Transform your Team with These Six Tweaks

Try these tiny ideas and see huge impacts on your next project.

In these first few weeks studying Digital Experience Design at Hyper Island, I’ve been collecting this list of simple yet juicy team-building practices for experience designers. Though my context is design, these methods can be applied to any team endeavor.

Be a collaboration scientist: test these techniques and observe how things change. Keep tweaking and testing to taste.

1. Set a Culture.

Was your team culture designed, or did it just happen? Team culture can dictate success, especially in creative projects. Luckily, culture is something that can be intentionally crafted. It doesn’t take much more than a conversation. I have been amazed by the power of simply stating an intention out loud and in public—it starts to become real very fast.

The “hand tool” exercise we use to help us talk about ourselves

At Hyper, we start every group project with a culture design session, which takes us about 3 hours. The way we’ve been doing it is to first discuss ourselves as individuals: what are each of our personal needs, goals, and annoyances? We’ve been using a simple little mnemonic we call the “hand tool” to facilitate this.

Once we’ve gotten to know each other with the hand tool, we transition into a discussion of the larger team: what are our team goals, values and rules?For this we use a tool (made by Hyper alums) called Team Canvas. You can autograph your finished canvas as a symbol of your commitment to what’s been discussed.

Team canvas (basic version shown here) is a great way to facilitate a culture-design session

These tools are so deceptively simple. I urge you not to dismiss them as a waste of time. When your team hits inevitable obstacles and conflicts, the value of an early culture-design session will become very clear.

2. Respect the rules, but not too much.

“In hell there will be nothing but Law, and due process will be meticulously observed.” —Grant Gilmore

Now that you’ve created a culture (transparency! humor! trust!) and agreed on team rules (snacks at every meeting! no emails after 9!) you’re officially ready to start questioning and breaking the rules.

I love Mike Arauz’s talk where he points out that excessive rule-following is actually an official sabotage technique of the CIA. Without inbuilt flexibility and ability to adapt to ever-changing conditions, even the best process will become an impediment. Be open to mid-flight changes and iteration.

3. Always be externalizing.

For better harmony in teams, team members can practice regularly externalizing their thoughts and feelings to keep others from guessing and worrying about what might be on their mind.

Right now your brain might be cynically imagining the extreme version of this—a table full of adult colleagues childishly externalizing their every thought: “I want lunch,”I think you’re pretty,” “I have to poop.”

Stop imagining that scenario, because it’s not what I’m talking about. What I am talking about is that feeling when someone in a meeting is leaning back in their chair the whole time making grouchy faces, yet refusing to tell anyone what’s on their mind. Or those times when someone’s body language is saying “no, yuck, hate it” even though with verbal language they’ve just said “sure, no problem.”

Is gray shirt guy silently judging me, or just thinking about something else? (Flickr CC-SA via basictheory)

These are ideal moments to simply externalize: “I don’t like that idea because it reminds me of an awful project I worked on last year,” or “I’m distracted today because my teenage kid is acting up.” Isn’t it so much better to share (not overshare, just share) what’s behind our mysterious faces? This way, nobody around you has to guess or worry.

I am prone to “angry thinking face.” I look angry when I’m thinking. I deal with this not by trying to change my natural face, but instead by encouraging my team members to simply ask me “what’s up?” if they ever think I look weird or mad. It really works!

And when I am the one worrying, I feel greatly relieved when I simply externalize it. When I am in the opposite position trying to guess someone else’s worry, I feel greatly relieved after that person externalizes. Externalizing your thoughts is a win-win.

4. Follow your fire.

When you get inspired, excited, fired up about something — you should totally go for it in whatever way feels right. The same rule applies if one of your teammates is all excited about exploring, say, the parallels between endoplasmic reticula function and your software development roadmap. Everyone should be encouraged to follow their fire.

This is not a new idea; we’ve seen it in Google’s famous (albeit defunct) 20% time and Etsy’s extracurricular office meetups on everything from needle felting to Arduino.

Awesome ideas happen when something jumps from the churning waters of your subconscious into the open air of your “real work,” like a salmon leaping skyward from the tumult of a rushing river. Bill Moggridge, my design hero, really emphasized the idea of the subconscious in professional creative work. I agree with him that there’s something bubbling under the surface of our thoughts at all times, and the intuition required for innovative design comes from this deep place.

What does the subconscious have to do with this idea of follow your fire?

If something’s itching you or exciting you in a way that doesn’t seem to make sense, it could be subconscious intelligence at play.

Let’s say your team is researching habits of millennial music-lovers. And for some reason you have this lightbulb in your brain telling you to get to the nearest seaport and interview a few lighthouse-keepers. Go do that, even if it doesn’t make total logical sense. IDEO calls this analogous inspiration.

An IDEO design team went scuba diving as inspiration for a healthcare project investigating anesthetic gas. Image from Matt Cooper-Wright.

Let’s say you have a natural affinity for big data. Even if your team is not as passionate as you about the beauty of graphs, you should still get to follow that fire independently. Your team doesn’t always need to come with you. Just circle back later with a summary of what you’ve discovered out there on your own. Always follow your fire.

5. Prototype through conflict.

Conversation going nowhere? Having trouble agreeing on the next step? Stop mincing words and turn to prototyping. This is a cousin concept of follow your fire, because it’s about doing instead of wondering, discussing or predicting.

Once you have prototypes of all your competing options, the next step will become much clearer to all involved.

If your team gets to a situation where you’re arguing over what idea to try, ask yourself: is it necessary to choose right now? It may be a totally false assumption that only one idea can make it forward to testing.

Prototyping doesn’t need to be a huge undertaking — it can be done in a scaled-down way that takes a day or less. Gill Wildman calls this idea “just enough prototyping.”

Prototyping doesn’t require tons of time, money, equipment or special skills.

Say “yes, and,” instead of “no, because.” Just try all the ideas. Be willing to be proven wrong and persuaded otherwise. Learn to enjoy being proved wrong, because how else will you learn? Be like a little kid launching a homemade fleet of boats into a murky puddle, genuinely curious to see which ones will float.

6. Leave no one behind.

A person left behind collects interest: you will pay for it eventually. A small qualm expressed today can quickly metastasize into total disillusionment and disengagement. Yes, discussing and exploring everyone’s misgivings about things can definitely feel like a waste of time. However, the sum total energy expenditure will be greater if your team doesn’t address its internal fears and hesitations early in the process.

As tiny hesitations mushroom into major disagreements, team members will drop out, disconnect, become unproductive and even sabotage the project.

So invite the questions, qualms and doubts with care and openness while you still can.

Doubts have value too. They can grow into insights for improving an idea. When the team feels invited to express their honest reactions to ideas, you may discover hidden problems or opportunities. So take the time to hear it all out.

And if you’re the one who has a qualm, express it!

I hope you’ll bravely give these little methods and tips a try! If this is drastically new territory for your team, I recommend taking them on just one at a time.

If you’re worried that your team will reject these ideas, consider suggesting them as an easy one-week trial instead of an indefinite commitment. People are generally more comfortable with a quick and easy experiment than they are with a grandiose master plan.

I would love to hear how these techniques work out for you. Drop me a line in the comments!