In 2012, as a speaker at a Google event, Adam Grant (psychologist and author) was asked to describe how he would run the company as an organizational psychologist. Grant proposed that Google should stop promoting and firing individuals and instead start promoting and firing teams.
We often see team performance as the sum of individual skills and expertise. If you want your team to perform better, you bring in smarter and more talented people. However, it turns out that our individual performance is actually highly context-specific.
Robert Huckman and Gary Pisano studied the correlation between patient mortality and the experience of operating surgeons. Unsurprisingly, they found that patient mortality decreased as surgeons performed more operations. But they also discovered that this experience is strongly tied to the hospitals themselves. When an individual surgeon switched hospitals, patient mortality increased as if the surgeon was lacking all the experience they had gained at the previous clinic.
In another study by Boris Groysberg, Ashish Nanda, and Nitin Nohria, researches observed that star financial analysts who get poached by another firm take at least five years to climb back to their old level of performance in the new environment. It's almost as if during those five year a new hire needs to rediscover the right teammates before they can reach their full potential.
People at Google got excited about Grant's idea. Two years later, Google started the Aristotle project with the purpose of finding the secrets of effective teams. In 2016, Google published their findings and identified psychological safety (the sense of safety for interpersonal risk-taking) as the most critical trait shared by high-performance teams.
For many of us this makes sense. But psychological safety is not the focus of this blog post. Instead, I want us to think about another question: why did Google decide to study great teams instead of implementing Grant's original idea of moving teams instead of individuals?
Google did try to figure out how they could keep efficient teams working together even after projects ended and new ones started. However, they found Grant's idea to be impractical. It required too much work and organizational change. To avoid this work, Google would rather study what makes a great team and then try to apply that formula to other teams.
Organizations across all industries are now reading and implementing the results from the Aristotle project. Psychological safety is in the limelight. This is fantastic. But I'm afraid many of us are trying to manufacture psychological safety instead of dismantling the dysfunctional teams and empowering the successful ones.
The simple solution is to move around high-performance teams, not individuals. If you're Google, the solution might be simple but not feasible. However, if you're not Google, Grant's idea might be within your reach. What would it look like if your organization started firing and promoting teams instead of individuals? What would need to change? And at the end of the day, do you think you would be better off?
To learn more about Adam Grant's advice for Google, you should listen to his debate with Malcom Gladwell on WorkLife with Adam Grant.