Do your teams work?

How are you creating the conditions for innovation to flourish? 

As educators, we work as parts of a team. In the secondary panel you may be part of a department team. You may be in a large school with a team of like-grade partners or your division. You may be in a small school without these partnerships, but you’re still on a team. You have a team of teachers, administrators and students. You may have other teams you are a part of, but often we are both members of teams and leaders of teams, often both simultaneously. 

So, what makes a team work? Google has undertaken extensive research in the past few years to understand what makes effective teams in their organization. Fortunately, they have made many of the results public. While factors such as workload size, seniority, and individual performance of team members did not have a significant impact on performance, softer skills and characteristics did. Meaning, structure and clarity, and dependability all were significant factors. The factor with the greatest impact, however, was psychological safety. This concept was first introduced by Harvard’s Amy Edmondson in her TEDx talk in 2014 (video embedded below). The team’s ability to feel comfortable taking risks and be vulnerable has the biggest effect on a team’s performance. So, knowing that, how do your teams fare? 

The factor with the greatest impact…psychological safety.

Having worked in teams that have this culture and teams that do not, it seems obvious once it is pointed out. 

The parallels between what makes a team work in the workplace and what makes a classroom work effectively are clear. What kind of environment are you helping build for your classroom team? What about for your staff team? Are people afraid to ask a question for fear or looking ignorant or  uninformed? If mistakes are made, do teammates hold on to them to bring up in the future? 

Without this psychological safety, innovation cannot happen. Innovative thinking and making happens when people feel they are free to try new things, when they are free to make mistakes. Not free to make mistakes to harm, but free to make honest, learning mistakes without catastrophic consequences, socially or emotionally. 

How do we create this psychologically safe zone?

So, how do we create this psychologically safe zone in our classrooms and among the teams we are a part of? According to the researchers, a lot of it has to do with clear communication and understanding of everyone’s role. People need to feel connected to the work they are doing and see risk-taking modeled.

As educators, we can do this in our classrooms through clear norm setting and agreements on how we conduct ourselves between members of our class team. We use authentic and meaningful learning tasks that value student risk-taking and inquiry. We can model valuing the input of all in the room. 

Dr. Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School

Among our colleagues, leaders in our schools need to be conscious of how they are creating an environment where innovation can happen. How safe is it for the members of your professional team to take risks, to be vulnerable, to admit they need clarification?  If these traits are not reflected back in the members of your staff or your teams, innovation will not flourish. This is not to remove accountability from the structure, but if accountability is the only focus, team members will not be able to trust that they can innovate. they will be in what Dr. Edmondson calls the Anxiety Zone. We can all relate. 

Think about your teams. What are you doing to put them in the Learning Zone? How are you pushing them out of the Comfort Zone? How are you creating the conditions for innovation to flourish? 

Read more about Google’s research on teams here: 

Google’s Guide to Understanding Team Effectiveness

NY Times: What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team Google Spent Years Studying Effective Teams. This Single Quality Contributed Most to Their Success

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