Google Improv

28mag-teams1-superJumboThis past Sunday the New York Times Magazine published a special issue on Worklife: Rethinking the office for an always-on economy. What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team gets at the heart of why innovative corporations and academic institutions have embraced improvisation and performance.

A number of the findings of the Project Aristotle researchers appear to be fundamentals of improvisation.

…the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. One of the easiest ways to gauge social sensitivity is to show someone photos of people’s eyes and ask him or her to describe what the people are thinking or feeling — an exam known as the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. People on the more successful teams in Woolley’s experiment scored above average on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. They seemed to know when someone was feeling upset or left out. People on the ineffective teams, in contrast, scored below average. They seemed, as a group, to have less sensitivity toward their colleagues.

“Average social sensitivity” is something that improv training creates in all of us – we learn to create “group mind,” we make others look good, we allow ourselves to actively listen so that we can pick up on tone of voice, expressions and other nonverbal cues – these are the building blocks of good improvisation.

For Project Aristotle, research on psychological safety pointed to particular norms that are vital to success. There were other behaviors that seemed important as well — like making sure teams had 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.

However, establishing psychological safety is, by its very nature, somewhat messy and difficult to implement. You can tell people to take turns during a conversation and to listen to one another more. You can instruct employees to be sensitive to how their colleagues feel and to notice when someone seems upset. But the kinds of people who work at Google are often the ones who became software engineers because they wanted to avoid talking about feelings in the first place.

Rozovsky and her colleagues had figured out which norms were most critical. Now they had to find a way to make communication and empathy — the building blocks of forging real connections — into an algorithm they could easily scale.

While Google built algorithms to measure and scale “particular norms” that led to the establishment of “psychologically safe environments,” following the rules of improvisation create a safe environment where participants learn to agree, to say “yes,” and to find their way to collaboration, rather than disagreement.  I wholeheartedly agree that communication and empathy are building blocks of forging “real connections,” but I would offer that along with building an algorithm (this is Google, after all), we also need to build an improvisational, performance-oriented environment.  When we perform we are able to be who we are becoming, we can be other than who we are, we can agree even when we “feel” like disagreeing.

What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.

The best theatre directors ensure that their actors feel “psychologically safe” in order to express the messiness of our lives, emotionally and otherwise.  The paragraph above made me think a lot about being an actor and about performance.   It reminded me of conversations that I participated in as a member of the Castillo Theatre ensemble with our former Artistic Director, Fred Newman.  Newman was a brilliant director and public philosopher (he earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Stanford) who, as a practicing social therapist, developed a psychology of becoming that introduced performance as a method of growth and development.  We used to have conversations with Fred about traditional Method acting and the notion that one could “lose oneself in a character,” an odd notion, as we are always and at once who we are, and who we are becoming.  We cannot leave part of our personality or “inner life” at home; we take ourselves wherever we go.  What we can do is perform.

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. Rozovsky herself was reminded of this midway through her work with the Project Aristotle team. ‘‘We were in a meeting where I made a mistake,’’ Rozovsky told me. She sent out a note afterward explaining how she was going to remedy the problem. ‘‘I got an email back from a team member that said, ‘Ouch,’ ’’ she recalled. ‘‘It was like a punch to the gut. I was already upset about making this mistake, and this note totally played on my insecurities.’’

Along with active listening, saying “yes,” building with what others give you (yes, and…), one of the important tenets of improvisation is to embrace mistakes.  In teaching improv and facilitating improv workshops we direct students to joyfully perform, “Yay, I made a mistake!” Why?  Because mistakes and failure is where creativity lies.

The paradox, of course, is that Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.

The fact that these insights aren’t wholly original doesn’t mean Google’s contributions aren’t valuable. In fact, in some ways, the ‘‘employee performance optimization’’ movement has given us a method for talking about our insecurities, fears and aspirations in more constructive ways. It also has given us the tools to quickly teach lessons that once took managers decades to absorb. Google, in other words, in its race to build the perfect team, has perhaps unintentionally demonstrated the usefulness of imperfection and done what Silicon Valley does best: figure out how to create psychological safety faster, better and in more productive ways.

With all due respect to Google, Project Aristotle and “employee performance optimization,” companies – large and small – that care about their employees and improving our lives at work would do well to bring performance, play and improvisation into the workplace.