Hunter in the Woods

Fundamentals of a functional team: Clear the way for each others progress.

Over the years I have been fortunate enough to spend some time in some absolutely amazing teams. I love the people, working together was fun and fulfilling even when the work itself was shit or incredibly stressful. And I can genuinely say I looked forward to going to work in the morning.

Of course, it hasn't all been cinnamon buns and rainbows, I have also watched teams fall apart - imploding into states of willful self destruction, paranoid delusions, communication break down or open hostility. And to be frank, witness to some pretty shameful behavior.

But I'm glad I have got to experience all of these different types of teams and the people who make them up, so that now I can clearly express and help to create culture I want to work in.

“But Will”, I hear you say “Business is war - you're not here to make friends”. Sure if you are the CEO and/or you are battling on the front lines to close deals and keep competitors off your lawn - then maybe in that context that's true. But assuming you're not trying to invade France alone, you ideally want a highly functioning team of individuals to back you up right? And if you can trust and enjoy working with these people as well, then your chances of success must be that much higher I would have thought - seems logical. So it feels silly not to at least try and make a good team to conquer the world with because I think it reduces your chances of failure and the rewards are that much greater. Also there is only so much fun you can have on your own - I mean let's be honest here, winning is better with friends, right?

Key points to strive for in a highly functional (and happy) team:

The best and worst thing about teams is that every single one is different, the dynamics between it's members - personality types, hierarchy, love language and a million other major little things ensure it. So to say one size fits all obviously isn't true, however there are some key factors I think all good teams should strive for:

