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Building a collaborative, caring, and productive team

Anthony Stonehouse
May 21, 2019 · 5 min read

It’s a well-known fact that bringing together professionals from a variety of backgrounds helps to improve process and outcomes and leads to better and quicker decision-making. Bringing them together is only the first step, however. While a team is technically operational as soon as it’s formed, at first it’s merely operating as a group of individuals rather than a team.

All teams have a set of needs that must be fulfilled and stages to work through before they unlock the full benefits of working together.

Every team member should feel comfortable bringing their whole self to work and feel psychologically safe to share their opinions, have fun, make mistakes, and ask for guidance when they need it. Also, team members must understand their role and how their skills fit into the team’s goals. All of these details can be addressed through rituals, practices, and processes that are essential for building team culture. When team culture is established, resolving conflict and making adjustments — as well as getting work done — is simpler.

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In this article, I demonstrate the process we follow when we form new teams at Atlassian. First and foremost, though: we use plays from our team playbook to help at different points, all along the way.

When team members first meet, everyone is polite. At this stage of team development, everyone looks to the team leader for guidance. Airline companies, for example, purposefully hold aircrew in this “polite stage” by rotating crew members, so they’re always in a “new” team and don’t get comfortable with one another. Ironically, this means they don’t operate as a team as effectively. But it also means they follow instructions, and that disputes and grudges don’t have time to develop. The ideal circumstance if there’s ever an emergency.

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It’s inevitable that team members become more comfortable as they spend more time together, but it takes time. At Atlassian, to control and accelerate this process, we run an ice-breaker early on. This is when personalities begin to surface. We build on this by going deeper and creating user manuals, a personal account of each team member, and how they like to work. And, as part of getting to know each other, we also run the rules of engagement play.

Once the team becomes more comfortable with each other by working together and going through the kick-off plays mentioned above, it’s normal for them to start challenging and disagreeing with decisions. We recognise this leads to varying levels of friction, but that’s a normal and healthy part of team development. When conflict arises, it’s easy to try and ignore it and pretend everything is fine, or inadvertently fuel it by siding (or seeming to) with specific team members. Both instances compound the problem, though.

So that the team can operate as one, and team members remain motivated, it’s essential to resolve conflict.

We run the roles and responsibilities and the health monitor play to understand and extract perspectives and identify the underlying conflict.

We’ve then found that the best mechanism to deal with conflict is to confront it head-on — with open feedback. Feedback is given to each team member from the entire team and focusses on recognising positive contributions along with the impact or meaning of harmful behaviour. It’s vital that this feedback focusses on behaviour so that it is detached from personal characteristics. With the feedback, we include suggestions or requests to make a change.

When there is pronounced, noticeable conflict, feedback sessions can be intimidating. This is why getting to know each other is so vital, so team members feel trust for one another to discuss the conflict, take feedback, and not get defensive. When team members trust each other feedback comes from the right place. Direct challenges are more “comfortable,” because a stronger sense of care for one another has been established. The term for this, by Kim Scott, is radical candor. At the same time, feedback accelerates team bonding, which further develops trust, because it forces collective decision-making.

We’ve found that the more times we run feedback sessions, the more comfortable the team becomes.

Our feedback sessions are run with retrospectives plays at the end of every sprint. The regular cadence creates a forum to address conflict, and ritualised sessions also help to create a sense of belonging for team members.

As conflict dissipates and trust builds, we focus on refining and measuring common goals with plays such as trade-off sliders, and goals, signals and measures. We identify personal goals that we can map to team goals. Once team members see the personal significance of what the team is producing, they become a lot more focussed and productive.

As a team, we map out the plan to achieve our goals with milestones and give ownership to each team member. We make sure we celebrate each milestone along the way. Accountability for these milestones is assigned to each team member based on their skills and passions. Gallup has shown when we leverage the strengths of individual team members, they’re six times more likely to be engaged.

The above isn’t an exhaustive list of all that is required to create a collaborative, caring and productive team. However, we do find working through the above plays and stages of team development up front provides a sound basis for us to build team culture and get our teams to a place where they can self-manage and focus on outcomes.

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Acknowledging and working through these needs and evolutionary stages, and their associated plays will help any team move from being a group of individuals to a team that trusts one another, empowered to operate autonomously and work towards shared outcomes.

From this point, team leads become team coaches, as they don’t need to provide direct oversight.

Teams should continue to run plays and enjoy activities that enable team members to get to know each other even better. In other words, it’s a continuous process. We have regular team social events, and often bring along friends and family.

Conflict arises, but with regular and open feedback, it can be resolved quickly. What’s more, it all helps to bring the team even closer together.

If you’re the new person to an established design team then Alastair Simpson has written a great guide on how to set it up for success.

Did you enjoy this post? Want more of the same? Consider following Designing Atlassian.

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