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.

Early Retirement and the Paradox of Success

This is a good piece in The New York Times on the paradox of success:

Similarly, to succeed in the N.F.L., it is not enough to be strong and fast. Witness all the college players who exhibit all the physical skills they need in the league’s draft who never succeed as professionals. Rather, the best players display a certain manic competitiveness such that they keep playing. The Denver Broncos’ quarterback, Peyton Manning, has won a Super Bowl and made $230 million from football alone, and he looked to be in profound physical pain at the end of last season. Yet with his intensively competitive streak, he intends to come back next season at age 39.

The paradox of success is this: The mental wiring that enables a person to claw to the tippy-top of Corporate America or sports or entertainment or any other field that offers vast wealth is the same mental wiring that most of the time leads people not to retire before they have to — no matter what the diminishing marginal utility of money would suggest.

More here.

The Google Doodle Irony

A twist of irony this morning on the Google homepage, as they honor one of America’s oldest national parks (but which you cannot visit today):

 

yosemite_doodle

 

The California tech titan’s Tuesday home page features a Doodle honoring one of that state’s true natural treasures: Yosemite National Park, a stunning swath of granite faces and waterfalls and giant sequoias that was established on this day in 1890 — thanks in part to a Lincoln land grant several decades earlier and a project for which the U.S. government showed sustained vision.

In a cruel and coincidental twist, however, Tuesday also marks the first time in 17 years that would-be tourists cannot visit Yosemite because of a shutdown of the U.S. government. Congress couldn’t hit a midnight Monday deadline to keep the government running, so in addition to hundreds of thousands of federal workers being furloughed, the stalemate means that the national parks — like many museums and monuments — will be shut and shuttered beginning Tuesday.

The doodle is supposed to be apolitical message about the 123rd anniversary of the park’s founding on Oct. 1, 1890. But I’d like to think Google wasn’t planning on running this doodle until some bright engineer had this thought late yesterday afternoon…

Calico: Larry Page’s Venture to Extend Human Life

TIME has a big feature titled “Google vs. Death” on Google’s CEO Larry Page and his quest to extend the human life with a new company he’s launching called Calico.

At the moment Google is preparing an especially uncertain and distant shot. It is planning to launch Calico, a new company that will focus on health and aging in particular. The independent firm will be run by Arthur Levinson, former CEO of biotech pioneer Genentech, who will also be an investor. Levinson, who began his career as a scientist and has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, plans to remain in his current roles as the chairman of the board of directors for both Genentech and Apple, a position he took over after its co-founder Steve Jobs died in 2011. In other words, the company behind YouTube and Google+ is gearing up to seriously attempt to extend human lifespan.

Google isn’t exactly bursting with credibility in this arena. Its personal-medical-record service, Google Health, failed to catch on. But Calico, the company says, is different. It will be making longer-term bets than most health care companies do. “In some industries,” says Page, who spoke exclusively with TIME about the new venture, “it takes 10 or 20 years to go from an idea to something being real. Health care is certainly one of those areas. We should shoot for the things that are really, really important, so 10 or 20 years from now we have those things done.”

It’s worth pointing out that there is no other company in Silicon Valley that could plausibly make such an announcement. Smaller outfits don’t have the money; larger ones don’t have the bones. Apple may have set the standard for surprise unveilings but, excepting a major new product every few years, these mostly qualify as short-term. Google’s modus operandi, in comparison, is gonzo airdrops into deep “Wait, really?” territory. Last week Apple announced a gold iPhone; what did you do this week, Google? Oh, we founded a company that might one day defeat death itself.

The unavoidable question this raises is why a company built on finding information and serving ads next to it is spending untold amounts on a project that flies in the face of the basic fact of the human condition, the existential certainty of aging and death? To which the unavoidable answer is another question: Who the hell else is going to do it?

Here’s Larry himself in a G+ post about Calico:

That’s a lot different from what Google does today.  And you’re right.  But as we explained in our first letter to shareholders, there’s tremendous potential for technology more generally to improve people’s lives.  So don’t be surprised if we invest in projects that seem strange or speculative compared with our existing Internet businesses.  And please remember that new investments like this are very small by comparison to our core business.

Art and I are excited about tackling aging and illness.  These issues affect us all—from the decreased mobility and mental agility that comes with age, to life-threatening diseases that exact a terrible physical and emotional toll on individuals and families.  And while this is clearly a longer-term bet, we believe we can make good progress within reasonable timescales with the right goals and the right people.

I think this is a huge venture and I wish Larry Page and the team success. I’ll be following closely on the development of Calico.

Traveling Around the World For Free with Google+

Twenty-eight year old Michael Lee Johnson, hailing from England, writes about his experience of traveling around the world relying only on one social network: Google+. The catch? He wanted to do it for free:

On July 26th (just over a month ago), I asked the question; Is it possible to travel across the world for FREE using nothing but +Google+  and a whole lot of hugs? 

