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Turning People into Teams

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Collaborative strategies work when they're designed by teams—where each person is heard, valued, and held accountable. This book is a practical guide for project team leaders and individual contributors who want their teams to play by a better set of rules.

Today's teams want more alignment among their members, better decision-making processes, and a greater sense of ownership over their work. This can be easy, even fun, if you have the right rituals.

Rituals are group activities during which people go through a series of behaviors in a specific order. They give teams the ability to create a collective point of view and reshape the processes that affect their day-to-day work. In Turning People into Teams, you'll find dozens of practical rituals for finding a common purpose at the beginning of a project, getting unstuck when you hit bottlenecks or brick walls, and wrapping things up at the end and moving on to new teams.

Customizable for any industry, work situation, or organizational philosophy, these rituals have been used internationally by many for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. By implementing just a few of these rituals, a team can capture the strengths of each individual for incredible results, making choices together that matter.

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Introduction: Shared Rituals and Routines Turn People into Teams

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Shared Rituals and Routines Turn People into Teams

Great teams aren’t built person by person. They’re built behavior by behavior.

Leaders know that improved teamwork—and the behaviors that surround it—is a critical factor in employee engagement, retention, inclusion, and empowerment. They’ve read the results from Google’s Project Aristotle, which encourages the modeling of behaviors with workplace teams to create increased psychological safety, dependability, structure, and clarity. IBM Smarter Workforce Institute puts it another way: Leaders should be offering their employees opportunities to participate in decision-making and trust them with the autonomy to find the best paths to achieving success.

But when we talk directly with leaders and their teams, no one asks us about any of that. Everyone knows the benefits of things like clarity, dependability, teamwork, and collaboration. It’s the specifics that aren’t clear, leading teams to ask us: How do we get those things?

 

Start the Team by Talking about the Team

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Unknown quantities. That’s what we are to each other when we’re starting on a team. We’re sitting around the proverbial table, drinking our favorite coffee or tea, but none of these hot beverages will wash away our jitters. Who are these people? How do I want to work with them? And how are they going to best work with me? If these questions aren’t answered right away, we start to make assumptions about what’s best for ourselves and others—and those assumptions are usually wrong.

We encourage every team to conduct one of the following rituals before they kick off a project. By using these rituals in advance of formally starting projects, team members can get to know each other better as people, find shared points of connection, and begin to develop norms for how they want to work together before they feel the pressures of their work.

Because these rituals happen at the outset, this is the opportunity to clearly communicate to your future teammates the reasons why you’re taking the time to conduct them. Likewise, after performing these rituals, be sure to conduct any necessary follow-up conversations before you prepare for the project kickoff.

 

What Problem Are We Trying to Solve?

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Imagine you’re back in that kickoff meeting, munching on one of those delicious cookies. Now, skip to the second day of the kickoff, where a senior executive stands in front of the team and shares the actual project goal. It’s something along these lines:

We need a new website. We need better communication about our bread delivery service. Based on our competitive analysis, here’s the content and the list of features that we have to include. We’ll go live before the holiday rush.

We’re here to select and implement a new billing system for our finance department. It needs to be ready by Q3, before we do the majority of our billings.

The CEO went to a wellness retreat, and now he wants us to develop a healthy eating program for all of the employees.

The implicit message that the team is receiving: This work is critical. We know what we’re here to do. The goal’s been figured out. Now let’s show some hustle. But in these situations, we rarely ask the important question: Why is this project really happening? And the question behind that question is: What problem are we trying to solve?

 

What Does Success Look Like?

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To succeed or not to succeed? That is the question. Success is a loaded word, and it means different things to people across an organization.

Each person on a cross-functional team is a representative of a department. You might have two engineers, a researcher, a designer, and maybe one or two folks from data science or marketing. Each department has its own skills, rules, and standards. Every person will be looking at success for your project with a different set of eyes. If you take the usual approach, looking for an overall success metric to unite the team, you’re going to end up with something like: “We’re successful if the product sells.” But that won’t satisfy everyone for long.

Instead, think of success less like a North Star and more like a constellation, with a star for each person on the team. Some stars are bright and obvious, easy to track and monitor, appealing and recognizable from all levels of the company. The brightest star usually gets priority—let’s be honest, it’s the one that makes the most money. Unfortunately, this bright star obsession has led to an explosion of terrible products on the market, burning teams and sometimes entire companies to the ground during their short yet brilliant lifespan.

 

Plan the Kickoff with Your Team

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A project kickoff can often seem like it’s more for those not on the day-to-day team. We suffer through the bad PowerPoint presentations and cold coffee, and our input is usually solicited in the last few hours of the meeting with a halfhearted “Any questions?” What’s the antidote to these one-sided kickoffs? Invite your team to help create the kickoff they want.

Organizations use kickoff meetings to accomplish different goals. No matter the aim, every team should be given the opportunity to step up and contribute to their project kickoff in a meaningful way. There are many benefits to taking this approach. Your team will be able to:

Pool all the relevant information and knowledge that they have. There are always things an individual team member knows that could be relevant for the entire team.

Prioritize what information can be shared in advance. This can save everyone valuable time and lead to more collaboration time in the kickoff itself.

 

Create the Right Kind of Conflict

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It’s amazing the lengths that people will go to avoid an argument. This is unfortunate. When we’re invested in the work we’re doing, we’re more likely to stand up for our beliefs and what’s best for our project. If we move too quickly from argument to agreement, the quality of what our team is creating may suffer.

