ELSE
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ELSE

MANAGING DISTRIBUTED DESIGN TEAMS & ADJUSTING TO COVID-19

CREATING A CULTURE OF PRODUCTIVITY, AUTONOMY & COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY

An empty ELSE studio

PREFACE — WHY I WROTE THIS

At the time of writing, the UK and much of the world is one or two weeks into forced isolation and remote working. I wrote this article in response to a conversation I had at a BIMA Online Roundtable, where we discussed how the digital industry might need to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.

On the call, I talked about the need for leaders of design firms to think beyond the functionality of remote working, and to consider taking the chance to rethink how we organise creative work in such a way that empowers and engages our teams during this crisis. Not only to create excellent outcomes but to ensure sustained engagement and empowerment for the well-being of our people.

Someone asked me for a link or some background reading that supported my thoughts, but I couldn’t find anything, so I decided to write something to be helpful. What I’ve written is mostly off-the-cuff, and I’d generally take a little more time in creating it, but I intend to sharpen this and add to it over the coming weeks — but I wanted to put something helpful out there as soon as possible.

As the Founder of a design consultancy, I genuinely believe that there is lots of good to come from the situation that the industry finds itself in, and I hope that how we work will change for the better.

By scrambling these thoughts together, hopefully, I’m putting something out there to help design leaders think about our new world of work in a positive way — a world of work which empowers teams to create a deeper connection with what we do as design businesses. That not only sustainably produces excellent creative work, but does so in such a way that it energises and motivates both individuals and teams, despite the reduction in quality face-time and workplace contact.

I will no-doubt refine and restructure this over time, revisiting it based on actually proofreading(!) and through any constructive feedback, I might receive. So if some of the references, examples or concepts are a little verbose, please bear with me.

If you manage to get through this and the some of the supporting reference materials, I hope that you’ll have some good starters for:

  • Organising your team around goals and therefore give them increased purpose and autonomy
  • Sustaining a creative and productive culture with a distributed team

OK, LET’S BEGIN…

The way we work changed this week as we have to improve where we work and how.

While the first stage of this new adjustment is practical, getting teams set-up to function, the next step has to be optimising the situation to do ‘good work’. Work that not only produces excellent outcomes but that also feels good to the teams who do it.

As leaders, we have two immediate challenges that go beyond the functional:

  • The first is to make sure our teams can perform, feel engaged, empowered and, to steal a phrase from Matt Clarke, ‘switched-on’.
  • The second, to rethink how we manage and distribute work so that it gets done effectively.

When I use the phrase ‘good work’ I mean work that people can feel really engaged with and intrinsically motivated by — work that draws on their capabilities and is therefore work they add the most value to through their skills. Creating a more engaging form of distributed work is, in my opinion, how we keep our teams not only mentally well, but performing.

WHAT HAS CHANGED?

Working in a distributed team doesn’t mean that teams do things the way we always have, but with the complication of being in separate locations, connected by video conference. It’s one thing to take the work home, but due to the change in context, it’s quite another to work well from home.

Motivation, engagement, purpose, focus, collaboration, distraction and isolation all play-out very differently, the normal rhythms of your creative band have taken a blow.

90% of communication is non-verbal, so it stands to reason that when you rip a team apart and place the nodes of that team in separate locations, you are going to lose something. If all you have is a morning stand-up on video conference, you lose presence, you lose nuance, and you shred your ability to understand fragile things like ideas.

FROM WORKING ON TASKS TO WORKING ON GOALS

In a typical design consultancy environment, much of how we work is taken for granted. The very physical nature of the studio, the proximity of desks, the areas that encourage natural interaction (i.e. coffee machines, kitchens, sofas), mean that the space is responsible for driving many happy accidents. I’m assuming that you buy into the idea that these soft, unplanned exchanges that take place between people in a team are valuable, but to state the obvious, in a distributed team this vaporises. So you have to do other things to facilitate the ambient and non-task related exchange between people.

Yes, this can include having Zoom based tea-breaks, or bring your lunch VCs at the same time every day, but how about the way we plan and distribute work?

In the design business, to cite Blair Enns, we ‘sell’ one of three things — INPUTS (our time), OUTPUTS (our deliverables) and if we’re well-positioned and lucky, OUTCOMES (the future value we bring). I’ll assume that most people that are reading this, charge their clients for time spent on producing deliverables. I’ll also assume that there is a project plan that the team needs to deliver against, and nine times out of ten that plan is built around producing deliverables and looked after by a project manager.

In a typical working environment, the distribution of work will occur through some level of task distribution. We have stand-ups, we have Kanban boards, we have meetings (oh do we have meetings), but critically we have face-time and an ambient environment in which for these things to happen

I’m going to take a massive shortcut here and state that in a typical design studio environment, the domain of task distribution and work organisation come through the use of project plans and tasks. We have numerous ways of making sure people know what they are doing and innumerable ways of checking-in to see how they are doing.

