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Google Discovered the Secret Ingredient to Ultra-successful Teams and the Answer May Surprise You.

March 15, 2018

“I think one of the things most people don’t know about me is that I have Stage 4 cancer.’’

When Matt Sakaguchi, a mid-level manager at Google, sat down for a team bonding session with his team a couple of years ago, the last thing he expected to do was admit that he was battling a terminal illness. As his team reeled from the shock of this discovery, other team members began to open up about their illnesses, deepest fears and personal life problems.

If you’re like most people, reading this is making you feel uncomfortable. Why? Because we’re conditioned to believe that sharing such intimate details with our colleagues is absolutely off-limits. We are trained to guard our true feelings, thoughts and beliefs if it could negatively impact our standing in the work group.

But it turns out that Matt was onto something. At the conclusion of their recent research trying to find out what constituted the “perfect team”, creating psychological safety turned out to be one of the five most important factors to building a highly successful team.

Harvard Professor, Amy Edmondson, describes psychological safety as the “software” (the team culture) that makes the “hardware” (the team members) work effectively. It is a state of collective being whereby having honest conversations about individual team member’s thoughts, feelings and circumstances is not only ok, it is actively encouraged. Building a culture of safety around having honest conversations creates effective teams because co-workers are no longer afraid to point out areas where their colleagues need to improve. It creates an environment where acknowledging ignorance about a certain topic and admitting fallibility is perfectly acceptable.

The need for psychological safety within established teams is obvious. But what about temporary teams? The building of temporary project teams is becoming more and more common within medium-to-large corporations. Amy Edmondson calls this process “teaming” and describes it as the process of bringing experts from far-flung divisions and departments in your company to deliver solutions to unexpected and challenging problems. The process is dynamic and you learn as you go. As corporate behemoths try to keep up with the latest innovations, they are finding themselves drawn to the “teaming” method which embraces dynamic interactions between departments that are traditionally isolated from each other. These companies are experimenting with a new way of working. They borrow models from the startup world to maintain a culture of innovation within their ranks: co-creation, accelerators and innovation bootcamps are becoming commonplace and celebrated. The process encourages the cross-fertilization of ideas by allowing employees from various departments to work together on a specific project for a short yet intense period of time. These models of working are typically less structured and focused on achieving a specific outcome so traditionally defined processes naturally break down.

This presents such companies with a few unique challenges. When employees are taken out of the conventional way of working, they feel liberated but also threatened. When forming a project team with new colleagues within an undefined operational framework, there is no time for “team building”. Your team of today might change tomorrow. Teams need to maintain the flexibility of changing goals, key members and resources. As these new teams navigate the uncharted terrain of a new project, they also need to learn about their new co-workers skills, work styles and personalities. So how do you build psychological safety in teams without compromising the dynamics and flexibility the of innovation process?  

The EIT Digital Summer School may have the answer.

The EIT Digital Summer School is a two-week bootcamp program that is specifically tailored for the health and well-being industry. Masters students, researchers and industry professionals participate in an intensive course to sharpen knowledge and improve their ability to innovate. Most participants of such accelerator programs meet each other as strangers. They need to find ways of achieving a common goal whilst simultaneously getting to know each other. Throughout this “teaming” process, tensions between members are natural and expected.  

This summer, EIT decided to do something different. Recognising that teams were struggling to feel completely comfortable with one another over the course of the program, EIT partnered with WeQ to facilitate a mid-course feedback session. The 40 participants of the EIT Digital Summer Schools played the WeQ Team Feedback game; a toolkit that builds psychological safety in teams by gamifying the team feedback process. Gamification is a known way to break down barriers to learning. It makes an otherwise uncomfortable experience genuinely enjoyable and the WeQ methodology is based entirely around making the feedback process fun and rewarding.

