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Jan 19 / 2017

Dev Team Effectiveness: It’s Not What You Think

brian.walsh@workstate.com (Brian Walsh, Group President, Development Services)



TeamRental_PsychologicalSafety.jpgIf you’ve been keeping up with our Technology Team Rental blog posts you may have noticed a common theme. Teams are more than a collection of individuals and you can’t predict a team’s effectiveness by summing up the abilities of its members.

The quote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” is attributed to Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, Book 8. At first blush this seems apt. However, the true, complete quote, as translated by Sir William David Ross in 1924 is:


“In the case of all things which have several parts and in which the totality is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the whole is something beside the parts, there is a cause; for even in bodies contact is the cause of unity in some cases, and in others viscosity or some other such quality.”


It’s definitely less pithy, but much more accurate. If we are not talking about a mere collection of stuff, but a system of interacting stuff, the interactions between that stuff affect the behavior you get when all that stuff comes together. Simple.

This is easily relatable to teams where the team demonstrates complex behavior depending on the qualities of the interactions between its members. But just because Aristotle said it, does that make it true? And, how can we be sure it applies to teams anyway?

Glad you asked! In previous posts, I haven’t always supported every assertion about the behavior of teams with data, instead leveraging my long experience in forming and leading teams of programmers and other professionals. As a data-loving organization, this is not the approach taken by Google in their – wait for it – Project Aristotle.

Google undertook Project Aristotle in 2012 to gather and analyze data about their teams and to see what made them tick. Executives at the company had historically assumed that the best teams were simply comprised of the best people; or followed certain principles such as, “It’s better to put introverts together” and “Teams are more effective when everyone is friends away from work,” according to Abeer Dubey, one of the project leaders, in an interview for a February 2016 New York Times article. They gathered data, expecting simply to add statistical rigor and fine detail to these assumptions.


"Over two years we conducted 200+ interviews with Googlers (our employees), and looked at more than 250 attributes of 180+ active Google teams. We were pretty confident that we'd find the perfect mix of individual traits and skills necessary for a stellar team … "


What correlations of individual traits to team success did their data reveal?

None. Zip. Nada.

Introvert, extrovert, 10x programmer, average developer, advanced degree, bachelor’s, and so on: No combination of these types of attributes predicted team success.

What did? The number one factor correlated with high team performance was an established group norm wherein team members did not fear to take honest, measured, informed risks. This is called “psychological safety;” a concept first introduced in a 1999 paper by Dr. Amy Edmondson (Harvard Business School), studying factors related to team performance. In this paper, she proposed a number of relevant hypotheses:

  1. Learning behavior in teams is positively associated with team performance.
  2. Team psychological safety is positively associated with learning behavior in organizational work teams.
  3. Team learning behavior mediates between team psychological safety and team performance.

The upshot of these hypotheses is that psychological safety promotes team performance, and team learning behavior explains why. If you have the stomach for statistics, you can read down through Edmondson’s paper to the results on page 17, but be forewarned: you won’t get that hour of your life back. TL;DR: She found that her results did support the relationship between psychological safety, learning behavior and team effectiveness.

Put Google and Edmondson’s findings together and you craft a principle that teams that learn, succeed; and teams that feel safe in taking risks, learn.

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” But wait, what was that quote again?


“In the case of all things which have several parts and in which the totality is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the whole is something beside the parts, there is a cause … ”


Yes, a high degree of psychological safety can make a great team out of what would otherwise be an average one. However, a lack of it can destroy your chances for success, no matter how capable the individuals. Strive to foster psychological safety in your work environment, and you will reap dividends. Ignore it at no insignificant risk.

How do you get started? For a quick guide, Google has you covered there, too.

Alternately, let us help. Numerous organizations have seen benefits to their own culture by engaging with one of Workstate’s high-performing teams under our Technology Team Rental engagement style.

Our first goal is to delight you with the finished project, however, we aren’t in it to make ourselves indispensable. We are continuously focused providing you the tools you need to maintain and extend our solutions. This may include not only advice on impactful hires, technical training of your existing resources, and documentation of the solution, but also – per your preference – best practices in both technology and team effectiveness.