You may have already heard of Google’s Project Aristotle. Back in 2012, Google set out to identify what made their most effective teams so much better than others. They wanted to reproduce that magic that some teams had across the company and so they interviewed 180 teams and collected all kinds of data.

They initially assumed that the difference would be in skillsets or tooling or something of a technical nature. This is Google after all, where they prize technical accomplishments.

What they finally concluded after a significant amount of analysis was that the leading contributors to highly successful teams weren’t technical things at all.

  • Psychological safety: Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.
  • Dependability: On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time (vs the opposite - shirking responsibilities).
  • Structure and clarity: An individual’s understanding of job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations, and the consequences of one’s performance are important for team effectiveness. Goals can be set at the individual or group level, and must be specific, challenging, and attainable. Google often uses Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to help set and communicate short and long term goals.
  • Meaning: Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output is important for team effectiveness. The meaning of work is personal and can vary: financial security, supporting family, helping the team succeed, or self-expression for each individual, for example.
  • Impact: The results of one’s work, the subjective judgement that your work is making a difference, is important for teams. Seeing that one’s work is contributing to the organization’s goals can help reveal impact.

Excerpts from Googles own writeup1.

This doesn’t mean that technical skills are unimportant. So long as we’re building technical products, we will always need technical skills. This does mean that we can’t focus exclusively on technical skills and ignore all of those other intangibles. It turns out that intangibles have a greater impact than we would have guessed.

When the Agile manifesto was written, despite most of the signatories being significantly technical people themselves, they didn’t focus on technical points. They talked about individuals and interactions - about people and communication. They all knew that the technical parts were important but they also recognized that all the “human” pieces were just as important and that those things needed to be called out so they wouldn’t get lost.

  1. For years, google had published this on their Rework site but they removed it in late 2023 and it’s not clear if it’s just being moved or deleted. This was an important article that is frequently cited.