels like they can speak up and they feel like everyone else is genuinely listening to them because they’re sensitive to all the cues that they’re sending.

It's incredible to think that Saturday Night Live and Google, given their very different goals, create teams of people similarly. But as reporter Charles Duhigg discovered, they very much do. For SNL, it was creator Lorne Michaels who managed a team of writers and comedians to produce a high-quality show under extremely rigid time constraints. At Google, the original hypothesis about teams — that the right combinations of personalities is what made them effective — proved false. What they found instead is that the coherency of group norms is the determining factor: in other words, is everyone on the same page about how the group works, and does everyone have a voice? If so, you can expect some good results.


Duhigg's latest book is Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business.

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