The Elements of Effective Teamwork: A Google Experiment

This is a fascinating piece by Charles Duhigg (author of the excellent The Power of Habit) which outlines the steps Google took to understand what made some teams at the company effective, while other teams–though composed of very intelligent members–tended to underperform. The code name for the internal project at Google was Project Aristotle:

Five years ago, Google — one of the most public proselytizers of how studying workers can transform productivity — became focused on building the perfect team. In the last decade, the tech giant has spent untold millions of dollars measuring nearly every aspect of its employees’ lives. Google’s People Operations department has scrutinized everything from how frequently particular people eat together (the most productive employees tend to build larger networks by rotating dining companions) to which traits the best managers share (unsurprisingly, good communication and avoiding micromanaging is critical; more shocking, this was news to many Google managers).

Project Aristotle’s researchers began by reviewing a half-century of academic studies looking at how teams worked. Were the best teams made up of people with similar interests? Or did it matter more whether everyone was motivated by the same kinds of rewards? Based on those studies, the researchers scrutinized the composition of groups inside Google: How often did teammates socialize outside the office? Did they have the same hobbies? Were their educational backgrounds similar? Was it better for all teammates to be outgoing or for all of them to be shy? They drew diagrams showing which teams had overlapping memberships and which groups had exceeded their departments’ goals. They studied how long teams stuck together and if gender balance seemed to have an impact on a team’s success.

It’s worth reading the piece in its entirety, but it comes down to the fact that teams where individuals have a chance to speak their minds, engage in mild chit-chat, and share their personal stories and vulnerabilities end up as more cohesive, stronger performing teams compared to the ones that simply get down to business and attempt to get work done.

From the concluding portion of the piece:

Project Aristotle is a reminder that when companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized.

And this:

What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.

From my own personal experience, I can relate to the findings. I’ve tended to perform better in work groups where the managers or my colleagues tended to take an interest in my personal life, either by asking questions or offering advice.


Physicists Detect Gravitational Waves

Today’s major story in the scientific world is an announcement from Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) on the detection of gravitational waves, long hypothesized by Albert Einstein. The New York Times has the most comprehensive coverage that I’ve seen:

The discovery is a great triumph for three physicists — Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology, Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ronald Drever, formerly of Caltech and now retired in Scotland — who bet their careers on the dream of measuring the most ineffable of Einstein’s notions.

Dr. Thorne of Caltech and Dr. Weiss of M.I.T. first met in 1975, Dr. Weiss said, when they had to share a hotel room during a meeting in Washington. Dr. Thorne was already a renowned black-hole theorist, but he was looking for new experimental territory to conquer. They stayed up all night talking about how to test general relativity and debating how best to search for gravitational waves.

Dr. Thorne then recruited Dr. Drever, a gifted experimentalist from the University of Glasgow, to start a gravitational wave program at Caltech. Dr. Drever wanted to use light — laser beams bouncing between precisely positioned mirrors — to detect the squeeze and stretch of a passing wave.

The two LIGO observatories (one in Washington State and the other in Louisiana) showed a similar response to the gravitational waves from two colliding black holes, as seen in the below graphic:


The sensitivity to detect these gravitational waves is extraordinary:

Lost in the transformation was three solar masses’ worth of energy, vaporized into gravitational waves in an unseen and barely felt apocalypse. As visible light, that energy would be equivalent to a billion trillion suns.

And yet it moved the LIGO mirrors only four one-thousandths of the diameter of a proton.

The actual abstract LIGO is below. The full paper is here (with author citations at the end of the paper that number ~1,000 scientists!).

On September 14, 2015 at 09:50:45 UTC the two detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory simultaneously observed a transient gravitational-wave signal. The signal sweeps upwards in frequency from 35 to 250 Hz with a peak gravitational-wave strain of 1.0 × 10-21. It matches the waveform predicted by general relativity for the inspiral and merger of a pair of black holes and the ringdown of the resulting single black hole. The signal was observed with a matched-filter signal-to-noise ratio of 24 and a false alarm rate estimated to be less than 1 event per 203 000 years, equivalent to a significance greater than 5.1σ. The source lies at a luminosity distance of 410+160-180 Mpc corresponding to a redshift z = 0.09+0.03−0.04. In the source frame, the initial black hole masses are 36+5-4 M and 29+4-4 M, and the final black hole mass is 62+4-4 M, with 3.0+0.5-0.5 Mc2 radiated in gravitational waves. All uncertainties define 90% credible intervals. These observations demonstrate the existence of binary stellar-mass black hole systems. This is the first direct detection of gravitational waves and the first observation of a binary black hole merger.

Incredible. Don’t miss the video at the top of The New York  Times article. It’s worth ten minutes of your time.

Blogging Hiatus

I’ve been meaning to write something about my absence from this blog over the past couple of months.

A query from a reader concerned about my well-being has prompted me to answer publicly that I am okay and that I’m still reading—I just haven’t been blogging. A full-time day job has been consuming me over the past few months, but I am hoping to resurrect writing on this blog, slowly. With that said, I would like your (reader) input on my next steps. Which of the following would you prefer me to blog about in the future? Please vote in the poll below.

(1) Links to articles I read throughout the day or week.

(2) Longer form pieces, such as analysis of longform articles or book reviews

I am thinking there is also a way to strike a balance between (1) and (2), but I’d be curious to hear your thoughts; feel free to reply in the comments. If there is a weighing toward (1), I am thinking of posting 5 to 10 posts per week. If the weighing is toward (2), I am thinking of posting 1 to 4 posts per month.

Thanks for your input!