Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Can Social Psychology Predict Successful Museum Project Teams?

Did you ever notice how particular teams or working groups at some museums always seems to produce interesting, successful projects, while other museums filled with equally likeable and intelligent people never quite seem to get their projects to fly?

I kept coming back to memories of successful (and unsuccessful!) museum project teams as I read the fascinating article in the New York Times about the research conducted by the Project Aristotle group at Google, entitled "What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team."

The article is really worth reading for yourself, but I'll give you a bit of the punchline in this post.  (SPOILER ALERT!)

After looking at over a hundred groups at Google, the Project Aristotle researchers determined that the key factor for project teams to become successful was "group norms."

Roughly translated, that means that each group's "culture" determined the outcome of the group's work more than any other factors --- not age, gender, education, experience, even overlap between group members on different teams.

From the article:

"What interested the researchers most, however, was that teams that did well on one assignment usually did well on all the others. Conversely, teams that failed at one thing seemed to fail at everything. The researchers eventually concluded that what distinguished the ‘‘good’’ teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another. The right norms, in other words, could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team, even if, individually, all the members were exceptionally bright."

Successful project teams shared two common qualities.  On good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion:

"As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well.  But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined."

Secondly, all the good teams had something the Project Aristotle researchers called high "social sensitivity."   Which means that successful team members were skilled at picking up on nonverbal cues --- like tone of voice, or facial expressions, to determine how other team members were feeling.

So given their findings, and Google's strong desire to improve the success of project teams, did the researchers draw up a list of prescriptions for teams to follow?  Not at all!  Rather, the Project Aristotle group shared their data and findings with people and assumed groups and their leaders were smart enough and motivated enough to incorporate the findings into each working group's "culture."

But most importantly, even for a data-driven company like Google, everyone in the organization came to realize that success was not always something that could be "optimized" or driven strictly by some one-size-fits-all business principles.

Again, from the article:

"Project Aristotle is a reminder that when companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized."

And I think that is what holds tremendous promise for the future of museums and our projects --- that our interactions with each other as museum workers, and our interactions with the people who visit museums, can be grounded in rich (and yes, sometimes complicated) emotional experiences.


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