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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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

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Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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