Alison Coward: Designing High-Performing Teams

Hiring a group of talented people is difficult. Making that talented team work together well, now that’s even harder. In this talk from BoS Europe 2018 Alison Coward gave some great advice on how you can design the way a team communicates and works together to ensure you get the most out of everyone on the team. If you’re looking to improve your team’s collaboration, this is must watch.

also available on the podcast


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Alison Coward: So as you can probably guess I’m a fan of jazz, anyone else? Oh good I thought I might be on my own. That track is a track called “You gotta have freedom” by an ensemble called Build An Ark and Build An Ark came together after the events of 9/11 and they were all individual jazz musicians in their own right. But they decided they wanted to come together to promote a message of peace and love and hope. I hadn’t really thought about that connection before I chose the track which is a really nice connection to high performing teams. I know that I’m not the first person to talk about jazz as an analogy for high performing teams but for me that particular example really makes sense in the fact that they were all individually talented, and they all come together. And when you watch a jazz band (I’ve actually seen Build An Ark play at the Barbican) – When you see each of the individual jazz musicians they’re all in their flow. They’re all kind of you know doing their own thing but somehow it all comes together and they achieve perhaps what we call team flow.

Flow is a psychological concept that was developed by a Hungarian psychologist – let me get the name right. I was practising all day yesterday. Csikszentmihalyi. I think that’s how you say it. My partner’s Hungarian and is teaching me. He developed the concept of flow and the idea of flow is that when you’re working on something and you’re so engrossed in the task you’re focusing on it and you just completely forget about where you are what you’re doing you lose sense of time and space. I mean that’s kind of where we all generally want to get to with our work. We want to enjoy it. We want to feel kind of happy and engaged in the work. And I guess for me I’m really interested in exploring whether we can do that as a team. So what I do at my company, Bracket, is I help teams work better together and particularly in the area of creativity and innovation. And I’ve been exploring this balance between creativity and productivity since I started. For me a high performing team is a team that not only comes up with great ideas but is also able to deliver them to a high standard as well. So that’s what I’m going to be talking to you about my talk. I’m sharing some of my own knowledge and experience of working with teams, bringing in some research and some concepts which back that up, and also showing some examples of teams that you’ve probably heard of as well.

Now what do we need to think about this? High performance team seems to be kind of a hot topic at the moment but teamwork has been around for a long time. It’s been around forever. You know we’ve always had to work in teams to get work done. But it really is changing, you know, we’re thinking about teams much more and partly because most of us are doing more of our work in teams. This report from EY says that 90% of work now is done in teams and it’s not just that they’re done in teams. You know people are finding most of the work is done in teams but they’re also working across multiple teams as well. They’re not just in one one team. And then even some of the words that we’re using to describe teams – fluid, dynamic, elastic, autonomous, self managing, small multidisciplinary teams – the way that we’re describing these teams has changed things are moving much faster. We’ve got the technology to support different ways of working. The demands of our consumers demands of the outside world means these teams don’t stay constant. They switch and they change more frequently and we need to bring together small teams of multidisciplinary experts to get work done and bringing them around the challenge. When that challenge has been solved then they go from working there on new teams. So again the way that we’re working is much more dynamic. We might work with a team and start on a new project which creates its own dynamic. We might even be part of a team and when we start on a new project then a whole new dynamic is in place. So really we need to have a bit more fluency around what it takes to build great teams and keep them going as well. It’s not just enough to focus on the work we need to think about how we’re working together. And more than that – there is no one size fits all. Each of these teams are different. You bring a set of individuals together that are talented in their own right. When they come together they form a team culture. You’ve got the dynamic of the project to consider and also the context that they’re working as well. The environment is very different which means that every team has its own individual challenges and problems to address.

So some of the principles for team work today – some of the ways we need to think about teamwork differently. The first thing is we need to think about how we manage teams differently. You know teams particularly in the knowledge sector particularly people say that work in the of creativity innovation doing stuff with their brains, coming up with ideas. It’s not about management it’s about orchestrating all of that talent and bringing it together. And we take more of a facilitative approach to leadership. It’s also about taking a design approach as well and being intentional about the way that we work together. I think I said in the description – putting people in a room and hoping for the best is not enough. We need to think more specifically and more purposefully about how those teams are going to work together and a design approach works in this way as well. I’ll talk a bit about that later. And then we need to think about building team habits. How do we change the behaviour? How do we get to the behavior that we want? So it’s not just about managing a great team. It’s not just about designing the behavior that we want. It’s actually thinking how do we actually get to that behavior. How do we change the behavior of the people in the team to actually get there as well. A really great example of this is the energy company Asana. Asana are producers of team productivity tool so you probably think they’ve got quite a lot of knowledge in how teams work together but they look at themselves they look at culture as a product. So they actually won (very recently I think 2017) one of the best places to work and they’re one of the highest rated companies to work for on Glassdoor and the founders Justin Rosenstein and Dustin Moskovitz call their cultural product so they think their culture is something that can be designed it’s rated debunked tested in the same way that their actual technology product is developed as well I think that’s a really nice way of looking at it.

