I think of high-performing teams like a personal best on a run: they don’t happen overnight or by accident, but they’re worth it. As product managers, we’re often on point for building team culture. And we really feel the benefit of it when teams are working well together: a team that can move fast, understand each other and make effective decisions is a team that ships and iterates faster than a team full of people who struggle to understand each other or the outcomes they’re trying to reach.
The Importance of Collaboration and Cooperation
The best teams I’ve worked in have learned how to collaborate even when there’s tension or disagreement. Because co-operating doesn’t mean always agreeing, or getting along. It means actively committing to learning about others around us, and about what they need and what they prioritise. And just as important, it means learning about and focusing on the problem rather than the solution. That means we have to spend time on building a co-operative culture even above our weekly or fortnightly retros.
Here are some of my favourite techniques for building a team that works together effectively.
These are a brilliant way to get everything out on the table after a tricky time in a project. Book a room for just over two hours, and get your team to show up 10 minutes late. Before they arrive, draw a horizontal line across the middle of your widest whiteboard – that represents the last two or three months. Mark down some notable events that happened in that time. When the retro starts, ask the team to add any other events. Then, one by one, have everyone draw their own line representing their feelings over time. Above the line is positive – below is negative. It’ll look like a mash of stock prices. And as with all retros, the creation of the ‘thing’ is the least important part. Leave enough time for everyone to talk through their own line.
It was in a timeline retro that I learned a designer on my team had felt really down in the two weeks after one of the developers left the team. He told us that he really felt it when there were team changes, even if it wasn’t someone he knew well. That meant that the next time someone left the team, I was able to check in with this designer more frequently to understand how he was doing. A team that knows and respects the vulnerabilities of others on it is a team that will rally together when things get tough.
Get Aggressive With Your Attitude to Feedback
It’s easy to fall into a fear mindset around feedback – after all, these are people we work closely with, and what if they think we’re terrible at our jobs? In that mindset, we try our best to go for as long as possible without asking for feedback from our peers, so that we avoid feeling uncomfortable with what we hear. Adopting a growth mindset to feedback is one of the most effective ways to build a team that works well together. Think of it as helping each other to improve, as well as a way rapidly to build trust across the team. Lean into the discomfort, and you’ll be paid back in spades both as an individual and as a team.
One way to coach yourself and your team to get used to feedback is to set up speed feedback sessions. It’s organised like speed dating, where you spend 3-5 minutes with everyone in the room. Spend half the time giving them feedback, and half receiving it. As a team, agree how to format your feedback beforehand: stop / start / continue is a great way to frame feedback in positive terms. Remind everyone at the start of the session that feedback is a gift, not a debate: you receive it, say thank you, and whether you like it or not, decide what to do with it later. Make these sessions optional to start with, and set them up regularly every couple of months: some folks won’t be good with it from day one, but as time goes on and the feedback culture in the team transforms, you’ll see more people showing up each time.
Make Faster Decisions, Even When no one Agrees
Most communication focuses on something called dialectic discussion – the idea that through argument or debate, we can reach the same conclusion. Recently I read “Together” by Richard Sennett, about the craft of cooperation. In the book he introduces the concept of dialogic discussion, which is a way to communicate where we acknowledge that people do not always reach common ground. Instead, “through the process of exchange people may become more aware of their own views and expand their understanding of one another”.
A way to practise this is by taking on Jeff Bezos’ “disagree and commit” principle. Rather than taking a problem and iterating its solution until it’s suitable to all, explore the options and – if you remain in disagreement – agree to disagree, and commit to one path anyway. If we try to reach consensus every time, there will be times that we block progress on the product. That’s demoralising for everyone on the team. If we’re working lean, then it’s better to go down the wrong path and course correct than it is to stagnate in indecision. For PMs, this is an area where we should lead by example; others learn from us committing to decision-making and progress over consensus.
What Happens When you Focus on Creating a Culture of Collaboration
Spending part of your time focusing on team culture rather than features pays dividends. You can argue – then ship anyway. Your team will stick around for longer, because you’ve paid attention to making it a good place to work. You’ll all improve in your individual disciplines, as well as learning to appreciate the disciplines of others. If all of the above techniques seem like a lot to implement, try just putting a timeline retro in the diary. And keep going: just like that run, doing it once isn’t what counts. Show up, be kind, deliver, repeat.
- Paul Ford, co-founder of Postlight, has written brilliantly about how to avoid creating sick systems in your teams and workplace.
- For thinking through particular problems, or for the moral support we all need to keep doing challenging work, talking to peers is unrivalled – whether it ends in consensus or not. Books versus people — Myddelton.
- However healthy your team, there’s likely to be a point at which the work stops. Cara Bermingham’s piece on how to break up with your team is a guide for teams at the end of projects on how to mark what’s gone before.