Turning People into Teams

Rituals and Routines That Redesign How We Work

David Sherwin (Author) | Mary Sherwin (Author)

Publication date: 10/09/2018

Turning People into Teams
Collaborative strategies work when they're designed by teams—where each person is heard, valued, and held accountable. This book is a practical guide for project team leaders and individual contributors who want their teams to play by a better set of rules.

Today's teams want more alignment among their members, better decision-making processes, and a greater sense of ownership over their work. This can be easy, even fun, if you have the right rituals.

Rituals are group activities during which people go through a series of behaviors in a specific order. They give teams the ability to create a collective point of view and reshape the processes that affect their day-to-day work. In 
Turning People into Teams,  you'll find dozens of practical rituals for finding a common purpose at the beginning of a project, getting unstuck when you hit bottlenecks or brick walls, and wrapping things up at the end and moving on to new teams.

Customizable for any industry, work situation, or organizational philosophy, these rituals have been used internationally by many for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. By implementing just a few of these rituals, a team can capture the strengths of each individual for incredible results, making choices together that matter.

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Overview

Collaborative strategies work when they're designed by teams—where each person is heard, valued, and held accountable. This book is a practical guide for project team leaders and individual contributors who want their teams to play by a better set of rules.

Today's teams want more alignment among their members, better decision-making processes, and a greater sense of ownership over their work. This can be easy, even fun, if you have the right rituals.

Rituals are group activities during which people go through a series of behaviors in a specific order. They give teams the ability to create a collective point of view and reshape the processes that affect their day-to-day work. In 
Turning People into Teams,  you'll find dozens of practical rituals for finding a common purpose at the beginning of a project, getting unstuck when you hit bottlenecks or brick walls, and wrapping things up at the end and moving on to new teams.

Customizable for any industry, work situation, or organizational philosophy, these rituals have been used internationally by many for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. By implementing just a few of these rituals, a team can capture the strengths of each individual for incredible results, making choices together that matter.

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Meet the Authors


Visit Author Page - David Sherwin
David and Mary Sherwin are cofounders of Ask the Sherwins, LLC, a consulting and training firm that helps organizations around the world develop the capabilities they need for stronger teamwork. They have coached product and service design teams and developed innovation training for organizations such as Philips Oral Healthcare, Google UX Community and Culture, and Eventbrite. The Sherwins have collaborated on three books, including the bestseller Creative Workshop.

Visit Author Page - Mary Sherwin
David and Mary Sherwin are cofounders of Ask the Sherwins, LLC, a consulting and training firm that helps organizations around the world develop the capabilities they need for stronger teamwork. They have coached product and service design teams and developed innovation training for organizations such as Philips Oral Healthcare, Google UX Community and Culture, and Eventbrite. The Sherwins have collaborated on three books, including the bestseller Creative Workshop.

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Excerpt

Turning People into Teams

Start the Team by Talking about the Team

Unknown quantities. That’s what we are to each other when we’re starting on a team. We’re sitting around the proverbial table, drinking our favorite coffee or tea, but none of these hot beverages will wash away our jitters. Who are these people? How do I want to work with them? And how are they going to best work with me? If these questions aren’t answered right away, we start to make assumptions about what’s best for ourselves and others—and those assumptions are usually wrong.

We encourage every team to conduct one of the following rituals before they kick off a project. By using these rituals in advance of formally starting projects, team members can get to know each other better as people, find shared points of connection, and begin to develop norms for how they want to work together before they feel the pressures of their work.

Because these rituals happen at the outset, this is the opportunity to clearly communicate to your future teammates the reasons why you’re taking the time to conduct them. Likewise, after performing these rituals, be sure to conduct any necessary follow-up conversations before you prepare for the project kickoff.

images RITUAL What Do We Bring to the Team?

Norms are common understandings about what is or isn’t acceptable for a team in terms of behavior. Shared team norms include things like when employees show up to work or how team members want to communicate. Norms are part of our everyday interactions with coworkers, and they help shape the patterns of how work gets done.

At the start of a team project, many norms and their corresponding ways of working are unspoken. They aren’t discovered until the team begins working together. It’s important to formalize these unspoken norms as quickly as possible, and to let people choose which ones they want for the team. You can’t always control the cultural norms and values that shape your workplace, but you can control what your team agrees to regarding how they want to work together.

This ritual is designed to help the team foster a shared picture of their skills, interests, and hobbies. It will also help them identify the areas in which they want to support each other over the course of the project. But the most important part of this ritual is when the team has their first discussion about their working norms.