So what makes a successful team? Even though we think about the team as a whole for me it’s about starting with the individuals. As I said before when you’re bringing together a team you’re bringing together a group of individuals who will have their skills and expertise and ways of working. So it makes sense to start there rather than kind of jumping straight into the team. Let’s start with the individual. Think what is each individual person bring in and how can we make the team work based on that. And so going back to the jazz band you know each of the jazz musicians have got their own skills and their own talents but somehow they manage to work together seamlessly. Each person has their place in the team but they work together as a whole to make this amazing piece of music. This is a paradox, it’s a bit of a balance that we need to find and it’s not easy it’s tricky. It’s something that Linda Hill talks about in her book Collective Genius where she explored all of the characteristics of innovative organizations. One of the things that she said that innovative organizations does well is they’re really good to both affirm the individual and the group because it’s the individuals that bring the raw materials of innovation. But it’s only the collective effort that will lead to innovation in itself. So we need to kind of balance both of those, very challenging and tricky. There’s two ways that we need to think about starting with the individual – in terms of self-awareness, it’s really important that every individual in the team knows how they like to work. It’s become more important again because ironically the demands of collaboration are taking demands on our time and this report on collaborative overload which was a bit of a backlash against collaboration found that 80 percent of the time that we work is actually spent responding to emails, in meetings, and on the phone. So essentially this need for collaboration is actually preventing us from getting work done. So each individual on the team needs to know how they best get their work done. When are they most creative and productive? What are their ideal days? When are the best times for them to work? Once you’ve got that knowledge you bring that together in the team and you can negotiate and find a way where it is possible for everybody to do their best work.

And so deep work. Deep Work is a concept that was developed by Cal Newport he wrote a book on it very recently and he talks about this idea that you know in today’s workplace it’s very difficult for us to snatch long uninterrupted stretches of focused time and that’s actually what’s going to differentiate us in the future. So we’ve got these kind of demands of collaboration we need to work together but yet in order to develop our own skills and to advance professionally we need to make sure that we have time to master and have our own talents and that’s what he calls Deep Work. So each individual needs to be aware of when they can get into deep work when they can get into that flow when they can be the most creative and productive. So it it’s also how they like to work and then also just as important as that. Sometimes even more important is how they work with others. So it’s not just enough to bring your talents to your team. But having that kind of T-shape that ability to not only have your own expertise but also work with disciplines across multiple disciplines and different skill sets, different people with different knowledge, and learn from them understand what you bring to a team but also what they bring to a team and empathise with the different challenges that people face as well. So this ability to be T-shaped this emotional intelligence as well as your own skills is important in working in a team.

Another factor of teams and I’ve definitely seen in my work is that everybody on the team is able to see the bigger picture. The knowledge work that we do – it’s not just enough to have a reward at the end, a financial reward, in fact that’s not what motivates people like us. We are more motivated by intrinsic rewards and it’s something that Dan Pink explored in his book Pink and he identified three factors that were really important for motivating knowledge workers people in teams were autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy – the ability to work in the way that works for you. Mastery – the ability to develop your skills and get better at what you do. And this one purpose – the motivation and engagement that people have when they feel they are working toward something much bigger than themselves. For me this works really well when a project is kicking off or a discussion is kicking off and everybody in the team is in that room together has the opportunity to input has the opportunity to have a say and they are able to see the bigger picture for their work they’re able to see what it is that everyone’s working towards beyond just their individual contribution.

Teams have good communication in this kind of make sense. A lot of these things seem quite basic when I’m saying it but they’re actually hard to implement. So there’s lots of research that backs up that how a team communicates and the way they communicate has actually more impact than actually the content the way they communicate. So MIT Human Dynamics Lab they decided to explore what made the most successful teams and they explored that by giving teams wearable devices – not monitoring what they were saying but actually giving them wearable devices to monitor the pattern of communication across the teams. And they found that the teams that were most successful were in frequent communication. There was equal contributions amongst the teams they were talking and listening in equal measure. And there was informal communication as well. So it wasn’t just work work work, they’re also socialising and having chats and the conversation was dynamic. So they looked at the level of the conversation and it was quite passionate. So there was these three things – energy, engagement, and exploration – and the other thing was that the team members were going outside of the team and bringing information and ideas back into the team as well. So this level of communication nothing to do with what was communicated and everything to do with how they communicated.