Why? Because I wanted to show the world that #GooglePlusIsNotAGhostTown and why this platform is different than all of the others. I was just sick and tired of all those news articles and people saying that nobody uses this platform. That nobody is here. 

If nobody is here… Who am I? Who are you? And who the hell is nobody? 

It is now September 6th and so far I have been to London, Paris, Amsterdam, Harderwijk, Emsdetten, Munster, Hamburg, Berlin, Munich, Zurich, Milan, Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and Athens, courtesy of Google+ users from one side of the world to the other. 

I have stayed at multiple peoples houses, in hotels and bed & breakfasts. Travelled across countries via cars, buses and trains. Met lots of awesome people, made new friends, visited multiple Google offices and had an absolutely AMAZING TIME in the process. I have experienced humanity for what it truly is. Thoughtful. Caring. Hospitable. Amazing. – That doesn’t mean I haven’t had problems… I have had plenty of problems, but overall, the experience has been life changing.

As an introvert, he claims that it’s hard for him to reach out to people and ask for help. So this is an experience:

So far I have spent about 10 euros on food and water in the past 5 weeks. I have eaten 3/4/5x per day. People have cooked for me. Taken me to restaurants. Bought me food on the street and taken me out for drinks. Introduced me to their friends and family, and made me feel at home. Showed me around their cities and gone out of their way. They have been there for me. They have trusted me in their homes. They have written all sorts of nice things about me. 

Google+ came through. The people. The place. My life has been turned upside down. As of writing this message my follower count is growing at nearly 1000 users per day. I am getting lots of lovely messages and a fair few horrible messages. (You can’t please everyone). – That’s life.

Pretty cool, if you ask me.

Ellen Huerta on Leaving Google

A raw, honest, beautiful post by Ellen Huerta on what it was like working in a well-paying, cushioned job at Google, and what it was like to bite the bullet and quit:

And then, as my month off came to an end, I decided on a whim to go to Joshua Tree for New Year’s with one of my close college friends, her boyfriend and a collection of their friends who lived in LA. As we were huddled around the campfire before midnight, in 20 degree weather, one of their friends began to ask me about myself. Almost everyone there was an artist of some sort, so I remember feeling shy about the fact I worked at a huge tech company. It was almost like admitting I worked for the IRS. He asked what I did for work and how long I’d been doing it and I told him. His response was, ‘So you must really like it then to be there for so long. What about it? What’s it like?’ It felt like so many questions, so intrusive, but he was just being conversational. I remember saying something nice (most likely I said ‘the people are great’ which is true), but I remember feeling defensive, like I was being tested. In reality, that was all in my head, but that was my light going off…for the first time I was recognizing inauthenticity in myself. I couldn’t stand it.

After that conversation, I wandered away from the campfire for a few minutes to get a better look at the stars. The moon had never looked so big. I could hear old school hip hop from our camp in the distance, but I was surrounded by absolutely nothing and no one, and I felt free in the universe. It was that moment that I realized I was truly free to do whatever I wanted in this world and it was completely up to me to make it happen. It was my life, and I had to stop caring what people thought about it. If I wanted to bake, I should. If I wanted to write, I should. If I wanted to start a company, I should. If I wanted to do nothing, I should. If I wanted to fuck up for once, I should. I was probably only out there for a few minutes before someone tapped my shoulder to go back to the fire (it was so cold that night your pee froze as soon as it hit the ground), but it felt like an eternity. Maybe I would have reached this conclusion had I stayed in San Francisco, but I really believe it was the magic of being nowhere that did it. Being nowhere forced me to stay silent long enough to hear what I hadn’t wanted to admit: I wasn’t living authentically. When I returned to work, I gave my notice immediately.

The key: authenticity.

What kind of leap will you be making this week?

 

Google Partners with Starbucks for Faster WiFi

Beginning August 2013, the WiFi connectivity at your local American Starbucks is likely to become much faster. Google has just announced a major partnership with the coffee chain in this blog post:

Coffee shop + Internet—it’s a pairing that many of us have come to rely on. WiFi access makes work time, downtime, travel time and lots of in-between times more enjoyable and productive. That’s why we’re teaming up with Starbucks to bring faster, free WiFi connections to all 7,000 company-operated Starbucks stores in the United States over the next 18 months. When your local Starbucks WiFi network goes Google, you’ll be able to surf the web at speeds up to 10x faster than before. If you’re in a Google Fiber city, we’re hoping to get you a connection that’s up to 100x faster.

Google has long invested in helping the Internet grow stronger, including projects to make Internet access speedier, more affordable, and more widely available. The free Internet connection at Starbucks has become an important part of many communities over the years, such as in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, or for students without Internet at home who do their homework at Starbucks

The ambitious project is going to unroll in every Starbucks in the United States! I guess I am going to have to switch over from Caribou to Starbucks as my preferred coffee shop… (Grudgingly so, I might add).

Here’s a thought: I’ve read multiple times that Starbucks has had problems with people mooching their WiFi for hours (sometimes not even buying a product while inside the store). Will this problem become exacerbated with the faster WiFi roll-out? My guess is yes.