EIT Digital Summer School plays WeQu

Here’s how the EIT session worked. The first round of WeQ created a positive vibe amongst participants by using game cards with personality statements to encourage discussions about team member’s strengths. The toolkit facilitates positive conversations by giving team members the space to give each other compliments that would otherwise not happen naturally. Afterwards, they use black cards called “Wish Cards” where each person writes down a piece of constructive criticism for each of their teammates. This then leads to a productive conversation about how each team member can improve and grow.

Wish Card Example

a team plays the WeQu feedback game
A team is immersed in a conversation a WeQ gameplay

The results of this two-hour session were explosive. The teams entered an entertaining yet serious conversation where they shared their innermost thoughts and feelings about each other and emerged as a stronger team.

What did the EIT members think of the process?
(The process) gave us the opportunity to speak out problems that are hard to express. After playing WeQ, we were much more open-minded.” – Yi
“Playing WeQ is very productive activity as we were able to give open feedback to other team members about the past week of interaction.” - Nilofer
"A social experience to give and receive feedback in a team. It was very cool experience, especially with the letters, for knowing more about perception that your team has of yourself." - Quentin
“After the play, I feel that there is a significant increase of bonding in the team.  I am impressed with the wish cards that I received from my teammates. It refers to my behavior that I was not aware of at all. Without WeQ, I wouldn’t be able to get such feedback.” - Eduard

So how can you build psychological safety whilst “teaming” in your company today? Here are six effective ways of fostering a culture of feedback within temporary teams:

Measure psychological safety

Measure the level of psychological safety that currently exists within the team. This may seem complicated but Professor Amy Edmondson has developed a survey toolkit that makes it really easy to do. Check it out.

Start Positive Dialogue

Giving compliments to your co-workers is powerful. It creates energy, trust and releases a powerful bonding hormone called oxytocin. Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina has found that positive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration broadens the mind and helps to build psychological, social, and physical resilience.

When your colleague does something well, give a timely and quick compliment based on the behaviour and explain how it affected you. For example:

“I really like the fact that you tend to ask questions before accepting my request. That reduce mistakes”.

This is just a script but you can tailor it to suit the way you usually communicate with each other.

Make It Ok To Speak Up

When “teaming”, the temptation to sit tight and ignore your temporary teammates negative habits can be great. After all, you’re only with them for a short while right? This tendency can severely affect the project outcomes of the team. Encourage team members to speak up if there is something they don’t like or don’t agree with.

Promote The Art of Listening Intently

The ability to listen intently and without any reservations is a powerful skill that most people have yet to master. We all know we need to listen more but we rarely do it. But when you’re “teaming”, the ability to listen intently to everyone else and understand their motivations, skills and what they can bring to the group is absolutely crucial.  

Use WeQ’s Teamwork On the Fly
WeQu teamwork on the fly in amsterdam

WeQ’s Teamwork On the Fly is a gamified toolkit that integrates all proven team interaction methodologies that foster psychological safety into one game and all in one box. This makes it easy and super-efficient to nurture team awareness at a time convenient to you.

Ákos Wetters, the coach of the Summer School, explains why using the WeQ toolkit can make a difference to every team:

“It is so essential that team members are confident in giving concrete and constructive feedback to each other. The WeQ Team toolkit provides a safe environment to practice sharing personal feelings and impressions with each other. Based on this play the next step of giving open feedback will be easier.”

“As a startup coach for students and real startups, my input covers both hard and soft skills. Hard skills are being able to run the lean startup process and creating and implementing a successful business model. Next to that is that the soft skills are essential. Pitching, leadership, communication are key aspects. The same applies to team dynamics, and that is where WeQ plays a significant role.”

The WeQ Team toolkit is a wingman for team building exercises, especially useful for temporary project teams thriving for innovation and trustful team dynamics in a very short period of time. Need further advice on how you can make your temporary team work more efficiently? Get in touch today!

Author

Ohyoon Kwon
Ohyoon Kwon is the Founder of WeQ. His background in design thinking has led him to explore the intersection between gamification and building high-performance teams. Ohyoon is passionate about creating amazing user experiences and bringing teams closer together.

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