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Quick quiz. So I could ask you a question. What do you think is the most important lever in motivating individuals? I’m going to ask you to vote in which one do you think it is. So first one is recognition. Second one is progress. Third one tangible incentives. Fourth one clear work goals. So who thinks that the most important lever in motivating individuals is recognition? Okay. Who thinks it’s progress? Few more. Tangible incentives? A couple. And clear work goals? Okay so I think clear winner is clear work goals. According to research from Teresa Amabile and Stephen Kramer it’s actually progress – and most managers don’t get that. In fact no managers when they interviewed them, no managers saw that their role was in helping their teams to make progress. So in surveys that what they did was they they interviewed 238 knowledge workers and they asked them all to make a diary entry at the end of the day and they ended up with 12000 diary entries and they scale to all of these diary entries and basically what they did was ask How are you feeling today and what happened at the end of this day. What’s your what’s your emotion and what happens. And the thing that all of those individual diary entries had in common the majority was that those individuals are able to make a little bit of progress forward each day. Didn’t have to be a big of progress. It was just a very very small win moving forward. So it kind of changes our idea of what a manager is meant to do and what a leader is meant to do. Leader is not there to make decisions for the team but actually to clear the ways that they can move forward more smoothly.

I can’t talk about high performing teams without talking about Google’s Project Aristotle. Does anyone know about Google’s Project Aristotle? Okay so there’s a few. So a couple of years ago Google decided that they wanted to identify what made their most successful teams within their company and they again studied all of their teams and they thought that they would come up with things like where those individuals went to school and the IQ the individuals and perhaps their career history. And none of that came up. In fact they found five things. The impact of work – so individuals knowing that the work they were doing would have an impact. Knowing the meaning of that work – as well against relating to purpose. Structure and clarity – around what they were doing so they knew what they were doing they knew why they were working with other people and they had clarity on roles. And they also knew they could depend on each other as well to get work done. But the top of the list the most important factor by far was this idea of psychological safety – everybody in the team felt safe enough to take risks be vulnerable and make mistakes in front of their team members. So this is Google, where you’d think the engineering talent is one of the most important things that had nothing to do with the most successful teams and everything to do with how the team worked together.

So what makes a successful team? High performing teams discuss how they will work together. The research that I’ve showed you shows that it’s less about who is in the team and even what they’re working on and what they’re talking about and everything to do with how they work together. So this is a question that came to me at the end of a talk I did last week, a very similar talk that I did last week. I’m gonna put it out to you, I’m not gonna answer I’m going to put it out to you to think about. But what would you do if a non team player has more than 10 times results paid to them compared to the rest of the team combined. Which probably isn’t uncommon in technology companies. So a question for you to think about now.

There’s lots of ways in which we can build high performing teams. One of the ways I’ve seen in the work that I do make the most impact which sounds bizarre but really makes a massive impact is with meetings. Now I think we can agree within companies that we’re probably having too many meetings, we’re bored of them. This is just one stat that exists in showing the unproductive of meetings globally. And there’s probably many more out there which show that meetings waste time, there’s too many of them. When we’re in meetings we’re not engaged, people are on their phone. We don’t have productive discussions. You know meetings are definitely broken. And some companies go down the route of saying Okay meetings are broken let’s not have any meetings it’s meetings that are a problem but if we’re working in teams we need to work together to get work done in these cross disciplines remote multidisciplinary teams of individuals with expertise, specific expertise. We have to meet. There’s no way around it. So it’s not about getting rid of meetings. It’s about making those meetings better and better. Jeff Bezos is a bit obsessive with the way but he runs his meetings he’s got some new kind of techniques that he uses because again he sees meetings as a really key part to his organisational culture and the success of the way the organisation works. So we might have heard of his two pizza teams which is where there’s a kind of principle within Amazon that if a team is too big to be fed by two pieces then it’s too large because they’re very interested in kind of having very small focused teams that work together. But Amazon “Silent starts” is for the executive teams particularly. And what happens is at the beginning of executive meetings everybody has half an hour to just read through the memos in silence and that’s what happens at the beginning of the meeting. So everyone’s just sitting around the table for 30 minutes in silence and it’s just a way of getting everyone up to speed because they know that when you send run those documents in advance no one’s going to read them and no one’s up to speed, everyone comes unprepared. So that moment in the meeting is a really important time for everyone to get on the same page so to speak. The other thing that he does which I think is great is that in order to energise his meetings and to keep people on their toes and they have a big wheel. And because I mean I think the meetings were getting too large and they were getting really unproductive and very unwieldy. So and Amazon decided that they were going to incorporate a big wheel and they were going to give people numbers and they were going to select numbers randomly so that when your number came up that was your turn to present. So it kept people on their toes but also kept the meetings quite fast moving and kept the productivity going as well.

