Building trust, building teams

Who doesn’t want to be part of a team like this?

How do you build a team that’s so supportive and so invested in each other’s success?

First is creating an environment of psychological safety, so that the individuals (and the group) are willing and able to take risks.  Being vulnerable is critical to learning and growth and cooperation, and you just can’t do that in an environment that is not psychologically safe. Here’s the essential Brene Brown on connection, conversation, and constructive feedback.


“If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.” – Brene Brown

That’s impossible without a means of giving and receiving high-quality and valuable feedback. This Asana blog post about how they’ve worked to make the company an organization focused on learning and growth discusses how they’ve built feedback into their regular working rhythm. One of the central concepts is that feedback is necessary:

It’s also important to provide a climate that tolerates mistakes and lets people take chances. This means being mindful about the kind of feedback you provide. This is particularly relevant for creative feedback, since the best output often requires extra experimentation or taking risks.

The critical aspect here is to make feedback valuable and not just stressful or anxiety-inducing or causing someone to armor up.

I’m really excited about Kim Scott’s work on Radical Candor. I’ve talked previously about her work on gender bias impacting feedback. Here’s a wonderful update, expanding on how to receive feedback. It includes a lot of examples of ways managers have successfully solicited feedback:

“There’s this rule we’ve all accepted that you must criticize in private, but when you’re the boss, you’re the exception to the rule. You want people to see how you’ll react — that you can take it and will appreciate it.”

[Kim Scott, h/t First Round Review]

All of that is just lip service unless you are committing to living it, to being the change you want to see. Nobody’s going to magically make the culture you want to live in. It’s about knowing and deciding how you want to live, how you want to engage with the world, and then living that way. Cap Watkins does a terrific job of addressing how to build a culture of empowerment (Treat Your Life Like a User Experience Problem).

He touches on giving and receiving feedback, not just on the work itself, but on the processes and methods by which work is done. His advice for people in teams that don’t collaborate is to behave as though the problem isn’t there — to just begin collaborating, to begin to live in the new framework you want to exist in, as you build it.

“It doesn’t matter what level you are. It doesn’t matter what team you’re on. It turns out that leadership is not a role. Leader is not a title that anybody has at any company I’ve ever been at. You can always be an advocate. You can be a collaborator. You can be an idealist. You can create change locally.” – Cap Watkins

This article about Girls Rock! Pittsburgh includes some beautiful commentary from volunteer Tilley Hawk about how to create this change and build the environment you want to work and live in:

“When looking at large problems within societal structures, it is very difficult to figure out solutions while looking at such a large system that is in place. In playing by their rules, it is difficult to find change, and you often find yourself back in their pocket. GR!P plays by its own rules and thus finds itself outside of these structures. It uses music and puts the power directly in the hands of those who want to use it. GR!P creates its own space, occupies its own space outside of the box, and refuses to play by [their] rules. This is proof that direct action has an effect.”

Ryan Carson’s powerful and moving 99U talk (Begin With the End in Mind) takes a broader view (or maybe a more singular view, depending on how you’re thinking about it) of the idea of building the life you want to be living by prioritizing the things that are important to you, and saying no to everything else.


Bridge-building case study (“Factory Fridays”)

In early 2013, I was working as a technical writer and a facilitator for a startup company on the precipice of its commercial launch. The company had found a site for its factory and had begun to build it out, and the manufacturing team was gunning to spec, buy, and install equipment in time to hit the production launch date. Trouble was, the product was still very early in its development stage and thus not fully defined. This of course led to big frustrations between the teams:

“Can’t you just tell me what material you need this equipment to be able to make?”


“I cannot believe you’re considering buying that piece of equipment. It’s not what we need at all!”

I was in a really interesting position to tackle this communication gap, because I worked directly with almost every single person in the company at that time, and thus had a very high level of influence, even though I had no direct authority or power by title.

This case study steps through the scenario, my assessment of the problems, the planning work I did to bridge the gap, and how I evaluated the success of the project. It’s an interesting case, because there’s truly only one major deliverable: transferring enough knowledge to build out and standup a manufacturing plant (I’ll spoil it for you: the company did open a factory). But there were lots of interim projects, successes, and realignments, and I step through those as well.

One of the biggest realignments, which I reference in the case study, is that initially the two teams were operating in different working structures and methods. The development team had been using Scrum to great effect and was feeling really good about it (I was that team’s Scrum Master), and part-way through the knowledge transfer project, the manufacturing team switched to using Scrum as well. Here’s a short Scrum 101 post, which includes the presentation I made for the manufacturing team, to explain to them how the development team was using Scrum. It’s an interesting way to manage work in that context — it’s a framework designed for software development, which has no lead times, but product and equipment design can involve very long lead times — and requires a bit of adjustment.

