Google is tackling the science of how to build excellent teams

The next big people project.
The next big people project.
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Project Oxygen started out as an attempt by Google’s People and Innovation Lab (PiLab) to prove that managers don’t really matter. The internal team of researchers, who are focused on understanding how people work, ended up proving the opposite. It became one of the most impactful projects to ever come out of the group according to HR head Laszlo Bock, who spoke to Quartz ahead of the release of his new book Work Rules!

Out of the gate, it proved to Google’s skeptical engineers that managers really do make a difference. But it also provided a roadmap to guide Google’s approach to management. The researchers distilled their conclusions into eight attributes that set exceptional managers apart. These include being a good coach, empowering and not micromanaging a team, and expressing interest in team members’ success and well being.

Figuring out how to manage better has flowed naturally to what Bock describes as PiLab’s next big project, figuring out the science of excellent teams.

“Project Oxygen was all about if managers matter, and what makes managers great,” Bock says. “The successor to that is trying to figure out what makes teams great.

PiLab’s PhD scientists have already done “very cool work,” Bock said. But its still in the very early, labor-intensive, and not very scalable stages, he stresses. There’s research out there about how to build and manage a team, but none of it is specific enough to apply to Google’s workplace.

And Bock is trying to answer a bigger question even than the already difficult issue of “what makes a great team.” He wants to know how to build the best team for different types of problems and situations.

“The question of ‘how do teams work’ is one one of these things that’s not explained thoroughly or rigorously in a replicable way,” Bock says “Lots of people have opinions about teams but nobody can say ‘here’s a taxonomy of problems, and for this kind of problem here’s the kind of team you need.'”

Right now, Project Oxygen has had an impact on how people work at Google every day. Managers’ performance is assessed on each of the eight attributes by their reports in the anonymous, semiannual “Upward Feedback Survey,” and see their scores compared to others at the company. It’s created a feedback loop that helps managers improve without a whole lot of training, Bock claims. It’s become a Harvard Business School case study and is being used by managers well beyond Google.

The way great teams function is much more poorly understood than how to lead people well. Figuring out how to do it better could impact every project at the company.