A Field Guide to Building Successful Teams : Part 1 Starting the Conversation by@drummel

A Field Guide to Building Successful Teams : Part 1 Starting the Conversation

Dan Rummel HackerNoon profile picture

Dan Rummel

Sr. Director of Engineering

A couple years ago Google released very insightful commentary on a multi-year study that aimed to determine the secret recipe behind their most effective teams. After hitting a dead end with their data-driven approach, they used an observational method and uncovered what they call the 5 keys to a successful team.

The values resonated with those of us who have been apart of powerhouse teams that were not only productive but fulfilling and fun to be a part of. Most everyone agreed there was overwhelming truth in these dynamics. However, what is odd to me is that, years later, there are almost no public resources available on actionable methods to create and nurture these dynamics. We’ve identified and observed them, which is no doubt helpful, but that’s only the beginning.

If our mandate is to produce amazing technology companies, we need to focus on the team as much as we do on the tech. To do this, we certainly should not be trying to innovate in a vacuum. We should open source these ideas and strategies as much as possible, they apply to most any company. I figured I would (re)start the conversation by sharing some of these practical tools that I’ve used or seen used. Since it is an immense topic, I’m breaking it into six parts. First I’ll touch on how to start the conversation in your organization. Later I’ll dive deep on each individual dynamic. I’m approaching this primarily from my personal experience with engineering teams, but I’m sure you’ll find many of these tools can apply to any field of work that involves teams.

If you are not already familiar with these concepts, I highly suggest reading this post released by Google first. If you have time, the New York Times did a more in-depth writeup, it is well worth the read. For those who are already familiar, here is a quick review of the 5 keys the Google research team identified:

  1. Psychological Safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high-quality work on time?
  3. Structure & Clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  4. Meaning: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  5. Impact: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

Besides these five keys, another crucial finding was that having a strong sense of Psychological Safety was a prerequisite to a successful team. It was a gatekeeping dynamic, without it, true effectiveness appeared to be impossible, no matter how strong the other factors were.

Phase Zero :: Start an Explicit Conversation & Rally the Team

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Before digging into each dynamic, it’s worth pointing out one paramount truth. Building an incredible organization is a team sport, all hands on deck in fact. Don’t think you can hero this process on your own, especially if you’re doing it at the breakneck speed of a growing startup. With that in mind, the highest leverage thing you can do is to bring the entire organization into the fold.

Start by presenting the framework to the team. Don’t simply post articles in Slack or send an email around and hope magic will happen. Actually put slides together, stand up in front of the team, walk them through the details, lead a discussion and answer questions. Be sure to convey how deeply important this is to you and ask for the team’s ideas. Go broad with the conversation, don’t claim you have all the answers, that you’ll be discovering this together and state that this will be one thing the company will be working on in perpetuity, (because you will be).

The ultimate goal in this is to foster ownership of this continued improvement. As your company grows, countless behaviors and processes will be created, modified and deleted. In truth, much of this will happen entirely out of your line of sight. However, if everyone has this litmus test in mind as they are evolving the company, you are much more likely to build healthy processes that will have positive reinforcement for these dynamics.

Phase 1 :: Take Stake

Once everyone really gets it, take stake of where everyone feels you are at. Send out a simple anonymous survey ranking how their team and/or company ranks in fostering each of the five dynamics. (Here’s an example using Google forms, feel free to copy it and tailor it to your own needs).

Here are some important notes on the survey’s structure:

  • Three “levels” of questions, individual, team, company, can give greater insight for larger organizations with multiple teams. Small companies can simplify and ask only about the team or individual.
  • Larger orgs/team could ask which team each individual is on. However, I like the idea of having executives working on ‘company’ level initiatives, managers working on ‘team’ lean initiatives and individual teams working on ‘individual’ initiatives. This can help these not so obvious horizontal teams bond and work on things other than customer related work.
  • Be sure to include a free form field to solicit ideas and/or commentary again. Remember not everyone feels comfortable speaking up in a public forum, especially with the whole company present.
  • Emphasize “structure at this time.” You’re likely to get feedback from more seasoned folks, “we’re missing x, y and z!” Many processes and tools are very much nice to haves for a company that hasn’t found product market fit yet. That same thing might be indispensable to a company that is operating at scale.
  • Yes, the survey should be anonymous. It can be a little scary, as you really never know what people will say, but that’s the whole point. Wouldn’t your rather know than not know? This is one of the first tools you’ll use to build psychological safety, which is primarily about trust. Giving people a place to be heard is a powerful tool to do that.
  • Sometimes you’ll be able to pick out feedback from an individual based on writing style or previous conversations. Don’t be tempted to respond directly to the individual unless they come to you. Remember you’re creating a safe space for feedback, don’t betray that trust.

Share the aggregate data and speak to any comments and concerns that seem relevant. At this point be sure you’re fully committed and made time to start taking actions. Letting feedback fall on the floor will the exact opposite effect. Don’t feel the need to fix everything at once. This is all about building a culture of continuous improvement/evolution.

I’m curious to take stake across the greater ecosystem. I threw together a quick anonymous survey targeted at you. There will certainly be selection bias in the results but if there’s anything interesting in the data I’ll do a write-up and share the results. Looking forward to your feedback and ideas.

Read Part 2: Psychological Safety,where I discuss tools for creating an environment that promotes psychological safety.


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