I’ve spent the past 18 months as an engineering manager managing against the learnings from Google’s Project Aristotle. Project Aristotle is Google’s multi-year research project to determine what traits and habits make their most successful teams successful. Each trait builds upon the one before it, like a pyramid, and so teams should focus on developing the base habits first before moving up the pyramid.
Project Aristotle found the five dynamics of highly effective teams to be, in order, Psychological Safety, Dependability, Structure and Clarity, Meaning, and Impact. When someone is able to be themselves at work, there is individual respect. Trust can be built upon that. And once trust is in place, you can put that trust on autopilot. Only once everything is moving seamlessly can a team begin to remove any friction that exists between the work they do and their mission. And only the most effective of teams with the proper foundation in place can begin to look at the greater, external impact of their mission.
Project Aristotle’s research began in 2012, but it was only in 2016 that they had analyzed the team data they had collected and shared it back with the greater technical and business communities. Ten years before Google began their research, Patrick Lencioni released a book focused on another list of five team-wide habits, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Like Project Aristotle, The Five Dysfunctions are laid out such that each dysfunction builds on the previous one. Lencioni does not publish just a list of problems; each problem comes with a solution. There are five practices that solve for each of the five dysfunctions.
Taken at their core, each project aims to guide teams toward effective behaviors. Which roadmap you consider for your team likely comes down to the work your team is doing. Let’s compare and contrast each set of habits and discover the type of team that benefits most from each model.
The upper and lower bounds of each pyramid have some similarities and differences. At the bottom of each is an emphasis on trust. Google’s Project Aristotle scopes this to Psychological Safety: the ability of team members to bring themselves to the team. The Five Dysfunctions approach is similar as the absence of trust is the first dysfunction, and it is further described as the “unwillingness to appear vulnerable within the group”. The upper bounds of each pyramid, however, exist at different levels. Google aims high as they find the most effective teams have external purpose. The fifth dysfunction is a little more grounded focusing on an inattention to results. There is no similar rung on Project Aristotle, but it would seem that attention to results would come somewhere around habit three or four. There is nothing wrong about scoping down the habits or traits, but it will help us as we recognize that not all habits will be comparable directly between the two paradigms.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the middle three effective traits of the two structures. Both seem to focus on accountability and clarity, although each takes its own approach. Project Aristotle begins by building from Dependability to Clarity. This is telling us that effective teams begin with members following through on what they say they are going to do. Teams then codify those responsibilities into roles, and in doing so make everybody’s responsibilities clear. The Five Dysfunctions leans into accountability and encourages team members to call one another out to hold each other accountable. The difference here is subtle, but important. Project Aristotle takes the approach of “trust”; The Five Dysfunctions prefers “trust, but verify”.
Within this difference lies the core discrepancy between each system’s approaches. Project Aristotle aims for “highly effective teams”. It asks, “what are the habits of the most performant and excellent teams”. It is focusing on the ceiling. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team aims to remove dysfunctional behavior from teams. It is focusing on the raising the floor. Looking again at the difference between the Dependability and Clarity of Project Aristotle and the Accountability of The Five Dysfunction, the most effective teams are trying to be efficient. They are building trust and then relying on that trust to achieve their goals. Teams that focus on the five dysfunctions are focused on building trust from the ground floor and they are constantly checking in on that trust. It’s imperative for these teams to be solidifying trust, but the cost leads to inefficiences.
Ultimately, Google’s Project Aristotle is asking for the best of its teams. It asks teams to have a high ceiling by including Impact at the top of its pyramid. Teams that aim to follow these habits are asked to trust one another and rely on that trust to be effective. Teams that aim to avoid The Five Dysfunctions are approaching team-building with a more modest ceiling by making attention to results the top goal of the team. The Five Dysfunctions also relies on a “trust, but verify” methodology that asks team members to proactively ensure team members are following through on what they said they would which leads to inefficient behavior.
If you are looking for a blueprint for the team you lead or the team you’re a part of, ask yourself if your team is ready to begin reaching for the ceiling. If so, The Five Habits could be your guiding light. If your team is trying to figure out which way is up, start by raising your floor and implement the learnings from The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. What’s best for your team right now?