Every team wants to deliver their best work and feel a sense of pride in the outcome, as well as in the experience of being creative, resilient collaborators. Now you can try The Teamwork Kit, our approach to building great teams and doing work we’re proud of.
A few years ago, we were struggling. We continually found that no matter how well a project started, we’d hit the same types of snags along the way. Unclear expectations, miscommunications, and misalignments would pile up, and our frustrations would grow in tandem. Instead of finishing on a high note, we’d bottle our small resentments and disappointments and try to let go and move on. We’d individually tell ourselves to stop taking things so personally. After all, work is no place for feelings – right? (Hint: wrong.)
It worked as well as we could expect (in other words, not very well). If you work in projects, this probably sounds familiar. You might also recognise that when we looked back, most of these things seemed preventable, or at least way more manageable than they felt at the time. Even disagreements didn’t always look like disagreements in retrospect. What was keeping our team of great personalities and professionals from being equally great collaborators? We had a strong culture of trust, but could we find a way to work so that we were actually building more of it, rather than draining the trust that was there?
Developing The Teamwork Kit
In early 2016, a couple of our designers started working on ways, not just to prevent those snags, but to take the thoughts and events that led up to them and turn them into opportunities to be better, together. During this work, one of the things we identified is that we didn’t have a clear, shared definition of good collaboration. How would we recognise it when we achieved it, apart from the feeling it was going well? There were a number of factors to consider, but pretending we could leave our feelings at the door turned out to be a source of our problems. We were focusing so much on what we needed to get done, and not enough on how we were doing it, which includes talking about our experiences and feelings in a structured, guided way.
The outcome of this work is a formula that we’ve been building and using for about two years, and we decided to make a version we could share publicly. The Teamwork Kit is designed to help a team become a group of people who, when given a task they haven’t seen before, have the habits and norms to build reflection loops, cultivate safety, and solve a problem effectively, reliably.
It helps maintain a consistent focus on creating environments that are safe for people to speak up, be heard, and do their best work. We still run into plenty of snags, miscommunications and misaligned expectations—because reality is messy–but these things are far less likely to derail us, and we even use these snags to be better together. When people feel safe, they can more easily ask for help, admit to mistakes, and resolve conflicts, leading to better work for our projects, and better workdays for us. It’s not a magic bullet, but it really does work for us.
What’s in the Kit
Now you can download The Teamwork Kit Handbook, which gives you an overview of the theory and mindset behind it. You’ll also get sample presentations, facilitator’s guides and template posters to help you through each of the five activities. The activities are:
Foundation: You’ll clarify the project, the goal, and each person’s role in getting there. You can combine this with the project kickoff, especially if you like to work closely and personally with clients, but it’s not required. This is all about how the team will work together.
Alignment: After 4-6 weeks, you’ll hold a dedicated, extended check-in about progress. It’s the perfect place to talk about the ups and downs, discuss what’s working, and air frustrations to prevent them from becoming blocks. If you work Agile, this can be combined with a sprint retrospective (to avoid adding too many extra meetings).
Feedback: Yes, you already know the importance of feedback in a team, but how productive is your feedback? These sessions are easily adapted to alleviate stress — have a positive-feedback only session – or to address small improvements that each person or the whole group can make. Even when feedback isn’t praise, it should help, not hurt.
Conclusion: You’ll do this at a major milestone (like the end of a phase, or after a big delivery in a long project) and/or at the completion of a project. It’s a guided way to capture all the ups and downs, and use everything you’ve learned to improve and grow.
Popup: These sessions can be held when you feel you need them. A Popup is a chance to get feedback from relevant people outside the team who can bring the bigger picture back into focus, and provide useful mid-project insights.
We use it on projects of all sizes and durations, with teams of any size. It works best with teams of about 4-6 who are on defined projects, but you can pick it up at any point, or anchor it to some aspect of your regular work. It helps with knowledge transfer if you have people entering or leaving a project, too. You can use The Teamwork Kit with an outside facilitator, or, if that’s not available to you, you can just take turns facilitating. The Handbook includes a chapter on facilitation skills, along with a reading list (we’re learners, not experts).
The deeper origins of The Teamwork Kit
We’ve based a lot of the thinking in The Teamwork Kit on research that ranges from mid-20th century organizational theory to more current research and practice on team performance and collaboration. This includes work on group dynamics in Susan Wheelan’s integrated model of group development. Insights on team performance from Google Re:Work validate some of the same beliefs we have around building trust together. The Teamwork Kit uses these foundations and inspirations to create a practical, step-by-step route through the stages of team growth. You might know these stages as forming, storming, norming, performing, but the important things are to get and give clarity, be supportive, and keep the lines of communication open, with a clear focus on what a great team actually does.
A structured process, not a prescription
If you work in any aspect of design or have worked with design thinking, you’re familiar with the phrase trust the process. You should do the same here, but also know that we designed this for real teams, with their own specific challenges. So even though you should follow the process, you can adapt the activities and tools to suit your time constraints (the facilitator’s guides even contain tips on shortening workshops if you need to), workplaces, or local cultures. In the Handbook, you’ll find a chapter dedicated to convincing others to try a new collaboration method, along with ways to check in about your progress, and some suggested ways to measure your improvement over time. And because we don’t live in an ideal world, there’s a section on how to work with the uncomfortable and unequal power dynamics that can factor into team development and daily interactions.
A team with a bunch of great personalities is a good start, but no matter how kind, caring and empathetic every member of your team is, having a process to follow that makes room for your feelings, experiences, concerns, and feedback gives you a better chance to finish as strongly as you started. You can’t take an elevator to greatness, but you can help each other up the long climb. Take it from us. We learned the hard way. Let us know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Also please feel free to report any bugs or errors you find!)
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