Toxicity and Creative Flow, Part II

Product teams and how they work

In Toxicity and Creative Flow, Part I, I discussed how understanding, caring about individuals and trusting your team allow great leaders to facilitate creative flow. For product teams, a constant flow of creativity relies on behaviours which eliminate toxicity. I’ve been collecting thoughts about this over the last few years, knowing that in the not-too-distant-future I may be leading a team myself.

On Wikipedia, Toxicity is “used to describe toxic effects on larger and more complex groups, such as the family unit or society at large. Sometimes the word is more or less synonymous with poisoning in everyday usage.”

Toxicity is the biggest reason that I’ve seen teams fail. It’s the worst roadblock for a team which is striving to make great products and services in a continuous creative flow — more than any other factor or deficit including time, skills, people, and money, toxicity destroys productivity. Toxicity it is a poisonous barrier between people, it blocks ideas, and stalls problem solving. One day, you’ll notice that fear and frustration are the main things driving the team:

So how can your team avoid reaching a “toxic moment”?

Yes—read all the books. Learn about good processes. Learn about team dynamics. Learn about personality types. Hone your “soft” skills. Always use positivity to push for creative flow over toxic behaviours. Below are a few ideas which have helped my previous teams overcome toxic moments:

1) Communication.

Communication is the essential ground upon which creative flow thrives. Fractured communication makes a team slow and stupid and results in isolated knowledge, duplicate work and passive aggression. If you’ve experienced any of these problems, you understand why it’s important for people to continue to feel encouraged to ask questions that lead to shared understanding. Don’t be intimidated to ask someone to clarify their point of view. It can be tricky to confront an individual and ask them to qualify their opinion — they often become defensive of their position.

But if you don’t try, individuals become isolated and inspiration is lost in short-sighted strategies and information silos.

If facilitated in a positive way, individuals can be given the important opportunity to share their “truth.” Communicating how you feel or “telling it like it is” can be hard for women in leadership*, especially, who fear being perceived as “too loud”, “too bossy”, or “too whiny”.

When in doubt, over-communicate. People cannot read your mind. Be direct — don’t be afraid. For a team to understand your truth, you’re going to have to communicate it! Only then can a product team have a shared perception of a problem, or a consistent path to a solution. In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg says your truth should be shared in a manner that is succinct (less is more), appropriate and authentic.

2) Collaborate intelligently.

Collaboration forever = :( 
Reasons for collaboration include: fostering shared vision, building products democratically, and encouraging ideas from all disciplines at every stage. Promoting collaboration assumes that all the ideas are better than only some of the ideas.

But be careful with that logic; a million ideas will never be as good as one finished product in the hands of users. Understanding the impact of your idea can only come from finishing and releasing something into the wild.

Collaborate in a structured way. Pick a structure, stick to a schedule, find balance within your time and budget constraints. Get feedback from everyone. Put your work on the wall. Hold a team “huddle”. Create a team wiki. Whatever works for your team — it is worth trying a few things to find the right solution. Until those methods stop working, and toxicity creeps in — then try something new!

3) Learn from failures (and successes!)

No looking back means no moving forward. Retrospective conversations are useful for both interpersonal reasons and managing bottlenecks in a team’s creative flow. They are a great way to facilitate group learning regardless of a team’s shape or size. Also—because no process is perfect — they help bring about iterative process improvements. Even Spotify’s amazing process videos say they are “probably going to be doing it differently by the time you watch [their] video.”
Good retrospectives are easy to organise. The best ones are simple in structure. What went well? What didn’t go well? What are we going to do going forward? Camaraderie, a motivation for change, and trackable actions should be the ultimate goal of every retrospective — no matter the format!

4) Define accountabilities and share responsibilities.

Disguised roles and lack of accountability mean people’s natural instincts take over and this will bite you in the ass.

You might recognise this type of banter, spoken (or often unspoken):

“…but that’s my job!” “No, it’s mine!”
“What is this meeting actually about?” “This is such a waste of MY time.”
“So I hear he’s working on X…” “Do you know what he actually does all day?”

This toxicity can mean whoever speaks the loudest, acts the meanest — or is the boss’ favourite — gets heard. In the typical RASCI or RACI models, the responsible party is the person or group who are executing the work, they’re not necessarily accountable — “ultimately answerable for the correct and thorough completion of the deliverable or task.” When accountability is clear, responsible parties can own their work better. An individual contributor might become more accountable for his work, or an accountable manager will get involved in envisioning solutions alongside her team.

My ideal team would have a flat structure, with flexible roles and shared responsibilities. Who cares who is doing the work — just work together and get shit done! Product titles and roles were defined to assign accountability, and they’re always shifting anyway. Cross-functional teams are all the rage in the tech industry right now (Allan Berger wrote a great article about why). It’s mainly because sharing responsibilities helps teams release faster and smarter. It’s naive to believe that a specific team structure or process will resolve all role conflicts.

A combination of clearly defined accountabilities, flexible role definition, and respectful communication eliminate toxicity and drive creative flow.

What I still don’t know

I don’t have all the answers to building creative flow. I have experienced it on a number of teams, lost it, and found it again. Here are two questions surrounding the topic of team toxicity which I’d love to throw out into the ether of the interwebs:

  1. Passion and motivation are like ice sculptures. They are continuously melting or on the verge of being lost, and so beautiful. People responsible for driving motivational energy on teams are not necessarily admired, nor are they regularly rewarded. What are the best methods for preserving and safeguarding passion and motivation on your team?
  2. Shared vision is crucial, but sometimes you have to “get shit done” and sacrifice the greater vision for a short-term win. So how do you best group-hug your way back to harmonious team “Kumbaya”?
  3. *Women leaders who have to communicate your truth: Do you have to tell hard things to a team mostly made up of men? What have been your challenges and successes?

I have been part of teams that have come out of toxicity and into a creative flow when they begin to communicate and understand one another. Contrastingly, I’ve seen individuals leave a team, one by one, because toxicity. Product development processes are ever-changing and many work to varying degrees of success; each team must define a what works best for them! However, the specific processes are less important than attitudes and practices teams employ to eliminate toxicity.

Thanks for reading, I’m new to Medium. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments, or find me on twitter: Meg Porter