One of the things that I see with the work that I do is that there’s a massive opportunity to change our meetings. You can tell a lot by a company’s culture by what happens in the meetings – are people getting involved? Are they engaged? Who’s dominating the conversation? And actually if someone has a bad experience in a meeting then you know they might be a bit fed up in the short term, if they keep on having that experience over a period of time then it leads to a lot of disengagement, generally, in the workplace leading to lower productivity leads into lower happiness. So there’s a lot that we can do in meetings to make a difference and say we can take inspiration from workshops. This is the kind of work that I do say you know my company is about helping teams work better together. And a lot of the work that I do takes place through the format of workshops – going in designing and running strategy sessions and brainstorming sessions and project kickoffs so that my clients can make sure that in that time that they’re together they have a very focused and productive time. Facilitation is a massive part of this and not just in the meetings that you run but also in the way that you will lead the discussions that you have when you’re designing new ways of working with your team but generally also as a leadership approach. You know our role now as leaders when we’ve got all of these talented individuals is not to tell them what to do but actually to create an environment where they’re able to thrive and do their best work together.

A bit of research again. Paul Paulos & Abraham Carmeli identified this phrase Ideational Facilitation Leadership. They studied executives across a range of companies and realised that again the success of companies had something to do with the skill, this one skill that CEOs had. It’s leadership behaviour that cultivates openness exchange of ideas and effective discussion for creative thinking. So these leaders were able to facilitate an interesting and productive useful discussion amongst their leaders which led to innovation. That skill was very specific and lead into a successful company. And it brings us back to the progress principle as well. You know that factor of people feeling most engaged and happy at work was that they were able to make a small bit of progress just a little bit of progress just one step forward. But again changes the way that we think about our role as managers our role is to clear the way to facilitate to make things easier to clear the barriers so that people can get on and do their best work. Linda Hill I mentioned earlier – Collective Genius is her book all about innovative organisations. She says this thing about these leaders is not there to make decisions. Their role is to set the stage for people to do their best work, not to perform in it themselves. So how do I set the stage for innovation to happen? Question for leaders to ask themselves.

I’ve written a book – “A Pocket Guide To Effective Workshops”. So in the book I kind of explore the difference between meetings and workshops. I talk about a typical meeting and a typical meeting I kind of say you know the usual meeting that we hold and it’s unproductive it’s not useful tools like a waste of time vs. a workshop that’s been facilitated brilliantly. These are some of things that I say you know what a meeting. Typical meeting we think of a meeting our heads the individuals go there to present content. Whereas a workshop is about developing content together, you’re there to explore unknowns. A typical meeting, often people go there to kind of persuade of the right answer they’ve got an argument to make. Whereas in a workshop, well it’s all about exploring different options and possibilities together. A typical meeting, people just sitting there on the phone they’re quite passive but with a workshop you get in your engaged participants people involved engaged in the discussion. There’s power dynamics in a typical meeting you know some people dominating but in a workshop to strive for equal contributions that the aim is to get everyone involved in the discussion. I think workshops are much more dynamic, much more active than a typical meeting. But why can’t we achieve some of these in our meetings? Why can’t we get that? Because that’s actually what we want to achieve for great collaboration, for great teams working. So why don’t we take some inspiration from our workshops and inject them into our meetings? When workshops are facilitated well these are some of the things that they should feel. These are some of things that they should experience engagement and connection and autonomy they feel that they’ve had the freedom to develop ideas in their own way and they’ve got a clear sense of purpose. They know exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing. They’re making progress and they’re working together as a team to make that happen. So again why can’t we go for that in meetings? But generally when you look at that list that’s what we want to achieve in the workplace as well to achieve a high performing team. So it makes sense that we take some of that inspiration from our workshops and inject not only into our meetings but into the rest of the organisation. I call this workshop culture. Whereby we’ve looked at what we can do in helping the people have productive discussions engage in discussions and actually take inspiration from that and injecting that into different parts of the culture. So it starts off with a one off event you know workshops a one day strategy session an offsite a brainstorming session you know you might kind of see that as a finite event in itself, and they can be, they can be great in themselves and you can make a lot of progress. But where I really see the impact made with teams is when they start to run multiple workshops over a period of time because what happens you start to get that collaboration, that engagement that dynamic feeling the collaboration the creativity which then starts to spill out into the rest of the culture. You know the conversations the openness the transparency that happens in the workshop doesn’t just stay in the room. It also spreads out into the rest of the organization as well.