This case study also looks a bit at why the approach was successful, which was matching the method to the situation. I talk a lot more about knowing which are tools and skills are necessary for which project, product, and company stage in this post about transitions.

How to make a process from nothing

You can’t worry about change management until you’ve got something to change.

And you can’t worry about process improvement until you’ve built a process.

So how do you build a process when there isn’t one at all? How do you know you need a process?

When I was a technical writer, I was asked to write a form that people would fill out to request resources to run a trial. The person asking knew what the output of a business process would be, but didn’t know how to ask for a process to be built. I could have just written a form, but that wouldn’t have gotten us what we actually needed.

Most of the work of process development is in talking to people. It’s interviewing. It’s asking people what they mean, what they want, what they need. But the key is understanding that it’s often hard for people to ask for what they need, because they don’t know yet that they need it. That sounds condescending, and I bring it up because it’s so crucial to not be condescending when you realize that what somebody is asking for is only the part above water, the part they can see. It’s so important to not be dismissive or to say it’s that what they’re asking for is too hard, especially when you haven’t walked through your thought process together. You risk not being able to get any more information from that person, which pretty much guarantees that you won’t be able to give them what they need.

In short, this approach does not help anybody:

The root of it is helping folks come to the understanding on their own that they’re asking for a whole iceberg. Then, once you’ve set some expectations (for example, no, I really do honestly only want the tip of the iceberg to be delivered, or yes, I guess I do actually want a whole iceberg!), then you can begin to think about resourcing the work.

Here’s a short case study about developing a business process where there was nothing in place at all, focusing on how I determined what was needed (versus what was asked for), with a good look at what kind of deliverables were part of the package. Click on the arrows or on the slide itself to advance the deck..

Kim Scott on Feedback, Candor, and Gender Bias Bingo

LOVED this article by Kim Scott on First Round Review about how gender bias relates to ongoing workplace struggles with candor. She’s doing this incredible project called Radical Candor to build tools to help people be candid at work. She defines radical candor as “the ability to give both praise and criticism in a way that challenges people directly and shows you care about them personally” and breaks communication styles down via this great visual:


She goes on to explain why candor is difficult: we’re trained NOT to do it!

Most people have been told since they learned to talk some version of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.” When they become a boss, the very thing they have been taught not to do since they were 18 months old is suddenly their job.

Cue Maya Angelou:


Scott’s piece links to this terrific education project about gender bias that fills my heart with both sadness and joy (yes! we know enough about gender bias to be pithy! ugh, there’s enough gender bias to make a bingo card). There’s a clickable link on the site to enter your experiences and a printable format as well.


Related to the notion of communicating with candor is this post about giving feedback, which summarizes some key points from a few leadership and management books, specifically about making sure you know what you’re trying to accomplish by giving feedback, and lists out three kinds of feedback to be aware of:

  • APPRECIATION is expression of gratitude or approval of another’s effort. It is an expression of emotion, designed to meet an emotional need.
  • ADVICE (or COACHING) consists of suggestions about particular behavior that should be repeated or changed. It focuses on the performance, rather than judging the person.
  • EVALUATION is ranking the subject’s performance in relation to that of others or against an explicit or implicit set of standards.


The end of that post recommends Getting to Yes, the negotiation book by William Ury, whose Creative Mornings talk I just linked.

Related: Link: Feedback



William Ury on negotiation

Just watched this fantastic Creative Mornings talk by William Ury about negotiation (h/t). He notes that that crucial elements of negotiation are a) listening, and b) learning how not to be reactive. In his view, the biggest obstacle we have to getting what we want is ourselves.

Interestingly, that’s the same sentiment found in mindfulness study. Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach has done a lot of instruction on the topic, and developed a tool called the RAIN method for helping people learn how to respond rather than react, though it is geared more toward internal rather than external conflict. Here’s a video of her speaking about it in 2011.

And back to the topic of work and how people make livings, Ury’s talk also reminded me of this anonymous interview with  a negotiations coach in the What Do You Do series of anonymous interviews. It’s a really enjoyable read and hugely informative.

Asana blog on feedback

There’s some good advice in this Asana blog post about giving feedback on creative work. It’s largely rooted in the tenets of facilitation and expectation-setting:

“Ideally, you spent some time clarifying the objectives and nailing down the requirements—target audience, channel, timeline, etc.—of your project before your creative team started executing on designs and copy. So when it’s time to give feedback, you’ll have something to refer back to.”

There’s another facet in this piece that I really appreciated, which is about making sure to be clear about whether your feedback must be incorporated or whether it’s just a recommendation:

“It’s important to distinguish between blocking feedback and advisory feedback. The former are changes that must be addressed before something goes out the door. This might be a design interaction that doesn’t align with your goals or written content that doesn’t meet legal guidelines. The latter kind of feedback includes things that would be nice to have, but aren’t critical to the success of the project.”

