When I was 15, my life revolved around basketball. It was everything to me. In fact, during my sophomore year, I played for two teams: a local select team and my high school team. Because I was not a varsity player, I could play on both, and in fact, the players on each team were relatively the same. We had been playing together for years and we were pretty good.
As the season began that year, it became clear one team was better than the other. Our high school team was undefeated 10 games in. On the other hand, our select team was less than .500 in about the same number of games. We were all frustrated but didn’t take much time to reflect on or discuss why essentially the same team did so well at school and so poorly as a select team. Not only that, the latter was not that much fun to play in. What was it?
Controlling for Coaches
Thinking about it many years later, the answer is perfectly clear. We were an A/B test of sorts. If the players were the same, what was the one variable that changed? The environment. And who creates the environment? The coach.
As I mentioned, playing for the select team was not fun. Not just because we weren’t winning, but because we always played tight, never wanting to make a mistake. On the select team, if you made a mistake, you were pulled out of the game at the next whistle — even if it was just two minutes into the game. In that environment, of course, you’re not willing to take chances. You try to play mistake-free so you can keep playing. In my opinion, this is exactly why the same players on two different teams with two different coaches and environments had such different results.
It turns out that a culture of zero failure is counterproductive. This same principle applies to all of us as we look to build a modern product team.
In my experience, psychological safety is incredibly important when creating a high-performing team. This was true on my basketball teams, but it is especially true in product, where you’re managing designers, engineers, and PMs – each creative problem solvers in their own ways. These teams need an environment in which it’s okay to fail, it’s okay to take big risks, and it’s okay to come up with alternative ideas to what’s suggested by the most senior person in the room.
My experience is not singular. You’ve probably have heard of Google’s Project Aristotle. Launched in 2012, this study was meant to assess why certain teams succeed while others don’t. What did they learn? Making sure teams had clear goals was helpful, as was a culture of dependability. But psychological safety was the key indicator of success.
If it’s good enough for Google, it should be good enough. Right? Psychological safety means that the team is more important than the idea, and putting your team first is ultimately a better investment in the future of your business.
One of my favorite management books, Creativity Inc., talks about the importance of getting the team and its environment right. Ed Catmull, of Pixar fame, suggests a handy litmus test in it:
“Give a good idea to a mediocre team and
they will screw it up …
Put a mediocre idea to a great team and
they will either fix it—or scrap it and
come up with a better idea.”
Coaching for Flow
Coaching a bunch of high schoolers in basketball is, despite appearances, not that different from managing a product team. You might expect your product team to be more creative than the high schoolers, but the key in both situations is to empower the team members to own their work, feel that they are working towards something bigger than themselves, and feel that you have their back regardless of any snags along the way.
A great team is not just about the individuals you hire, they can have great experience and portfolios (or be really tall!), but that alone will not make them great. My advice is to invest in fostering psychological safety, and let your team develop greatness.