10 Top tips to grow a collaborative culture in product teams

Time and time again teams master process around lean and agile product development, but still fail see great outcomes. They shuffle story cards, they measure what they build, but still fail to see increase in outcomes. The reality is they are still clinging on to their trusted SOTP (seat of the pants) or BDUF (big design up front) approach, they have just mapped it onto lean agile ceremonies and artefacts. These struggling teams have failed to embraced a collaborative culture.

I believe culture is the biggest blocker to realising high performing teams. Up until recently my main focus was on company culture, which John Cutler beautifully defines as list of behaviours that occur daily or as reaction to triggers, such as things going wrong. More recently I have started to obsess around team or group culture, which is a game changer.

I have researched about psychological safety in HBR, blogs and the findings from the Google Aristotle project. It felt natural that performing teams have a strong connection, one where the fear of looking dumb is minimal, thus it does not prevent individuals from speaking up and adding value. The author Malcom Gladwell explains the high proportion of self made millionaires being dyslexic to the fact their disability gave them a unique learning through school- the ability handle and not fear the humiliation and emotions typically linked to failing, i.e they gave big ideas a go. A team of people who feel safe is empowering the team with this advantage of not being fearful to fail. A safe team can believe they can achieve big goals.

I can recall teams I worked with that really performed and delivered on big goals, if measured, I suspect they would have had high psychological safety. I can also recall teams where each team member worked very hard, but something didn’t click, together did not delivery big value.

The book The Culture Code written by Daniel Coyle excited and inspired me (I recommend reading it). Coyle focuses on culture at a group level, how individuals interact and behave at the granular level. He shares research and simplifies complex psychology into three key skills for leaders at all levels: Build safety, share vulnerability and establish purpose.

When reflecting back to lean and agile teams that have performed I realised they were often inside companies with cultures that were far from ideal. The group culture can succeed despite a damaging company culture. A great group culture embedded in a great company culture is magic display in organisations such as Google, Facebook, Zappos etc — it quickly creates $bn companies.

It seems obvious to foster teams where failure is not punished, but deliberately doing this in a sustainable manner is not so easy. Considering the skills discussed by Coyle and the experience of working with product development teams, here are my top 10 tips for product managers to encourage and sustain a collaborating team by improving group culture.

  • Have fun together, its good to laugh.
  • Celebrate at sprint demos — there is nothing wrong with the odd fist bump and slice of cake.
  • Workshop with the team to did into your OKR or objectives and set a clear north star.
  • Lead epic kick off with the aim to ensure every one understands the outcome. Talk with those who may be struggling separately to help them align.
  • Make sure you support your team and regularly do less attractive tasks such as triage bugs, type up actions, write up GitHub tickets during epic kick offs, etc.
  • Support and challenge at an individual level and connect team members appropriately eg at stand up suggesting two people talk straight after.
  • Encourage frequent but short bursts of communications around epics and stories avoiding monologue, eg 2–3 line comments on GitHub, on Slack, and at stand up.
  • Show you care about every team member, from watching out for those over working to supporting individuals ambitions of growth.
  • Lunch together regularly and don’t just talk about the project at hand.
  • Regularly have retrospective meetings, but constantly frame the review on actions that will improve the teams processes and wellbeing.

These tips specifically help increasing a sense of belonging for everyone on the product team. This according to Coyle is the key differentiator. How well do your team members feel belonging to the team?