  1. Trust:
    So obvious right? And yet somehow this is always an underlying issue. You also rarely talk about it directly - it's implied by being a ‘team’ and offensive to address. But I think it's safe to say that most people struggle to fully commit to this (in general, beyond the context of your team) and there are plenty of good reasons to be afraid of each other. For example, cultural differences can make this tricky because you basically have to earn trust on each others terms where neither of you know or can understand all the rules. But with compassion and repeated exposure, these are fairly easy to overcome as long as the people in it want it to work and are not too racist. But when you get: “Publicly, you are my most trusted team member, but internally we are at war and I will use every bit of my cunning to beat you the fuck down so I can rise victorious over your bloody corpse…” - Um what? This is often sold as ‘healthy competition’ within a team, but I think for the most part it's actually just a great way to get free work out of people who are more interested in being better than someone else. Don't get me wrong, I believe in healthy competitiveness when you do things like play games together or you both want to get better at something, and this very much can be present within a team and be a good thing. But never at the expense of trust between members. Then you move out of ‘healthy competition’ and into damaging power plays. This is a huge topic that goes way deeper than just this, but if you create a culture that rewards trust - you can at least lay the foundations for a happy team.
  2. Care for each other and celebrate wins
    You can have a highly functioning team who couldn't care less for each other and it can work, but I don't think anyone would say it was very enjoyable. So doing things that increase intimacy is rewarded with a team who are emotionally connected and therefore, increases trust and are more willing to help each other out. So having company traditions, cultural quirks, personal growth exercises and repeated exposure to each other outside of work is beneficial to everyone involved. For example: Going to the pub regularly, away days where you do personality tests, dress up or down Fridays and you all get a fancy lunch when you win or complete a big piece of work are all good things. Of course, you run the risk of people sleeping with each other which can also break the team if it all ends badly, but this is always a factor which is outside of your control, so don't get too hung up on it beyond a ‘please be an adult and keep your baggage at home’.
  3. Enable others:
    Each member understands that by not enabling each other that they hold up productivity and therefore will stop what they are doing for 10 minutes to help someone else rather than use it in some power play or leverage. This requires quite a lot of self understanding to drop you own agenda and have a culture of trust where others won't use it against you.
    If every person in a team priorities enabling the other members to do their work before their own, how efficient and prolific could you all be? To be clear, I don't mean doing each others work for them, but just not blocking them from progression - for example:
    1. Answering team questions and messages as quickly as you can
    2. Be explicit in your explanations and questions
    3. Aim to reduce assumptions required by the other person to complete their job
    4. Be respectful of each others time and reasonable with your requests
    5. If anything goes wrong for another team member, that you will stay late to help out if you can and vise-versa.
  4. Responsibility
    People need to feel ownership otherwise what's the point right? And to feel ownership of something, you need to be responsible for it. So, you have people who's responsibility it is to serve certain functions, for example designers, developers or mangers. Now to take this one step further, you then have a shared responsibility within your team to be collectively accountable for product X or service Y. And collectively you need to be able to make mistakes and be able to fix them. You really only run into problems when one person gatekeepers critical information or takes significant risks without involving the rest of the team.
  5. Clear hierarchy of ownership
    I have worked in dictatorships and ‘flat’ structured teams of highly motivated self responsible individuals - and in ether case the problem is the same. If you or any member of the team are unclear about who you report to and/or what role you are to play - you are going to have a bad time. But if this is made crystal clear to all, then everyone is happy because they know where they fit and how to succeed at their job - simple. If you are upper management, then you need to work this out between your selves as you evolve as it won't always be clear and you might not really have anyone to report to. But for those that you lead, you should ensure that their roles are clear to them and that they report to you.
  6. Clear objectives and know their challenge
    A team excels when they are all paddling a boat (roughly) in the same direction and know what the challenge is they need to overcome to succeed. But a team with no purpose will drift fall apart in no time at all and can cost a lot of time and money figuring out what they should be doing. This will require constant adjustment and reinforcement as you evolve - nothing is truly static in this life, least of all a team.
  7. Maintain momentum
    At no time should people be without work on their to do lists. Even if it's ‘Research exciting new framework xyz’ or ‘make cushions for the communal area’ - people will be happy because they are useful. It will quickly fall apart if there are too many people with no direction and the good ones will leave because it makes them feel useless. If you have good managers they will understand this and keep the machine ticking over ready to go when new work comes in.
  8. Emotional maturity
    This is the main pillar that holds the all the rest up, if you have a team with very little self understanding, you will deal with high levels of drama and quite often open conflict because there is no barrier between the members inner issues and their interactions with the team and others. It will fracture and divide the group as they splash their baggage around and others will react badly or leave as they try to cope with it. But the higher level of emotional maturity your team collectively has, from senior management down, the less drama anyone is interested in, tolerated and more ‘just getting on with it’ they all become. This also feeds into…
  9. It's OK to be yourself:
    If your team members can joke about their own lives with each other then you know you have good culture. It's about being accepted for who you are, warts and all and that's not only ok, but a relief to everyone because you no longer have to upkeep ‘face’. You can just be yourself. It doesn't matter what race, sexual preference or voter you are, we are all humans struggling to figure this crazy life out and even though I may not agree with your point of view, we can still get along just fine, do some good work together and even, have a good laugh about our differences. If a person on your team can't respect the personal beliefs of any of the other team members - then they will poison the drinking water and someone will have to go. This can be very hard to achieve with cultures who hold a lot of value in saving face - so you will have to feel this out carefully and work within their acceptable terms. But at the end of the day, we all want to feel accepted and OK about ourselves - so if you successfully facilitate this within your team, unsurprisingly your staff turnover will probably be very low, and having time to get to know each other is a core component of trust.
  10. Humility, growth and resilience
    No one knows what is truly going on, we are all just doing the best we can with what we have. Admitting you were wrong and being able to take and give creative criticism is key to enabling a culture of not only personal growth, but resilience. That team might get it wrong occasionally, but they always bounce back stronger than before. If you crush and break peoples will to bounce back and learn from it, they burn out and eventually leave or die inside - leading onto all sorts of problems for everyone involved.
  11. Listening
    Team members actually listen and hear each other. This sounds a little silly, of course people listen to each other, but I have observed that the majority of people actually find it very hard to fully listen to each other without getting distracted by their phone, agenda or the next part of the conversation. It's a skill that isn't talked about very much, but critical for a highly functioning team because you reduce the amount of time it takes to comprehend another persons request and agenda. This also takes time to build up as you get to know each other and you can start to model common meanings from members personalities and behaviors. Almost everyone can do it, but I think doing it well is an uncommon and very desirable skill to have in a good team.
  12. Size
    The size of a team and business will deeply effect the culture of it, so too big and people get lost, trampled or forgotten and power plays start to surface, whereas a team of 1 is usually isolating, lonely and can be scary with no one to bounce ideas off. To date, my rule of thumb has been > 2, < 6 people make the best teams, I have also read 4 to be the magic number recently. I think you kind of have to feel this out with the country culture you are in and the dynamic of the people who make up that team. However I do think it gets much harder to maintain momentum and efficiency for every person above > 6 people you have without splitting them into smaller compartments.

