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Reading: The five keys to a successful Google team

In her post The five keys to a successful Google team, Julia Rozovsky summarises the recipe for successful teams: “Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.” Here is my commentary.

This definition of a successful team is almost identical to the definition of a system.

The performance of a system doesn’t depend on how the parts perform taken separately, it depends on how they perform together – how they interact, not on how they act, taken separately. Therefore, when you improve the performance of a part of a system taken separately, you can destroy the system.

Russell Ackoff, Ackoff on Systems Thinking and Management

The close match isn’t a surprise, as a team is a system. In football terms: The team is the star! Or put negatively: The rock star developer can sink the team, as can the team of developers who wait for being told what to do.

The author gives five key dynamics that differentiate successful teams from other teams.

1. Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
3. Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

Julia Rozovksy, The five keys to a successful Google team

The above questions are a test whether a team is a high-performing team in the sense of the seminal work Accelerate: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations by Nicole Forsgren (see my review). A team is high-performing, if it can answer all questions with yes. Otherwise, the nos tell us where we have to do some work. “Psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five key dynamics […] – it’s the underpinning of the other four.”

A team is a system and also a part of a larger system: a software development organisation. Interactions between team members become interactions between teams. Interactions between teams are influenced by the same five key dynamics as interactions between team members. How these dynamics play out in an organisation defines its culture.

Creating a high-performance culture is a never-ending effort by a company. Everyone in the company – from the CEO to the developers – must live this culture every minute of every day. If executives and managers lead by example, developers will follow. Introducing Continuous Delivery positively influences the organisational culture, the identification with the organisation and the organisational performance (see p. 49 of Nicole Forsgren’s book Accelerate or my review) – and hence the five key dynamics.

Psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five key dynamics […] – it’s the underpinning of the other four.

Julia Rozovksy, The five keys to a successful Google team

Organisations lacking psychological safety show some tell-tale signs. A team waits for its managers to tell them what to do. Managers wait for their managers to tell them what to do and so on up to the executives. People are afraid to experiment, because they are ripped apart for every mistake.

The consequences are manifold. Technical debt turns into inflation. Quality suffers. Releases see delays of unpredictable lengths. Developers regard quality-improving and time-saving practices like TDD, refactoring and architecture as a waste of time. They don’t improve their skills. They implement one feature after another from multiple products. They are not proud of the products they build.

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