When we hear about innovation, it’s typically within the context of technology. However, if you dig into what’s really defined the activities and successes of those companies solving the world’s most complex challenges – Google, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, etc – most of their innovation centres around HR; how do they attract, hire, train and retain the best and brightest?
After all, these so-called tech companies aren’t tech companies at all. They’re people companies. It just so happens that the product of these people is technology. So, until AI takes over, the most transformative innovations any company can make will continue to concern its people.
This article will explore some of the qualities that characterise these companies, and the approaches they take to building world class teams.
It is now well recognised that the best teams are characterised by a high degree of diversity. This is not about satisfying quotas. This is about recognising that in order to come up with new solutions to complex problems (while avoiding the curse of “group-think”) you need a broad range of backgrounds and brains.
Too often diversity focuses on what we can see (gender, skin colour, age), which are all important variables and should absolutely form part of the diversity criteria, but when building teams to solve the world’s thorniest technical challenges, often the most important form of diversity is in how the person thinks.
This is referred to as neurodiversity, and it contradicts the generally held belief that there is a “normal” type of brain, which is as absurd as the notion that there is one “normal” type of gender or race. People with alternative neurocognitive functioning (often labelled as autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, etc) can offer radically different ways of approaching problems, which is exactly what these teams need.
In 2015, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, began a 2-year study into what characterised high performance teams. They approached it in a very Google way, with huge quantities of data across thousands of groups. They concluded that there were 5 traits highly correlated with performance, which included the predictable:
• Clarity over roles and responsibilities
• Dependability on delivering high quality work in a timely fashion
But the most important factor, by some distance, was what they called “psychological safety”. They established how psychologically safe a team was by asking people within teams if they agreed or disagreed with the following statements:
1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
2. Members of this team can bring up problems and tough issues.
3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.
The takeaway for those trying to build world class teams is simple – when you bring together highly intelligent, hardworking and well-intentioned people, the only barrier to success is psychological, be it in the form of fear, politics, agendas or intimidation. Strip away these perceived obstacles, encourage open debate and allow people to be themselves – amazing things will happen.
If you were born 10,000 years ago, your principal goal each day was to probably to get enough food and water to stay alive.
If you were born 100 years ago, your principal goal would likely have been to have found employment that could provide security and safety for you and your family.
If you were born in the last 50 years, however, your expectations and aspirations will be very different. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that once our physiological and safety needs are met, we then move onto connection, esteem, and self-actualisation. If you’re trying to build a team full of millennials and gen z’s, these are the criteria you need to fill.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the study conducted by Google (outlined above) also revealed meaning and impact as crucial elements of any high-performance team. It may be money that attracts the person in the first place, but it’s going to be the extent to which they enjoy their job and feel like they’re doing something meaningful and impactful that will determine how much effort they invest and for how long.
As companies have placed greater emphasis on meaning and impact, they have realised that once those things are in place it’s rarely necessary to watch over people’s shoulders. On the contrary, the more freedom employees have (be that through flexitime, remote working, etc), the more the employee will step up and take responsibility.
The key here is ownership – if people feel like they have a level of ownership over their role, they will more often than not, exceed expectations.
As the Netflix blog explains “The Netflix culture of freedom and responsibility empowers engineers to craft solutions using whatever tools they feel. Teams have the freedom to implement alternative solutions, but they also take on additional responsibility for maintaining those solutions.”
Our focus in this article has been on building technology teams, but in fact this is a universal truth that applies to all roles and sectors. In 2015 the law firm Ashtons removed all holiday cap to transfer greater ownership to their employees. Senior partners were initially concerned, but the data was compelling. In the 12 months that followed, the average number of days off for holiday increased by 1 per person, while the average number of days off for sickness reduced by 2. Since then, many other firms have followed suit. And this is in law, a sector famous for its caution and conservatism!
If you’re lucky you’ll be building your team within a company that has clearly defined values. If not, then you may find yourself, as leader, attempting to create your own value-set; what are the core traits and behaviours that you notice your best people share?
Whatever these values are, the key is to ensure you have practical mechanisms in place to embed them into the culture. How do they tie into personal development plans, team meetings, pay rises and other methods of reward and recognition?
Above all, you must take a zero-tolerance attitude to those who threaten these values. It is irrelevant how well they perform. If they are a source of toxicity, then they need to go. As Jocko Willink, former Navy Seal and bestselling business author writes “It’s not about what you preach. It’s about what you tolerate.”