But it’s how we stand up for those beliefs, and how we negotiate conflict as a team, that can be challenging for everyone involved. While conflict can be a loaded word in many work cultures, conflict isn’t always a bad thing. If we disagree with someone on our team, it means we have to be ready for debate, for challenging other people’s opinions just as much as our own. These behaviors are rarely comfortable, and the rules of engagement aren’t always clear.

In this chapter we’ll provide a set of rituals and activities that focus on situations where it’s likely you and your team will come into conflict: how you deliver and receive critical feedback on your team’s work and how your team is working. In the next chapter we’ll provide rituals that help teams move from handling that feedback to making critical decisions together.

 

This Decision Should Be Easier

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Decision-making. Why is it so hard? People. People aren’t always rational. Or good listeners. We struggle with other people’s input on our work. And we can be conflict-averse. So we go around and around on decisions, both large and small. Consider these examples.

Frieda makes a major project decision over the weekend—and her teammates are not happy about it. Their next meeting is tense: She should have waited. There were better options. She’d cut them out. They want to change it.

Jeff and Lora keep debating how revising one tiny project detail could end up having huge consequences down the line. This single decision drags on for weeks, with the rest of the team waiting around for Jeff and Lora to figure it out. Before they know it, the project drifts into the danger zone.

In this chapter, we’re going to share a series of rituals that provide your team with a traceable and repeatable process for making tough decisions together. These rituals will help your team reason their way to high-confidence decisions, and better debate and incorporate each other’s input along the way. These rituals follow the same process:

 

Putting Our Ideas to the Test

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This idea is going to work. Something’s broken on our team, and we’ve got Just the Right Thing to fix it. We know it.

But that’s idealism talking. Ideas don’t fix problems. People do. But people are also the ones contributing to the problems, remember? We’re dealing with the complexity of human beings in all of their beautiful and stubborn glory. So your fantastic idea may lead to reactions you hadn’t intended.

You’ll need to be more experimental about it. Flash back to learning about chemistry in school. Donning rubber gloves and safety goggles, you mixed caustic liquids in a beaker dangling over a hot flame, trying to prove a basic hypothesis about what happens when you mix elements. Then the entire mixture frothed all over the tabletop, destroying your binder and spilling onto your favorite pair of sneakers.

Yes, experiments are the basis of how we apply the scientific method. However, experimenting with change on your team is more volatile than you might think, because your team members are both designing the experiment and participating in it.

 

Reflecting as a Team

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We learn a lot when we’re working on teams—what we want, what we don’t want, how to adapt and succeed. But we rarely share these insights with others, and teams never seem to have enough time for reflection as a group. When they do, it’s usually because things went wrong. And in our rush to fix things, we often end up breaking what’s going right.

This is understandable. After all, we’re at work, and reflection sometimes feels too personal, too intimate. We’ve heard from some teams that, at their company, reflection just means “sitting around and talking.” Reflection isn’t productive.

But that isn’t true. Productivity is equal parts doing what we said we’d do and reflecting on the most efficient and effective ways to get those things done. Teams can only improve if they take time for reflection, then fold what they’ve learned back into their process and projects.

The following rituals help teams reflect on their project experiences, no matter whether they are midproject or edging toward the big finish. Team members can use these rituals to create a space for sharing perspectives and feedback, whether things are going well or not. These rituals are often used by organizations that work on Agile or Scrum software development teams. You might hear them called “retrospectives” or “retros.” Whatever their name, these rituals can help any team that wants to develop a habit of reflection. As such, we have adapted them for use with any project-oriented team.

 

Talking about Accomplishment

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Congratulations. You’re about to wrap up your big project and share all of the great work that your team has done. The quality of your team’s work speaks for itself. This should be easy, right? While we wish this were the case, teams often finish projects without considering how to communicate their work’s impact on their organization and the world at large.

By now, your team has an immense amount of knowledge. They probably know more than anyone else in your organization about the problems you’ve solved. Do they know how to talk about it? Are they sharing the right information with the right people?

Teams should be deliberate about how they talk about their accomplishments. When done well, your project communication can influence future priorities in your organization. You know you’re doing a good job of sharing your team’s work efforts when others begin to make decisions and build project plans around them. In this chapter we’ll share two rituals that will help your team do just that.

 

Endings Matter

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The audience starts clapping. Then they stand, whooping and hollering with delight. The team comes to the front of the stage and takes a bow. Fireworks explode, blue and green starbursts filling the night sky. Then the team is treated to a lavish meal, while painters immortalize them in portraits that will line the walls of your corporate headquarters.

If only every project could end like this.

We invest so much in project kickoffs and day-to-day team happiness that the endings of projects can often feel like a letdown—even when the project is wildly successful. What usually happens: Your team completes their work, your stakeholders review what you’d created, and everyone moves on to the next project with perhaps a few kudos from a senior manager. You might even get mentioned at the next big quarterly meeting, before they hand out those cookies you like. End of story.

And then there are times where projects don’t end cleanly. Your boss’s boss canceled the project. Or funding ran out. Or a competitor swooped in without warning and launched the same thing your team was building. What then? Where’s the ritual for the team that drifts on to the next priority at work, still smarting from the things they couldn’t control?

 

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