This phase of forced remote working gives us all an opportunity to think about how we organise ourselves, our people and our work so that we not only continue to produce great work, but it still feels great to do. I think that what underpins this is the shift from working on tasks to working towards goals.

A SHIFT TO MORE ENGAGING AND PURPOSEFUL WORK

About 18 months ago at ELSE, we adopted a 4-day working week, which because of reduced hours requires individuals and teams to be both purposeful and effective in what they do and how they organise each day.

I’ll take the liberty of another sizeable shortcut (sorry, not sorry), by not presenting the case for a shorter work-week (but please read the new book Shorter — How working Less Will Revolutionise the Way Your Company Gets Things Done’ by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, in which ELSE is featured). So let us just say that you’re well-read on all that and broadly agree that it is possible to do more engaging, purpose-driven work with less time.

The point is that to excel in a 4-day model, teams need to understand what valuable work looks like, and they need to be able to attack it as individuals and groups. When engaged in work that is driven by purpose, teams have more autonomy and can master their schedule. Increased autonomy, purpose and mastery lead to a feeling of time passing quickly, or ‘Flow’ as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book ‘Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience’.

This state of being ‘on’ and being engaged is enjoyable. Time passes, things get done, and in the end, you feel satisfied. Even under normal circumstances, who doesn’t want to work in a state of flow, let alone now?

So given our experience with shifting to purposeful work at ELSE, my gut is screaming at me that designing ourselves as an industry to be PURPOSEFUL in our new world of remote working is going to make all the difference to how well we survive as distributed creative, innovative teams.

SO WHAT TO DO?

The best definition I’ve read on what purposeful means is ‘sustained attention with clear intention’. Put another way, attention resolves to focus, and intention resolves to hitting goals.

If you get it right, how we discuss and organise our work creates an environment where teams have a collective understanding of what a ‘good day’ looks like, and as individuals, they understand their role in it and what they can bring. So we need two strategies, one to plan and distribute work and another for self-managing it.

UNITING TWO THEORIES

In this section, I’m going to combine two theories of work, author Dan Pink’s concept of Motivation 3.0 and executive coach, Dave Crenshaw’s concept of Most Valuable Activities or MVAs.

MOTIVATION 3.0 — ORGANISING WORK

In his book Drive — The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink makes a case for a new model of workplace engagement which he calls ‘Motivation 3.0’ swapping the carrot and stick approach to motivation for ‘intrinsic motivation’. Here is a brilliant article (11minute read), that introduces you to those concepts but you should, of course, read the book.

To more or less quote that article, intrinsic motivation is what we wish to cultivate, and it has three components:

Autonomy describes the need to direct your own life and work. To be sufficiently motivated, you must be able to control what you do, when you do it, and whom you do it with.

Purpose describes those who believe that they are working toward something larger and more important than themselves are often the most hard-working, productive and engaged.

Mastery describes the desire to improve. If mastery motivates you, you’ll likely see your potential as being unlimited, and you’ll always seek to improve your skills through learning and practice.

I’m an advocate of the concepts in Drive. In my opinion, the current situation not only creates an opportunity to apply this thinking, allowing teams to work in this way is critical if we’re going to sustain high levels of output and handle the contextual shift that has taken place.

Design leaders must create the conditions for PURPOSE, AUTONOMY and MASTERY for their teams, and it starts with how we organise work.

MVAs — ACCOUNTABLE, PURPOSEFUL WORK

A cursory search of MVAs is likely to deliver you to posts on MTV’s Music Video Awards. Still, we’re talking about Most Valuable Activities, a concept introduced by productivity expert, David Crenshaw.

As leaders, we want work to empower our teams, but this is as much about how we organise work as it is about how individuals approach their work. So let’s say the theories in Dan Pink’s book applies to how we enable our working cultures, but Crenshaw’s MVA approach applies to how individuals enable themselves in their work.

I think that taking an MVA approach to work helps to foster what Pink is arguing for — intrinsically motivated people, working autonomously, with purpose and developing their mastery.

At ELSE, we have started using MVAs and project stand-ups at the beginning and end of each day. It’s a simple but effective way to get people thinking about what a good day at work looks like for them, and where they can best contribute to the overall project goals for the week.

This is not about micro-management; it is the self-setting of goals and objectives which drives accountability and autonomy. It starts with a simple “If I got three things done today, the most valuable things I could achieve are…” and this ceremony does several other things for the individual and the team:

  • At the morning project stand-up, I share my 3 MVAs for the day
  • In doing so, I share my intention, my plan that I understand a clear finish line for my day — I know what a good day looks like
  • I’m committing to getting to a certain point
  • It increases team transparency and empathy
  • The rest of the team understand what I’m doing and I know what they are doing
  • The project manager is assured of progress across the team
  • Any synergies, dependencies or blockers can be picked up in the stand-up, but followed-up afterwards
  • At the end of the day we wrap-up with a 15-minute project ‘Checkout’, we state how far we got, and a sense of collective satisfaction is felt by all.