Being clear about this is so important — not only for the person giving feedback, but for the person receiving it. If there’s any doubt, clarify!

Management (oh, and conflict, diversity, transparency, and efficiency)

A frequently (but often only partially) quoted segment of the Tao te Ching  describes the idea of invisible leadership. Let’s take a moment here to recall that this text is estimated to have been written in the sixth century BC. Despite hundreds and hundreds of years passing since then, the best managers I have known are described here:

A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, They fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, “We did this ourselves.”

There’s so much to consider in management (of both people and projects), but I think a fundamental is that good management takes time. It’s work that is often unaccounted for, but supports teams, builds healthy organizational dynamics, empowers people, and removes obstacles from the team’s way, like the sweeper in curling. But learning how to be a good manager takes time as well. Learning isn’t efficient. It takes time and practice.

While we’re on the topic of efficiency, this is a great article about organizational efficiency, and what it’s tied to. The notion is that we are all living and working in systems, and you can’t flip one switch and expect it to work (“look, we’re efficient now!”). You have to understand first what the switches are, and then how they relate to each other.  The article includes a visual to explain the idea that they’re sliders rather than switches:


“The three sliders aren’t sequential; they’re deeply interrelated,” he says. When companies try to move just one, it almost always fails. “Let’s say your company is all the way on the left, totally efficient, and one day you decide to make things totally transparent. You push that slider all the way to the right — but only that one. Well, now everyone in the company can see all the problems, but they have no power or resources to fix them,” Pisoni says.

Here’s another one Pisoni sees a lot: A company resolves to experiment more, but doesn’t touch the other sliders. Now you have a situation where team members are asked to innovate, but can’t really take risks — in fact, they’re punished when experiments fail. “And with secrecy all the way to the left, nobody knows what experiments are happening, and they’re not armed with best practices,” he says. “Everyone is going off in different directions, with no communication.”

Nothing happens in isolation — no one person will save (or tank) a company in just the same way that no amount of planning will make an organization more responsive. Everything happens in relation to something else.

This is true in team dynamics as well, of course. Most of the time, individuals aren’t working alone, beside each other but not interacting. We’re collaborating, which means we’re sometimes in conflict. But just like happiness being rooted in process and growth, creativity is rooted in conflict.

Here’s a terrific piece about how important it is to accept conflict as not a necessary evil but as something valuable and useful in organizations. My favorite part is this, about the role of the leadership and hiring in creative conflict:

“With teams, the leader’s role is to channel conflict to fuel the journey. Seek to resolve but do not restrain conflict. The tensions are the magic touch. They force us to question ourselves and explore the full terrain of possibility. The tensions keep us uncomfortable enough to keep trying. Hire people that are willing to fight, and fight apathy ruthlessly.”

Building diverse teams is crucial for building enough conflict and tension to be productive and creative. That includes diversity of work experience, and diversity of background. I am never going to stop linking this article about Location Labs’ hiring and retention approach — they aim to hire people with differing backgrounds, focus on creating a work environment where people are engaged and empowered and feel appreciated, and they recognize that innovation and conflict go hand-in-hand.  COO Joel Grossman is quoted: “A healthy environment has disagreements, but they’re vigorous and healthy. Communication is open and ideas are debated.” It’s crucial to build an environment where it is safe to disagree, and that is largely the responsibility of management.

This Asana blog post by Rachel Miller is a great look at why diversity in organizations and building inclusive work environments is good for business. “I’ve found that making business cases for diversity have let me become a vocal advocate. Without that shift, it’s unclear how diversity should be prioritized inside a company when other social justice issues aren’t. I went from thinking that diversity was something I wanted from the workplace, but couldn’t necessarily expect, to realizing that investing in diversity is part of investing in a company built to last.” Miller lists several clear business reasons to support a diverse organization, including one related to conflict and creativity: diverse teams are coming with different perspectives and  are “less likely to practice groupthink.”

This joyful, pop-culture-gif-littered piece from the iDoneThis blog addresses tension and anxiety in teams, and how uncomfortable it can be to manage. It offers some very solid, very practical, and very applicable guidance to new managers, starting with how to provide feedback that will empower your team and help build their confidence, leading them to be able to be more autonomous:

Both novices and experts respond well to feedback given on a job that they feel is “finished,” rather than having a manager hover over them and interrupt their process.

Value their autonomy by giving feedback on finished projects, rather than interrupting employees at work.

The article goes on to talk about feedback loops ON feedback — doing retrospectives to see how your feedback is working, if it’s effective.

Practice makes practice.