Christina Wodtke’s path to her current standing as an established authority on the attributes of high-performing teams and the use of OKRs has been a roundabout one. As she puts it: “I took the scenic route.”
Today she’s a lecturer in the computer science department at Stanford University, teaching a range of classes in HCI (Human-Computer Interaction), as well as being a best-selling author and an international speaker. But she originally went to art school with the intention of becoming a painter, and only became involved in tech when someone showed her what was then called computer-altered photography. “It was before photoshop was invented, and the disk we’d save to was the size of Julia Child’s cookbook.”
Over the course of her long tech career she has worked at Yahoo!, LinkedIn, Zynga and MySpace among others and has founded three startups. She’s had some extraordinary work experiences along the way. She says: “I often tell the story of my career to my students so that they can understand that their first job out of college doesn’t matter as much as they think it does.”
To product people, of course, she’s best known for her views on high-performing teams, having given a keynote at #mtpcon San Francisco in 2018, as well as contributing to the MTP blog. She’s also due to deliver a workshop on how to design product teams with intention at MTP Engage Hamburg.
Experience and Reflection
So what about high-performing teams? Christina has started some and worked in some, so her authority comes from extensive experience as well as research and reflection.
She was the first designer assigned to work on search at Yahoo!, and got to build a team which transformed, as Christina put it, “a bunch of browse-based properties into search-based properties, things like travel and autos”. And she worked on web search, “We were the first ones to give people answers instead of websites. Because Yahoo was a portal, we were able to do a lot of things that other search engines couldn’t do for another five years – like tell you what time the movie started and how to get to the cinema.”
Later on, she sold a small startup to LinkedIn. She then worked at the company for a couple of years, working out how to deliver a meaningful newsfeed to people with only a few connections and delivering a useful inbox experience. At MySpace, she had one of the craziest times of her life, working at the San Francisco office two days a week and then spending the rest of the week working at MySpace’s LA headquarters, while being put up at the Beverly Wilshire. It wasn’t all about eating at fashionable restaurants, and having the hotel Bentley take her there. “I was there just over a year and I had three CEOs,” she comments. When the first of her CEO’s went to Zynga, he invited her to join.
Christina says she learned more from her single year at Zynga than she did at any other company. “The first six months were good – a lot of the best game designers in the industry were there. But it was such a competitive money-based culture, creative people were being incentivised to make hits.” She saw that if you turn the intrinsic motivation of creative people into extrinsic motivation then they shut down and they stop being creative. She adds: “The second six months as we prepped for our IPO were brutal. It was all about squeezing a few more dollars from the whales— the people who spent a lot of money on games. But I had some interesting insights: I remember watching usability testing for Farmville, a game I’d never respected. There were people saying it was their safe place, somewhere to be creative and have control. It made me appreciate that those games can have a really important part in people’s lives.”
Using OKRs for Structure
One other gift of Zynga was an introduction to OKRs. When she left Zynga, she used OKRs to provide some structure to her own life. And it was OKRs that eventually led her to teaching. “When I left Zynga, I tried a bunch of things: travel writing, culinary school, advising food startups… none suited me. But I had a hypothesis around teaching,” she says. “I’m a Lean girl, so I taught one evening class as the smallest test I could do, teaching a couple nights a week at GA. And I loved it. ”
She then started teaching a class called “Designer as Entrepreneur” at CCA (California College for the Arts), because she “wanted to teach designers about business”, because, “it felt like designers who didn’t know about business would never get to be part of the important conversations”. As we know, it was an initiative that has taken Christina to lecturing at Stanford “an extraordinary place”.
There are many attributes to a high-performing team, says Christina, and many ways you can keep a team performing well under difficult conditions, such as those that so many of us are experiencing at the moment. She counsels against using OKRs for command and control – this is a common problem, she says, and adds that OKRs are only really valuable for empowered teams.
She refers to talks she’s given about how to set goals, roles and norms for a team. We all need a shared goal, a common purpose, she says, “ it’s one of the critical things that makes a team high-performing”. “Everyone must be clear what the goal is. OKRs can protect people against shifting priorities, and questions of priorities.”