At its core using MVAs is about being purposeful in our day, having a plan, and sustaining our attention with the explicit intention of closing those objectives.

You’ll need to deal with how cheesily this is presented, and I’m not saying to do exactly what he says in this tutorial, but bear with it and look to extract the idea of knowing what your most valuable activities are each day. I don’t think we need to sit down and cost our tasks, but in the context of a given project, we should be able to intuitively understand where our most valuable efforts need to go.

GOALS, OBJECTIVES & TASKS

To make use of the concepts discussed, we need to know the difference between goals and tasks, and again, this is a whole post in itself so let’s keep it simple.

A goal describes a desire to get somewhere, essentially closing a gap between where things are and where we would like them to be. While an objective is subtly different from a goal — I see it as a waypoint in the completion of a goal, effectively allowing us to break down achieving the goal into smaller sections.

For example, if my goal is to get better at basketball, you could see me having three objectives I need to complete in order to meet my goal:

  • improving my shooting;
  • improving my defence play and
  • improving my fitness.

OK, there is lots to be said about the hierarchy of what is a goal and what is an objective, especially when it comes to writing SMART objectives — but the applicability here is in how we distribute work. If a project manager can adequately describe the collective project goals at the start of the week, then individuals can self-organise, create their own daily goals and objectives in pursuit of that wider calling, and hopefully develop their own sense of purpose, autonomy and mastery.

IN SUMMARY

What I’ve written is verbose, I apologise, and yes it could be sharper and more straightforward, but I’m trying to help by drawing attention to an opportunity. And that is surviving this crisis goes beyond merely having teams function remotely. We need to think about how we distribute and manage work that’s so that it is more engaging, more empowering, and cultivate a culture of autonomy, purpose and collective responsibility.

TIPS FOR LEADERS

  • Organise work into goals — what gap do we wish to close in this phase?
  • Set-up the week so the goals are discussed by the team and broken down
  • Start and finish the day with short ceremonies, punctuate the end of the day and enable real rest
  • Also, look to create light-touch moments of connection between people, stand-ups and checkouts go so far but have a shared tea-break or lunchtime
  • Set-up Zoom channels that stay on all day, allowing people to ambiently share air time — not all comms should have a purpose.
  • Other face-to-face activities also change such as brainstorms, workshops, thinking time, and general collaboration. It’s far easier for ideas to be quashed when people are not together — and you never really know how people feel once a video call ends. Leaders should be conscious of this too.

Example — Project goal for the week drawn from a live ELSE project:

“Our goal this week is to create a first draft of the product and service strategy presentation, so that we can do a dry-run on Thursday, consolidate our feedback and update and finalise by the end of the week”

  • Objective 1 — Complete the experience strategy
  • Objective 2 — Complete the near-future user journeys 1 & 2
  • Objective 3 — Complete the future state user journey 3
  • Objective 4 — Develop the interaction design language and toolkit to apply to the above
  • Objective 5 — Dry run, capture changes, update.

Teams can now self-organise around these goals as they see best, most valuable first.

TIPS FOR INDIVIDUALS

  • Focus on MVAs first
  • Cultivate deep work — i.e. use the Pomodoro Technique, and use focus soundtracks such as Binaural Beats (Gamma Waves are good for concentration) or other Music for Concentration playlists from Spotify
  • Note distracting thoughts. Write on a separate piece of paper those things that occur while working with focus. It happens.
  • Use an Eisenhower Matrix for decision making and prioritisation
  • Turn your own objectives into bite-sized tasks (and attack in Pomodoros)
  • Take regular breaks
  • Learn to say no
  • Don’t wait for inspiration, just get started because progress is motivating
  • Don’t multi-task — it’s a lie
  • Rest. And rest properly.
  • Sharpen your axe — which means master your tools, Abraham Lincoln famously said “If you gave me six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four sharpening my axe”
  • Learn what works and what doesn’t work for you.

SUGGESTED READING/WATCH LIST

  • Drive — The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Dan Pink
  • Shorter — How Working Less Will Revolutionise the Way Your Company Gets Things Done by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
  • The Joy of Work — 30 Ways to Fix Your Work Culture and Fall in Love with Your Job Again by Bruce Daisley
  • Rest — Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
  • Bounce — The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice by Matthew Syed
  • Grit — The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
  • Flow — The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  • Switched-On by Matt Clarke (a brilliant TED Talk on purpose)
  • Most Valuable Activities by David Crenshaw
  • The Myth of Multi-tasking by David Crenshaw

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ELSE is an Experience Design Consultancy helping businesses create transformative product and service opportunities. We work with business leaders on innovation and digital transformation projects — from large multinationals to lean start-ups.

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Warren Hutchinson

Warren Hutchinson

Founder & Chief Experience Officer at ELSE - An experience design consultancy helping businesses to create products & services that change behaviour.

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