Pulling it together

Sadly, finding a group of people who can do all of these things is probably near impossible within the working world, but you can build a team with multiple people who have strengths in some of these areas to make it work. A PM who can listen and joke about the hilarious things that happen in their own messy life despite the fact the organise others all day. A group of trustworthy developer's who are focused on learning and bring board games to Friday drinks, but have their headphones on all day and don't talk much. A CEO who has everyone's back and is clear about where we are all going - but sucks at time management or keeping any kind of schedule. Head of HR who takes yoga classes every Thursday morning and walks the floor most days to be accessible to the the team but no one except upper management is quite sure what they do, and so on.

For more junior roles, finding people who have the potential to grow into these traits are worth investing in also. If they display an ability to learn and they are excited about the growth they can achieve within your culture - draw them in. They will naturally require more effort and mentoring, but they will often bring new and energetic energy to the team and can also boost your seniors confidence by allowing them to pass on their knowledge.

Management

There is one more point that needs to be made, which is that the culture by and large, trickles down from the management as they are the ‘parents’ (enforcers and role models) of the team culture. They need to make sure that the key values are not being destroyed by any bad players and be very willing to lance the poison (restructure or fire someone) when necessary. They need to be ferociously protective of the culture and the people within, actively showing the staff and clients they mean it - because it's in human nature to squabble with your siblings, make ‘in groups’, be little shits to mum and dad and so on. So it needs constant management to make sure everyone stays true to the core values. If a manager lets it slip too much, it can effect the other teams and then you get drama between managers and so on.

Creating and maintaining this culture is NOT the job of the floor staff - they are paid to do certain tasks like design, pack shelves, what have you - but it IS their responsibility to participate in and help shape the team culture you want to create together.

If you are creating or managing any type of IT team, I recommend reading this opinion: The unspoken truth about managing geeks - it has some core truths in it you really need to understand about people who work with logic all day.

Balance

If you are a gamer, I like to think think about a team in terms of a party: Mage, Fighter, Healer, Ranger, Bard, etc, and what role does each person want to play. Having a balanced team works best and most games are made for that kind of set up - it's the same in IRL because games are modeled off this exact problem. If you work in an environment which is unbalanced, like development teams typically are, try and get them to engage with other teams regularly to fight the unbalanced echo chamber they create. Lots of people actually try to optimize for isolation, best to reinforce introverted behavior and get the devs to work ridiculous hours, right? It's what they want anyway.
Well, no. Deep down this is mostly not true and this typically leads to one of a few bad outcomes:

  1. The developer team goes rouge and suddenly they realize how fucked you are without them, so it's all on their terms now assholes.
  2. They leave because they are so isolated and frustrated with not having a say in where they are going, feel very valued or heard.
  3. They burn out as you abuse their goodwill and their output drops significantly in the hopes you just fire them and they can get some paid time off
  4. Create a shroud of mystique and mysticism around themselves to force the other members to interact with them. This usually goes hand in hand with ‘Rock star developer’ behavior which is a nightmare - you can read more about that here.

Personally, I have never seen this work very well - so I can't recommend it as a long term strategy. Much better try and maintain a balance, keep everyone in relationship with each other and actively undermine any ‘I'm better than you’ bullshit.

Take away

Teams are complex, dynamic entities which can get confusing and difficult at the drop of a hat - but I think if you can find and empower emotionally mature people to run management, a balance of energy, skills, genders and complementary personalities within the team. And you have a clear vision of the culture you wish to nurture and constantly communicate it to your team - then you can create an environment that is exciting, challenging and supportive in which people will grow and be happy.

We spend so much time working, why don't we invest more into the people involved so we can not only enjoy our lives together, but increase our chances of success? After all, you only have everything to loose if your team fails.

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