Two years ago, a few of us on the Design Research team at Dropbox set out to better understand the qualities of highly collaborative teams. We spent time in cancer research laboratories, university classrooms, music venues, and in the offices and workspaces of many different kinds of organizations observing and interviewing groups that were exceptional at some aspect of collaborative work. These were teams who called each other friends or, in some cases, family. They had enviable working relationships and through their partnerships made tangible impacts in their organizations and communities.
As the days unfolded, we started to notice an interesting practice many of these teams had in common. Namely, these teams were making their own group norms shared and explicit—defining the ways they wanted to be at work and with each other—by co-creating social contracts.
This wasn’t about culture fit — each of these teams had different values and norms. Rather, this was about culture making — the way these groups were taking an active role in shaping and making their own culture.
Enter the team contract
When we came back from this research trip, we started to ask ourselves what would happen if we viewed social contracts as products designed around our needs as a group. What if we engaged in the same discovery, prototyping, testing, and iteration processes that we use to create any product or service, except as a means to develop and strengthen our working relationships?
Since 2017, we’ve been exploring these questions with various teams within Dropbox and beyond. We’ve created a toolkit and facilitated dozens of groups to design their own social contracts. Next month the design team will be launching several Culture Kits — tools that can support you to facilitate the making and shaping of your own culture.
One of those kits, the Team Values Toolkit, is one we’d love to share with you today. The toolkit includes a set of several activities, with instructions that can lead you and your team toward the development of shared values and norms.
Become a values-first team
Creating a team social contract is a way to co-determine and align on your team’s values and working practices: how you want to communicate, make decisions, share information, and support each other. It’s a way to set a better foundation for your team to prosper, based on shared understanding and purpose.
Team collaboration styles and work habits often develop organically rather than intentionally. Processes and interactions formed by most people on a team might not always include everyone. When teams are disjointed around values, energy, or focus, misunderstandings can lead to missed opportunities to connect and thrive.
As we work to make our workplaces inclusive places where people of diverse backgrounds and working styles can flourish, we need to find new ways to give voice to what matters, share power, and co-define our culture.
We believe designing and aligning on shared team contracts, in concert with participatory culture making, is one way we can take shared responsibility for making our work cultures more inclusive. It requires us to update our ideas about what counts as “work” and make space for the development and cultivation of relationships alongside our work tasks, by acknowledging the legitimacy of giving voice to our unique values and working styles.
It’s not always easy work but we believe the products we make and the companies we build will benefit from developing a capacity to make our teams and working cultures more inclusive and aligned.
The Team Values Toolkit is free, adaptable, and made for anyone who wants to make work better. We share our tools to empower and equip you to shape your own work culture.
Download here → instructions + cards
We’re curious to know: how will you take personal ownership of defining and co-creating your partnerships? Let us know what you uncover when you use the toolkit with your team.
Thank you to Julie Hawke, Nicole Lavelle, Michelle Morrison, Andrea Drugay, and the Dropbox Brand Studio for being phenomenal collaborators and working to make these toolkits public. Thank you to David Peter Simon for sharpening and sharing these ideas with me at Smashing Conference.