Setting norms is also critical. Christina explains: “Everybody thinks their normal is everyone else’s normal, but this can cause problems in so many ways. If you’ve got a team where everything has been working well and then it starts to break down, it could be that you’re running into a norm where there’s a conflict for the first time and you have no place to talk about it.” She gives the example of an interdisciplinary team where there’s someone from Central America and a northern European. Their ideas of time may be different – for a northern European 3pm is 3pm, but for someone in Belize, where she spends her summers and vacations, it could also mean 3.15 or 3.30. “The northern European is seething when a meeting is 15 minutes late and the Central American thinks this is normal!”
Christina says you must talk about your worst experiences in teams when you’re setting norms, and then set rules to help you decide how to navigate them. “I recommend going through Erin Meyer’s culture map,” she says. “It has eight points of conflict and if you build your norms around them you should hit most of them.”
Once they’re set, you should check on your norms every week, says Christina. It only needs to be a quick retro. “We can just ask ‘how did our experiment go and what’s our experiment next week?’ An experiment could be let’s try standing up in a meeting, or let’s have a meeting while we walk outside, or let’s make sure we all have a Zoom window. Because it’s so lightweight it also creates a moment where you can say – can we just start on time next week for example, and you can start having a conversation about the tension in these conflicts. It’s no big deal, but it’s out there and you can move on.” Then, at the end of every quarter you should examine your list of norms and questions whether any are missing or if there are any that should be removed.
In general, we don’t spend enough effort on working out job descriptions, says Christina. We tend to “just go online and grab something we think will be good enough” and this can make for lots of problems in hiring because the team hasn’t thought through what the role requires, and then they interview terribly.
By why would we throw away a document we worked hard on? Christina advises using it throughout the employee’s career. Go back to the job description, and ask, is the employee living up to it? Are they going beyond? “I always recommend that you look at the job description regularly. Has it changed, has the employee changed, is there a gap we want to talk about?”
You need to develop a rhythm to this process, Christina says. Perhaps at the end of every quarter, you assimilate the information you have from these regular discussions and have a formal conversation about it, and then at the end of the year you have four quarters of information that can be used for an annual review.
What Could Possibly go Wrong?
While these processes might sound straightforward enough in theory, there are lots of pitfalls when you put them into practice. We talk about building a high-performing team, but we don’t always walk the walk. What does she find are the most common team problems and points of failure?
One-on-ones: People skip one-on-ones all the time, says Christina. “They don’t always seem important, and people use them for status. Your boss will say something like ‘you got anything for me?’, and you’ll just say ‘it’s business as usual’. But I recommend you see them as coaching opportunities.” And cadence counts: “If you only need to meet every other week, don’t meet every week.”
Giving advice: Christina thinks it’s very important to get consent before you give advice. “Sometimes people become emotionally flooded. But people don’t ask for consent, they throw advice at you like softballs.”
Giving feedback: People are very poor at delivering critical feedback, says Christina, and it tends to be the first thing that falls down. “There are things you have to say to people and you have to be sure they can hear it. People often can’t imagine how someone else feels, so they say something in the way that they would like to hear themselves. But the moment I say things in a way you don’t like, you shut off and your resentment starts to grow.”
It’s hard to say whether team problems become amplified when people aren’t in the same building. Says Christina: “When we have the social pressure of being in the same building we have a problem with saying hard things to each other. When we’re remote it’s a bit too easy to say hard things to each other.” In her experience those companies that are most successful remotely also have regular in-person meetings. She adds: “You have to transform names into people. At WordPress for example, I know they have regular get-togethers, enough to bring a higher level of humanity.”
One of Christina’s favourite mantras comes from the pen of Victorian writer John Watson: be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. She summarises: “The more I’m kind to you, the easier it is for you to be kind back to me, and then we’re better together. It always comes back to mindfulness and compassion. It’s a habit that has to be practised and cultivated. It is harder for some people than for others. That’s why we call it ‘a practice.”