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What Lawyers Can Learn from Google About Collaboration

Posted in Law firm practices

Close up of men's rowing teamProblem: These days productive lawyering, successful onboarding of lateral hires, and effective Legal Project Management (LPM) place a huge premium on effective collaboration, and a recent Harvard Business Review study found that “time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more over the last two decades.” But lawyers, because of their autonomous nature and persistent drive for personal achievement, are neither naturally collaborative nor comfortable as team players.

Not only that, to the extent good collaboration builds on positive emotional states – messy, abstract things like trust, motivation, respect, and supportive interpersonal relationships – you can count most lawyers out. They don’t want to mess with all that touchy-feely stuff, no sir.

Googling The Wisdom of Aristotle

But here’s some breaking news for lawyers: You have to come to grips with peoples’ emotional states and buy into constructs like ‘psychological safety’ – because Google says you have to.

Once again, Google set out to solve all our problems – including the challenge of how to foster effective team collaboration. So in its Project Aristotle initiative commenced in 2012, Google undertook to figure out why some of its hundreds of teams stumbled while others consistently out-performed their peers.

Google’s People Analytics Division spent millions of dollars measuring every aspect of its employees’ actions and interactions, looking at collaboration – and potential collaborators – from every possible angle. Project Aristotle reviewed 50 years (yes, 50!!!) of academic literature and it scrutinized both hard factors and soft factors, looking at everything from which traits are shared by the most highly-rated managers to how often particular team members ate or socialized together. It sought patterns of personality and performance, chased down canons of collaboration, strove to tease out group and individual incentives.  Drawing on input from  the company’s best statisticians, organizational psychologists, engineers and managers, these dudes took rational analysis to the extreme.

Whoa, Houston, We Have a Problem

To its very considerable surprise, in its exhaustive search for patterns of performance, Google found…nothing.

No matter how Aristotle researchers aligned the data, it was nearly impossible to discern patterns or, remarkably, any evidence that the composition of a team made any difference in collaboration and performance.  “There weren’t strong patterns here,” said Abeer Dubey, a manager in the People Analytics division.  “We looked at 180 teams from all over the company. We had lots of data, but nothing showed that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference.  The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.”

Aha: Culture Matters

Eventually, the Aristotle team did identify what appeared to be a core construct for constructive collaboration. They found that successful teams tend to evolve their own unique set of informal but powerful  “group norms” – traditions, unwritten rules and informal standards – that govern how people should behave when engaged in team activity. After looking at over a hundred groups for more than a year, Project Aristotle researchers concluded that understanding and influencing each team’s group norms was the key to improving team performance.  In other words, Culture Really Matters.

So How Do We Build a Collaborative Culture?

But here’s the rub in trying to develop universal and uniform collaboration: different teams tend to evolve dramatically different cultural norms, based on the disparate personality traits and motivational drivers of their members.  This means that developing a powerfully aligned culture can be messy on new teams where members are selected based solely on the knowledge and skills they bring to the party, and not on the basis of shared interests, incentives, and resulting behavioral norms. It also means that a whole lot of lateral hires are going to fail, because no one is attending to the emotional aspects of supporting new arrivals during transition, helping them fit in, and showing them the cultural ropes of their new milieu.

Fortunately, for the future of collaboration in low-trust environments like law, the Google researchers finally identified one factor that was absolutely instrumental to trust and collaboration with colleagues, regardless of team members’ personality types.

Google’s data suggested that “psychological safety,” more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.

Psychological safety can be defined as a team’s capacity for empathy and its members’ ability to connect with each other on a personal level.  In order to be willing to collaborate, team members must feel confident that their team will not embarrass, reject or punish them for speaking up and expressing their feelings openly. Put differently, effective  cultures are “empathy engines.”

The Punch Line

So there you have Google’s not-so-secret formula, the algorithm they think they can scale: Collaboration is a function of culture and constructive culture is a function of open communication and empathy.

And when the Google researchers dug deeper into the idea of open communication, they found that on “good” teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, which Google labeled “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.”  For you lawyers, that translates to “everyone gets to talk, everybody has to listen, and high-performing team members listen more than they talk.”

And empathy, that ultimate touchy-feely weasel word?  If you loathe the word, try substituting the word attuned, instead.  As in, “in highly collaborative teams, members are attuned both to each others’ emotional states and needs and to the ‘political’ currents that shape group dynamics.”  Or, to repeat ourselves, Culture Really Matters.

Today’s law firms have pretty much abandoned the clubby, collegial and resolutely male-dominated cultures of yore, substituting a relentlessly bottom-line driven, “everyone for themselves” mentality.  Perhaps that would not be all bad, if this shift left greater windows of opportunity for diverse performers.  But it doesn’t; today, it’s cold and hard for everybody.

That’s why, in many cases, law firms are not very nice places to work.  Perhaps more to the point, profitability may be up, but so are rates of attrition, the number of unhappy clients, and the percentage of lateral hiring failures.  Google’s message? The pursuit of optimal performance requires greater attention to human trust factors than most law firms currently exhibit or are willing to invest in.

© 2016, Pam Woldow and Doug Richardson. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.

  • Jack Bostelman

    Thanks for bringing the Google research to our attention, Pam. This is truly useful insight that I believe, from my own work as a practice management consultant to large law firms on improving collaboration, can benefit all law firms. The challenge is turning it into practical steps a firm can apply to foster improved communication and empathy within its practice groups or other collaboration groups. But the first step is identifying the issue and you have done a great job explaining it!. –Jack Bostelman, KMJD Consulting LLC.

    • pwoldow

      Jack, thanks for the kind words. To us, Google’s process does call to mind the “everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it” maxim. Google’s efforts may have identified group process preconditions to collaboration, but they hardly represent a practical how-to manual for either group and team leaders or their members. The world of legal practice still needs a good five-cent cigar — or even a good $100K cigar, rather than just a lot of smoke. We have a simplified “here, try this and then do this” collaboration post in the works, trusting that the legal world will then beat a path to our door.