So a few tips, a few very very practical tips to make your meetings better and to take inspiration from workshops. The first one is choosing the right format for the purpose – there’s so many different types of meetings that we can have. I’ve mentioned a few – Strategy, Session, brainstorming, have an update meeting, a stand, up retrospective. But when we called a meeting we just say well let’s have a meeting let’s get around a table in a room and let’s see what happens. Actually having that kind of intentional design to the way you meet and what you’re meeting for can have a massive impact on changing the way that people work together. Making sure that you ensure in equal contributions – now in a meeting there’s so many reasons why people don’t speak up or why they feel prevented to speak up. It may be because they’re an introvert and extroverts are naturally able to speak up in front of people. It may because there are senior people in the room as well. It may be because they don’t feel safe and to speak up there’s not that psychological safety. But if you’ve done your work to get talented individuals together and you’ve got yourself a diverse team then why don’t you want to hear from all of those voices in the room. It makes a massive difference not just about making the space for diversity as Tom was talking about earlier but also making sure that those spaces are inclusive and people are able to speak up and get their views heard when there’s an opportunity for them to do so. A couple of very specific tips to do that. Check-in rounds. So a check-in round is a tiny intervention which can make a massive impact at the beginning of a meeting the beginning of a workshop. You ask people a question a personal question. How are you? What do you do this weekend? What are you working on? What’s taking you what’s taking up the most energy for you? What’s taken up your headspace and you go around the table and you ask people? You’d be surprised how much that opens up for conversation amongst the team. And so Braden Kowitz is an ex Google Ventures actually. He started his own his own company called range labs and labs develops technology again to help teams work together and he wrote recently how he saw a massive impact in the performance of teams. Just by introducing this tech him around. So the more honest it is the more honest we are with each other the better we work together and that’s why check in rounds on one of the best ways to get high output a performance from your team really tiny intervention takes five minutes and which can have a massive impact on the way your team works together to leads to high performance. The power of a post it note. I think a post it note is synonymous with workshops and you know that kind of can be a bit overused but really. Post it Notes can have a massive impact again on encouraging people to get involved. So one of the tricks that I do when I know that there’s gonna be a problem with people getting involved in a discussion. Give everyone a stack of post it notes, ask a question, give them two minutes to write down their response individually before sharing it before having a conversation. And again it’s just level the playing field because it means that the people that would speak up naturally are forced to stay silent for a little bit and the introverts in the room sometimes find it difficult to speak up in front of people and may want a little bit more time to think before they speak have the opportunity to do so. Related to that you want to start encouraging productive conflict as well. Again if you’ve got all of these individuals together with diverse expertise and individually talented in their own right then you don’t want them to agree all the time, you want to make sure that there is an opportunity for them to challenge each other because again that’s where innovation comes from. I mean it’s really important to encourage productive conflict to avoid what we call group think. Group think is when people agree for the sake of not causing conflict for the sake of not speaking up or causing a problem amongst the team with the way the teams working together but productive conflicts is super important for combating that so many reasons why groupthink might happen. It may be because again there’s a dominant member of the group and a senior member of staff might speak first. It may be because there’s not a lot of psychological safety in the group as well but making those opportunities for productive conflict is again vital for high performance. One of the ways to do this is when you’re having your discussions is to separate out what we call divergent thinking and convergent thinking divergent thinking is we’re generating ideas and come up with lots and lots of possibilities and in that space you want to not encourage critique. You want to make sure that people feel comfortable with coming up with crazy ideas and explore exploring. But in order to move forward with any kind of discussion or any kind of project you need to move into critique at some point. So making the space for it and making sure that they’re separated out make sure they don’t interfere with each other they’re very difficult to do at the same time. Divergent thinking if you try and introduce convergent thinking then you shut down ideas too early. Convergent thinking you’re still trying to kind of come to a discussion a conclusion or make a decision and people that generate lots and lots of ideas and it makes you go round in discussion loops. So you want to kind of separate out those data to different types of thinking – divergent thinking and convergent thinking. And what happens is that when you’re starting to run your sessions and your meetings more like this and your role might change as the leader or there may be someone in the team that needs to take on the role of facilitator and the things that they’re doing is they’re asking good questions because the role of a facilitator is not there to input into the discussion or give people the answers as they’re there to draw the best answers and ideas out of everybody in the team. So they’ll ask good questions. And if they’ve done a good job asking good questions then they’re going to get lots of responses especially if that environment is safe for people to bring up their thoughts. They also need to be good at listening and just listening and it’s very very difficult to do. Listening to those responses. And if you get lots and lots of responses because you’ve enabled productive conflict and you’ve enabled that and equal contributions then there’s going to be a lot of ideas and chaos that comes back. So being able to deal with that uncertainty and all those responses and those answers really vital. And then finally you move into kind of synthesising mode. So this cycle is something that leaders will go through not only in meetings not only in workshops but generally in their work. If they’re trying to encourage high performing teams and input from everybody and encouraging everyone to do their best work.

This is one of the workshops that I do with my teams to actually start off the discussion. I call it big picture thinking session. And it’s really one way to kind of get this discussion going. And the idea of it is sitting down with your team and trying to again gather those views so that you can start to plan the way forward. And you look back you look outside and you look forward so you ask questions which encourage people to kind of review where they were bring influences from outside and then also start to plan and generate ideas for where you can go in the future. Six sections. Review how did we perform and what did we do in the past year six months. Did we meet our targets to meet our goals? What did we learn from that. And thinking about inspirations influences from outside what’s going on that’s interesting, that we can bring into the work that we do. And if there were no boundaries. If there were no restrictions on time is also money what would you like to do. So again starting to generate those ideas of what’s possible. And generating ideas around what you could do and then actually deciding what you’re going to move forward with. This is a very short workshop can be run in an hour, you could take a whole half day or a whole day so anybody starts to kind of encourage that conversation to bring in the kind of collaboration creativity from your team. And then you move in to follow up next steps. So one of the things again that I see with my clients is that it’s you know the workshop is one thing but also what happens after the meeting or after the workshop is just as important and making sure that the actions are taken forward and there’s a momentum and almost a rhythm to the way that you work.

