Building Better Teams for Project-Based Work

Google organizes much of its work into projects. That means project team effectiveness equals productivity.
In 2012 the company launched a project code-named Aristotle to study why some teams worked better than others.
After a Yale MBA, Julia Rozovsky was hired by Google and assigned to Project Aristotle. In an environment full of over-achievers, there were lots of early theories about team make up, talent matching, and performance monitoring.
After looking at over a hundred groups for more than a year, Julia and the Project Aristotle team concluded it was something unexpected (group norms) were the key to better teams.
In particular, one factor stood out more than others: creating “psychologically safe environments.” Teams that encourage safe discussions and different viewpoints succeed more.
On the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, what researchers referred to as ”equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment.
The good teams had high social sensitivity, they had team members that could sense how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.
As Charles Duhigg reported in his new book Smarter, Faster, Better, there were other behaviors that proved important included clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.
Randy Hollenkamp, Site Director of Bulldog Tech, a project-based San Jose middle school heard about the Google research and talked to his staff. “We admitted, together, that while we are good at having empathy for each other, we could be better at making sure all voices are heard. Now we’ve adopted the practice, in a safe way, of inviting quiet people to give input during our meetings. If someone is not talking, someone will simply invite them in. They then will express their thoughts. It’s made a huge difference.” Hollenkamp said they also “state the goal of every collaboration up front. In doing this we are already finding that stating our meeting goal up front has made us much more effective as a team.”
Tips for Teachers
Buck Institute’s gold standard for project-based learning (PBL) includes Building the Culture. They recommend that “teachers explicitly and implicitly promote student independence and growth, open-ended inquiry, team spirit and attention to quality.”
Buck editor John Larmer said, “It’s important to build student independence; you can’t just turn them loose and expect them to be able to effectively function autonomously. Scaffolding includes co-crafted norms, practices, and routines. And teachers should be clear and explicit when talking to students about how they are practicing the habit of independence.”
Here are a dozen tips from Larmer for when student teams aren’t working well together:

  • Discuss teamwork with students, drawing from their past experience, noting what it looks like when it goes well and what can go wrong.
  • Develop clear criteria for teamwork; create a collaboration rubric or another list of expectations/norms. Post guidelines on the classroom wall.
  • Form teams by carefully considering who would work well together. If a particular student needs extra support or understanding (or, shall we say, special handling) put him or her with the right teammates.
  • Have each team write (or give them a template) and sign a contract that spells out their agreements about working together, and the steps to be taken when they don’t (do NOT let the first step be “get the teacher!”).
  • Practice collaboration skills before and during a project (e.g., use role-plays, team-building activities, fishbowl modeling, or have them practice on short, fun, low-stakes tasks).
  • Teach students how to run meetings, play various roles, use conflict resolution skills and use decision-making strategies.
  • Have students self-assess and reflect on collaboration skills at checkpoints.
  • Monitor teams closely; sit in during team meetings; hold meetings with teams or team representatives to check in on progress and teamwork.
  • Only as a last resort, step in to manage the team, or break up the team and reassign members to other teams.
  • Make it the responsibility of the student and his/her team to stay in touch, tell each other when they’ll miss something and find out how to get caught up; this should be part of the Team Contract.
  • Have a project center (a place in the classroom or online) where important documents are always available. Don’t let them rely on you to hand them everything.
  • Remember one of the benefits of PBL: chronically disengaged or absent students may be more motivated to participate if the project is engaging, and/or if they have a sense of obligation to their team. Or at least will go along with peer pressure.

Young people are headed for a project-based world, and project based learning is the best preparation. Larmer said, “Do whatever you can to make the PBL environment more like a real-world workplace. If a team is not working well together, what would adults on the job do? If a co-worker gets sick, how might a team handle the situation? If deadlines are being missed and the project is falling behind schedule, how does a project manager adjust?”
“We constantly talk about collaboration and working in teams with students,” said Randy Hollenkamp. Teachers at the New Tech Network affiliate encourage students to create team norms and build contracts with each other prior to every project. “Teachers scaffold this with our students from day one,” said Hollenkamp, who added:

“We also talk with students about how trust is crucial in team work. It is as important to students doing the lion’s share of the work as it is to the students not doing the lion’s share. If someone in the group is doing more work, then there is a group trust issue that needs to be discussed. This idea is carried into our “culture of critique” as well. The norm here is to be “kind, specific, and helpful” when giving critique. In doing this our students build trust and seek and expect critique with each other and adults.”

In school, and in the workplace, successful projects start with a safe environment where diverse views are welcomed, differences are respected and quality contributions are expected.
This blog is part of “It’s a Project-Based World” series. To learn more and contribute a guest post for the series, see the Project-Based World page. Join in the conversation at #projectbased.
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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment


What a great article, I really enjoyed the teacher tips.

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