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Five ingredients for happy, motivated and successful teams

Motivated teams are the heart of successful Agile products. However organizations built on hierarchy and control often make this hard to achieve. Leaders want to see change and results, but are not necessarily willing to change themselves. There is often too much time and money spent on meaningless documentation. Presentations are created just so a board of directors can feel like they have control, when the team might feel lost.

Success is dependent on the happiness and skill-set of a team of experts. If your team is happy, skilled and engaged; you’re chances of success are far greater than a team that is forced to develop something, only because it’s their job. Traditional project management is based on measurement, follow up and the fear of failure. In Agile Development, the need for management is reduced to a minimum. Iterative deliveries, demos and feedback replace traditional gant charts and board meetings. Extrinsic motivation (I’m doing this because I’m paid) is replaced with intrinsically motivated employees that love working together and being counted on. Success can be measured through satisfaction and the value delivered.

Throughout the years, I have observed what makes or breaks a team while working on digital products for large organizations. Here are five ingredients I believe are vital for building motivated and successful teams, based on the pillars of Design Thinking and Agile Development.

1. Small multidisciplinary teams and clear roles

Research shows that teams larger than 8 people are ineffective and demotivating. For every person added, you are increasing the time spent on overhead and communication. This means less time on actually producing results, which can be frustrating and draining. J. Richard Hackman, a Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University, has bluntly stated,

Big teams usually wind up just wasting everybody’s time.”

As a rule of thumb, teams should be composed of about five people with clear roles and contributions. Each role should be valued highly and play a key part in the success of the project. Everyone should be curious and gain an understanding of their teammate’s motivations and skills. It should be clear what each person contributes to the team.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have teams that are larger than eight people. It just means that you should split them up into smaller groups. Each group should have a clear understanding of what they’re contributing, so that everyone is productive and engaged. Trust, chemistry and communication are crucial for motivation and success.

2. Co-creation, then time for individual flow

Co-creation in product development is encouraged for many different reasons. It often leads to faster results and better teams through empathy, creativity and understanding. By involving consumer’s in our process, we have an increased chance of designing products that meet their needs, desires and goals. Likewise, co-creation in teams creates a deep understanding for how each field of knowledge creates a desirable and efficient outcome. It is also crucial for getting stakeholders and businesses involved. Co-creation and group-think however should be used modestly.

The dangers of group-think

If co-creation and group-think constantly dominates a project, it can potentially harm results. In Susan Cain’s bestselling book, 
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan presents research of how the power of group-think can lead to less desirable outcomes, or potentially bad decisions. Some of our greatest minds such as Albert Einstein were introverts, yet extroverts are often the dominating voices we hear in schools and companies.

In group-think, some voices and ideas will never come to life if a room is dominated of extroverts. This is why ideation should start with time for individual reflection before and after a group brainstorm. A project should create and foster an environment where all voices are valued and heard.

The importance of focus and flow

Individual time for flow, creativity and deep concentration is also vital for success. In the book, Deep Work, Cal Newport talks about the importance of being able to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. He explains the difference between shallow vs deep work, and the importance of uninterrupted flow.

Shallow Work: Non-cognitively demanding logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep-spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way. — Cal Newport

When Deep Work and Co-creation are balanced, we are able to gather insight, work together to unlock great ideas, and produce some of our most mind blowing work.

3. A holistic ecosystem

There are still far to many organizations that deliver consolidated projects, without ever putting time and energy into an ecosystem that reduces the amount of time and money spent. Designers and developers often produce new designs and code that solve the same problems, because employees or consultants do not have the time or mandate to talk across walls.

A holistic design language can solve this by creating a design manual complete with elements and modules, ready to be used across projects. By creating a team responsible for the holistic experience of the UX and brand, the organization can create a language that is updated across all mediums. Pattern Lab (Atomic Design) , Spotify Glue and Lonely Planet are great examples of holistic design systems used today.

Dynamic and updated over time

In order for a design manual to succeed however, it must be a dynamic and living language that is continuously updated based on new needs. I have seen design languages fail when they are locked and outdated. Designers prefer to create new designs that create better experiences instead of following older design patterns that are not maintained.

Two-way street

It is crucial that projects can easily communicate new needs based on different contexts. The design language should be a two-way street between holistic and contextual needs. These needs should drive the design language forward and provide the foundation for a scalable ecosystem over time. The team can work closely with projects that are designing for different contexts, so that they make sure the manual is continuously up to speed.

4. Visualize everything

As complex problems arise, different interpretations are often a result of poor communication. Each person in a meeting might translate the problem differently, or create a solution that is quite different from others in the room. This is where miscommunication often lies.

Visualization not only helps us simplify the message we are trying to get across, but it also gets everyone on the same page. Babbling turns into an effective and clear dialog. A plan or a mental mapping of the solution often takes shape when conversations are drawn and summarized on a whiteboard. Conflicts are also often avoided, since there is a lower chance for misinterpretation.

And the best part — there is no need for spending time on summarizing the meeting when you can just take a picture with your smart phone and share it with others.

5. A dedicated product manager, vision, and roadmap

I mentioned the importance of clear roles and contributions of each person in a team. A product manager is a vital role that impacts the success of a project. Without vision and guidance, the team can be lost, confused or unmotivated.

A great product manager should be able to base their decisions on the insight of his/her team. They should provide a clear vision with realistic milestones that can be achieved. They should have the time to discuss issues with team leads while keeping an holistic view. In times of conflict, a product manager should be able to make a justified call that the team respects.

Finally, a product manager should be a great listener and sensitive to everyone’s needs. They should be able to foster an environment that embraces feedback, understanding and happiness.

A recipe for success?

There is no magic recipe for success when it comes to product development. Time to market, competition and desirability are strong factors among many that effect a outcome. A motivated and skilled team however is the heart of the product. If the heart is suffering, then the other factors simply do not matter. I believe these five ingredients can create happy and effective teams or entire organizations over time; thus ultimately leading to higher chances of success.