This is when we move into team habits meetings lectures so you know we’re not just looking at the way that we work together but also starting to design new methods for building high performance. This is when we bring in the design approaches as I mentioned. So thinking about the individual jazz team. You know starting with the individual thinking about how to people do their best work. How do they work well together? And using that information and that knowledge to actually create new ways of working with your team and innovate around that as well innovating in the way that you work so that you can innovate the work that you do. We’ve looked at ways that you can innovate in your meetings. I looked at a couple of examples firm from Jeff Bezos. And there’s also the opportunity to share information as well. How do you share information as a team? Couple of examples. Intercom – they have a massive culture of reflection in their company. So they look at reflection at the individual level, the team level, and the company level. And they’ve instilled this into their culture so deeply that it’s had a massive impact on their growth. And they kind of create a rhythm to how they connect that reflection as well. There’s a cycle to it. Etsy, don’t know if you have heard of this one which is kind of a bit of a controversial one but the team of engineers have a habit and a ritual almost of showing the mistakes they make. So when an engineer makes a massive mistake and they don’t try to hide it but she share it across the company and the whole reason they do that is because they don’t want people to make the same mistake. It makes sense, but you have to have a massive culture of psychological safety to ensure that people are able to speak up and do that. Informal conversations though going back to the MIT research engaging in infrequent informal communication super important to high performing team and successful team. Sweden are really good at this. They’re kind of ahead in many things but they have something called FIKA whereby they stop twice a day. I think it’s around 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. and they just have coffee and cake together coffee and pastries. That’s what FIKA means coffee and pastries so that they have an informal chats and conversations away from work. But the whole point is they get away from the work they engage in that informal conversation so that they can get to know each other and build that psychological safety and trust. And then it’s not just about working together how you work together but also how you work individually. I spoke about deep work and how it’s really important for individuals to know how they work best and also carve out that time for individual working so that they can master what they do and just have that time to think.

You know we spoke about meetings – actually building team habits and building routines is just too much about what you what you don’t do as much as what you create. And Asana, the product company that I spoke to about earlier, the ones that see culture as a product they realise that collaboration was starting to kind of overtake the way they were working together it was kind of having an impact on productivity. So they decided to bring in this principle called no meeting Wednesdays where they Every Wednesday they advised and gave this principle that there would be no informal meetings on a Wednesday and everyone would clear their diary and that day was a day that everyone was able to engage in deep work over to get their concentrated work done. That wasn’t enforced. And if those kind of an urgent external meeting then then that the workers at Asana could go for that. But the idea was Wednesdays which was reserved for deep work and focused work. Another one which I love is Dropbox’s ‘Armeetingeddon’ and so they decided that meetings were just completely overtaking their calendars really having an impact on their productivity. So one day they just decided to delete all recurring meetings and make sure that there were no recurring meetings that happened over two weeks. And it was a bit of a struggle for the workers but eventually they realized that every meeting that they called they would think more specifically more intentionally about whether that meeting was needed. So again, building habits, not just about building habits but also reviewing the habits and the routines that you have that might not be serving their purpose anymore and redesigning them to make sure they work. And there’s also stuff you can do about physical space as well – can you use your physical space to encourage collaborative behaviours. This is something that Apple has been become very well known for designing and their offices so that people have to me on their way to the toilet so we make way for a spontaneous conversation. Is there something that you can do in your office that makes the work that you do more transparent shows the creativity of everybody encourages people to have those informal conversations.

I’ve given you loads and loads of examples there, but the whole point is you don’t copy these models. You don’t try to replicate things because as I mentioned, every team is an individual, every team is made up of a group of people that have their own ways of work in their own expertise. You bring that together in the team that forms their own team culture and then you’ve got the context of the projects or the work they’re working on, it creates its own dynamics. So take inspiration from them but don’t copy them. The way that you would design is if you look at designing team habits routines and rituals as a creative task. So thinking back to Asana viewing their culture as a product in the same way that you design your products for your users and your customers your design and your ways of working for your team. We’re thinking about the user experience to thinking about the user journey where all the touch points and where we work together how can we optimise those points of collaboration to enable us all to do our best work to thrive in our in the work that we’re doing. And you’re experimenting as well, this isn’t something that you set in stone. It’s something that you kind of need to have a flexible approach to.

