Monday, February 29, 2016

Teams and Societies

Moderately interesting article in the Times Magazine about Google's quest to create better work teams. In software, at least, it has been shown that teams work better than individuals:
In Silicon Valley, software engineers are encouraged to work together, in part because studies show that groups tend to innovate faster, see mistakes more quickly and find better solutions to problems. Studies also show that people working in teams tend to achieve better results and report higher job satisfaction. In a 2015 study, executives said that profitability increases when workers are persuaded to collaborate more. Within companies and conglomerates, as well as in government agencies and schools, teams are now the fundamental unit of organization. If a company wants to outstrip its competitors, it needs to influence not only how people work but also how they work together.
But teams vary as much from each other as individuals, if not more; some work great, others squabble and accomplish nothing. So Google set out to find out what made some teams better. They formed something called Project Aristotle to examine all the existing literature on team effectiveness and also to study Google's own teams.
No matter how researchers arranged the data, though, it was almost impossible to find patterns — or any evidence that the composition of a team made any difference. ‘‘We looked at 180 teams from all over the company,’’ Dubey said. ‘‘We had lots of data, but there was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.’’

Some groups that were ranked among Google’s most effective teams, for instance, were composed of friends who socialized outside work. Others were made up of people who were basically strangers away from the conference room. Some groups sought strong managers. Others preferred a less hierarchical structure. Most confounding of all, two teams might have nearly identical makeups, with overlapping memberships, but radically different levels of effectiveness. ‘‘At Google, we’re good at finding patterns,’’ Dubey said. ‘‘There weren’t strong patterns here.’’
I think this is an important if utterly unsurprising finding. What makes for a good group is extremely complicated and in some ways mysterious.

I am not much interested in groups myself, but I am very interested in societies, and it struck me that if social scientists can't figure out the dynamics of six person teams, what hope do we have of understanding what makes a city or a nation tick?

The one concrete thing that the Google researchers ended up with was that the unwritten rules or "norms" that govern group behavior are key. This is certainly the case for societies; if societies work at all it is because they have moral and behavioral norms that almost everyone accepts, and the difference between smoothly functioning and troubled societies (Denmark vs. Greece, say) has a lot to do with differing norms. Once norms are in place, of course, it is very, very difficult to change them. At Google,  the most effective teams have norms that encourage input from everyone. The Times writer makes much of this, but I doubt it has very wide applicability; after all it is very hard to get a job at Google, and the atmosphere is on the whole positive, so the average team is stocked with smart, highly motivated people. I doubt that is the case in, say, the Detroit Public Schools, or thousands of other troubled work places.

The main thing I have learned from my immersion is business is that nobody really knows how to run a company. Since there is no real knowledge about management, we get an endless rotation of fads and buzzwords that help not at all and are often an annoying distraction. Again, if we can't figure out how to run a company with a thousand employees, is it any wonder we have so much trouble running a nation of 300 million?


pootrsox said...

I differ with you slightly re troubled public schools. In those rare places where the educators on site actually are *empowered* not only to provide input but also to act on said imput once consensus has been reached, the school improves, often considerably.

Of course, such a situation presupposes that "management" (be it the administrators in the school or higher up) supports said action-taking.

It was this evidence that prompted the original charter school movement, before it was co-opted by venal corporate types and turned into another version of for-profit, against-people institutions.

John said...

I do understand that sometimes the people who choose to work in troubled school systems are highly motivated, but I just recently read that morale in Detroit is bad, so that was the first thing that popped into my head.