Google are the envy of the business world. Their workplace culture has not been the same since John Doerr presented the OKR Management Methodology to the Google leadership in 1999. The tech giant was less than a year old, at the time. Since, it has become a business that performs an historically unparalleled role: gatekeeping individual’s access to the sum total of human knowledge, and using individual’s search habits to market them goods. How has it achieved such a startling position?
OKR’s in the workplace
OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results. According to analysis done by Google, the three roots of performance problems are: clarity, skill and will. Setting clear objectives and measuring key results, they believe, offer a means of ensuring clarity, skill and will.
Clarity: this is about objectives, ensuring that tasks are measurable and integrated into a more holistic long term vision of company growth, so the individual knows what is expected of them, and why.
Skill: development, training, honesty – this should come from recruitment, employees should be equipped both personally and also infrastructurally with the skills and resources needed to complete that which is demanded of them. A company should be committed to upskilling those who need it, and that takes honest communication and trust.
Lastly, will. Will is about motivation – are the tasks you are asking employees to complete tied in to a broader understanding of where you want the company to be? They need to know why their role matters; setting objectives and tracking key results provides recognition and clear milestones, both of which motivate.
Google’s Aristotle Project
In 2012, Google set about to analyse hundreds of its teams in order to discover what made some more successful than others. As Marshall van Alstyre, a professor at Boston University, has it: ‘we’re living through a golden age of understanding personal productivity… all of a sudden, we can pick apart the small choices all of us make, decisions most of us don’t even notice, and figure out why some people are some people are so much more effective than everyone else.’ Unsurprisingly, Google were better equipped to do this than most.
What they found, was that the composition of a team was less important than what they called ‘group norms.’ What this means, is that whoever it was that participated in the group – whether they were experienced, inexperienced, clever, less clever – was secondary to how they participated.
What they had stumbled upon was evidence for the concept of ‘general intelligence,’ which was posited by a group of academics a few years prior to the Aristotle Project. It suggests that a collective intelligence can be determined for groups of people. It also suggests that this intelligence is:
‘Not strongly correlated with the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members but is correlated with the average social sensibility of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.’
It turns out, that being part of fair, honest and diverse teams makes us all cleverer.
Google sought to explain this trend with recourse to another academic concept: psychological safety. The term was coined by Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, in 1999. Basically, it is about creating a safe space within which people a free to be creative, take risks, and embrace the vulnerability that real responsibility entails. This is critical to building teams with a high collective intelligence.
As Edmondson herself puts it, those that are psychologically safe enjoy ‘a share belief among team members that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.’ The concept describes, ‘a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect which people are comfortable being themselves.’
To a certain extent, what Google discovered we all know already: that the best teams are open about admitting mistakes, comfortable giving and receiving feedback, full of active listeners, and more concerned with how the team performers than how they themselves are perceived. There is, after all, no I in team.