So how do you change behaviour? One step at a time – you start small you know when you’re trying to develop your own habits. Think about the old habits, when you’re trying to change your own behaviour perhaps going to the gym more, drinking more water, and you know if you try to set yourself a task that’s too big and then you’re going to fail. But if you start small with tiny tiny little steps that don’t fit in anyone but are going to have a massive impact. So starting with your meetings for example a small aspect of your meeting. That’s the way to to get this behaviour change rolling. So you design your habits. You know it’s a cyclical process you design your habits and then you need to test them. You know this is experimental. You don’t know that it’s going to work in the same way that you test your products with your users, you’re testing these ways of working with your team as well. Testing what works. You’re reviewing it and then you’re iterating on it as well you’re kind of figuring out what works and capturing that information and then changing it as you go along. And it’s a cyclical process. As I said at the beginning teams are changing constantly we’re working in more dynamic teams with calling our teams more flexible, autonomous. That’s the same way that we need to kind of approach the way that we work together as well. So question to you know what habits do you need to make or break to build your high performing team.

Just a quick summary of what I’ve discussed. You know teamwork is changing and with that our attitude towards teamwork must change as well. And what that takes is having a design mindset, taking a design approach and a facilitative approach to the way that we change behaviour and the way that we work together. It can start with your meetings. Massive impact can be made through your meetings, meetings really do inform the culture of your company and your organisation. And think about how you might build what I call a workshop culture as well. How do you move towards making your culture more collaborative by taking inspiration from the way that you meet more collaboratively? And creating better team habits.

So just to finish you know. Everything that I’ve spoken about is nothing to do with the work that you do. It’s all about talking about how you work together. High performing teams discuss constantly the way that they work together. And it seems seem so simple but it’s very difficult to implement in practice. But to start it off you just need to start with a conversation. Thank you very much.

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Audience Member: Thanks very much Alison, I really enjoyed that and lots of good reminders here. We’re a remote company and so we get asked all the time how do we get worked on when we’re all spread over different time zones and Slack and so on so forth. I wondered what experience you’ve got applying some of that thought process to remote teams?

Alison Coward: So my experience with remote teams is that teams that are in place that work in the same space have to design the way they work. But remote teams have to be even more intentional about that. And so having more conversations, making more effort to stay in communication. Probably sort of over communicating and over meeting almost, making space for those informal discussions because again remote teams haven’t got the opportunity to bump into each other as we go into the toilet. So actually making space in the calendar for times when you’re just getting on to have those informal chit chat. Two things that I would say are key to an effective team is communication. So be intentional about that and build in that culture of trust and psychological safety. And particularly with even more with the right team. So what are the things that you can do to encourage your team members to build trust and trust each other.

Audience Member: Hi I’d like to expand on that question actually with remote teams. Slack was mentioned. What do you think about child communications. Because over a few years will one from everyone loving Slack to everyone hating Slack using all the notification possible. So what is in your opinion the right balance between synchronous and asynchronous communication is it better in Asana for example versus like on what is the right balance.

Alison Coward: So for me I mean I have a love hate relationship with tools and Slack as well. And I think the challenge for me with tools is that often tools are created and then they’re imposed onto a team and the team is told like right now you’ve got work in this way. And my preference when I’m working with teams as they say is to start from where the team is and how they like to work – what do they need to get done together – and then finding the right tools that work for that team. And so it may not be Slack I mean it may be something like Google Docs it may be actually in how works best for us because that’s what we need. And it may be that every now and again you need to get onto a conference call. But actually as I say, standing back looking at what you need to get done who is on the team, what are the touch points, what do you need to do together where do you need to meet. What types of conversations do you need to have and then bring in the tool that works for that for that team specifically.

Audience Member: Etsy’s culture of sharing failures. This reminded me of something and I think it’s worth sharing with everybody. There’s a thing called a failure swap shop or a failure workshop. And the basic idea is that you get a bunch of people into a room and then you go round the room and everybody stands up and says Hello my name is X and I failed and then everybody cheers. And then you share everything that’s happened it’s a lot of fun and you learn an immense amount from it. That’s all.

Audience Member: What are some of the red lines that you would draw and say you cannot cross those before getting rid of people in your concept.

Alison Coward: Could you give me a bit more context?

Audience Member: So I mean you’re talking about a lot of collaborative work for example and say everyone is obviously different but this whole concept only works if the team ultimately performs. So how do you got the flip side of some of the concepts that you outlined so if you hit those that if you did portraying those types of behaviours you’re out you’re not really be part of this team. What are they?

Alison Coward: Well top one, being an a***hole. Quite frankly. You know for me it goes back to that question I put out to you about the 10 times performer that’s not a team player. That 10 times performer might give you results in the short term but when that 10 time performer goes onto their next role and leaves you’ve got a team that you’ve got a fix because they’ve got low morale. And something that I didn’t mention my talk was the idea of a collaboration being a skill and teams can get better at working together. So for me I’m much more of the school of spending time encouraging collaboration rather than catering to kind of ‘A players’ that don’t work well in a team. So that would be my kind of red line. And also, the team need to work out the ways of working together themselves. They need to be involved in that design process and as part of that design process you can ask the team or what behaviour do we need to exhibit in order to work well together. You get the team to create the norms themselves. And then when somebody acts out when you’ve got your kind of team charter and it’s like well holding that we all agree to this. We all agreed that we would do this or we wouldn’t do this. What’s going on? It’s much better to kind of work with the team. You know everyone knows what good collaboration and bad collaboration looks like if you ask them just have a conversation about it.

Audience Member: I really enjoyed your talk and so much content. You didn’t mention psychometrics. And I’m curious whether that was for deliberate reasons because they are controversial obviously.

Alison Coward: It wasn’t deliberate sometimes I do. I think that psychometric testing is useful to a point and it’s useful to the point in creating self-awareness and starting to help people to understand that people work in different ways. And where I don’t find it helpful is where people use it as an excuse to be a bit crappy towards other people so you know the Myers-Briggs for example. I think I’m an INTJ. And I meant to be very very difficult. So you know I’m an INTJ, I’m meant to be difficult – you’ve got to deal with it doesn’t it doesn’t work for me so I think that they’re good to a point in helping people to show that there’s a variety and diverse ways of working on the team. But using that to pigeonhole people I find not useful.

Audience Member: I was wondering whether you had any ideas about how to deal with noise between teams. You know open planned spaces that are like a noisy.

Alison Coward: Could you give me some context?

Audience Member: So you’re dealing with the physical space challenges if you have lots of teams packed into a large open plan space. We have teams that complain about noise and we’re looking at various options to deal with it. I was curious if you have any examples where that’s been solved.

Alison Coward: Yeah. So my thoughts is working with the team and figuring out what they need. You know for some people and you know there’s differences in the way that people work so very kind of classic extrovert/introverts. Extroverts like the sound kind of like to be in a social environment and introverts need to get quiet. It may be worth speaking to individuals on your team and say okay what where do you what do you need in order to do your best work and start to kind of create ways around it rather than again imposing ways of working on them. Have conversations with them. Sometimes it might be that somebody needs to just get out of the office for an hour and go to the local cafe and have a chat. And sometimes it may be that you know there’s a big group of people that need to do unfocused and focused work but be in the same vicinity so maybe you need to develop an area in your office that is for quiet work. Maybe you have norms like you know when we put headphones on where not to be interrupted that’s kind of like a little code for let’s you know work in silence. There’s lots of different ways but I think it starts with a conversation, with talking to your team about what they want and what would work for them. How do you how do you do your best work would be the question to ask.

Audience Member: Can one person effectively work in more than one team at the same time?

Alison Coward: I mean it happens. Yes but that individual has to be extremely self-aware of their own productivity. I mean it’s this kind of time management isn’t it. It’s managing yourself so if you’re working on multiple projects then you need to be able to manage that balance across those projects and manage the time that you allocate to them. So again it goes back to – all of this starts with self-awareness understanding how you do your best work understanding you know am I an early bird and do I get my kind of best chunk of work done in the morning. Am I you know a night owl. Do I work better late in the day. Do I work in the vicinity of people do I need to go off and having that awareness of yourself is what will enable people to work across multiple teams. It’s challenging. It’s a challenge but it’s something that we’re all having to face now.

Audience Member: I really liked the comment you made about the two pizza teams size so keeping them small so the relationships work. But I’m interested to hear your thoughts around the collaboration between teams.

Alison Coward: Again could you give me a little context.

Audience Member: So keep the team small. You’re going to end up with more teams. Teams need to work together. That’s a whole different level of collaboration.

Alison Coward: Yeah. So for me the same rules apply. You know you’ve got a team which has its own identity and that will create their own ways of work. You’ve got another team that has its own identity. In order for those teams to work together, it starts with a conversation. How do we work in. What do we need to do. It starts with both of those teams having an empathy and a respect for the other team and understanding what those what each team brings and why they’re working together.

Audience Member: Where do you start the change? A team of size like 15 or an office of size 100.

Alison Coward: That’s where to start. Yeah it’s intentional. I would say. Yeah.

Mark Littlewood: Thank you very much indeed. Alison incredible. I’ll need to run that one back in slow motion to get all of those wisdom nuggets.

Alison Coward
Alison Coward

Alison Coward

Alison Coward is founder of consulting and facilitation agency Bracket, helping teams in the creative and technology sector to collaborate better and improve their performance.

Her client list includes Fortune 500 companies, startups, charities and public institutions. She is a strategist, trainer and workshop facilitator and the author of “A Pocket Guide to Effective Workshops”. With over 15 years’ experience of working in, leading and facilitating creative teams, Alison is passionate about finding the perfect balance between creativity and productivity. She gave a talk about Designing High-Performing Teams at BoS Europe 2018.

More from Alison.

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