This ritual is our adaptation of frog’s “Skill Share” activity from the Collective Action Toolkit (of which we were both contributors) and frog’s “Team Leap” (created by Tanya Khakbaz). We recommend using this ritual with teams that will be working together for up to three months. If you’re working together for longer, the next ritual (“What Do We Value As a Team?”) may be better suited to your team’s needs.

1. Answer questions provided to the team

Ask your team members to answer the following questions on their own. They can either answer them at the start of the ritual, or these questions can be shared in advance of the meeting so people have time to prepare their responses.

images

FIGURE 2 “What Do We Bring to the Team?” example output

What’s your name and your role?

Tell us what you want to be called by the team, as well as your job title and role if we haven’t worked together before.

What are your personal interests or hobbies?

Share what you feel comfortable letting the team know. Some teams work within organizations that discourage talk about personal lives. We’ve seen teams use this question to either create new behaviors around those conversations or to continue the practice by simply describing what people are interested in around the company’s products or initiatives. Your team can decide how they want this to go.

What skills do you bring to the team?

Describe what skills you use as part of your job, plus those you want to share that aren’t always used at work. This is where personal life skills may rise to the surface. In order to be effective in our professional lives, many of us draw from expertise that was not obtained “on the job.” We rarely get the opportunity to express this knowledge. Now is your chance.

When do you prefer to work on your own?

Some work that happens on projects has to be done individually at first, then completed as a team. Which work tasks or situations do you prefer to tackle solo?

When do you prefer to work in collaboration with others on a team?

Be honest here. A simple story or two about situations you’ve been in on previous teams can be a good way to answer this question.

What do you want to learn while working on this team?

We have to get things done, but we’ve also got a great opportunity to learn from each other. This could be a personal or professional goal or just something you’ve been curious about.

If you want to add additional questions to this list, include some that relate your teammates’ personal experiences to the subject matter of the project. For example, if the focus of your project is helping people manage their personal finances, you could include questions like “What was the best advice you received from a friend about money?”

2. Share answers with the team

Set up this ritual’s diagram in a location that all of your team members can see. Ask each person to read out loud what they’ve written. As they share about themselves, write their interests and hobbies in the first column, their skills in the second column, and what they want to learn in the third column. Don’t label the information with the names of team members. If you have multiple coworkers with the same skill or interest, mark a star next to that information.

After everyone has spoken, describe to the team what you’ve discovered about everyone’s skills and interests, noting both the unique skills and interests that individual people have, as well as any overlapping skills or interests. You might also identify skills the team doesn’t have that are required for the project, which you can use as an input for project planning.

3. Create preferences for how you want to work together

Now that everyone has a sense of each other’s skills and interests, ask each team member to list the norms they want to see for the team. For a workplace team, these norms fall into the following categories:

When you want to work

Where you want to work

How you want to work

What we’ll learn from the work

Every team member should write a response for each of these norms on an individual sticky note. People can use their answers from the first set of questions as a starting point for this activity, especially if they spent a lot of time talking about when they prefer to work collaboratively or on their own. It’s important to remind everyone that these are wants. They represent best-case work scenarios rather than “what I’m supposed to say to look like I’m dedicated” or “what I’ll put up with.” The viability of individual wants varies from culture to culture, but if you don’t ask for what you want, you’ll never be able to negotiate for it with your teams.

Questions That Help Teams Determine Their Norms

When doing this ritual, people usually ask for examples of typical norms. The following questions can help your team:

When you want to work

How long do you want to work each day? What days?

When do you want to take breaks or lunch?

When are the best times for the team to be working together?

How do you want to signal your availability to teammates when you’re working? Or when you need to step away?

Where you want to work

Where do you prefer to work? In the office, remote, or both?

What type of work environment is required for the team?

How you want to work

How much time alone do you require as part of your daily work? How much time do you need for collaboration with others? How do you best communicate that to others?

How do you want to communicate challenges or issues?

How do you want to celebrate team successes?

How do you want to address team mistakes or failures, and make plans to recover from them?

What we’ll learn from the work

What skills and knowledge do you want to gain during this project?

What personal goals do you want to achieve during the project?

4. Share your individual preferences

Ask each person to share the individual norms that they’ve created. When each person is done, place their suggestions on the diagram in the appropriate category.

5. Decide on your team’s working norms

Now that everyone on your team has a shared understanding of each other’s work preferences, you’ll translate those preferences into shared norms for the team. Read through each category of work preferences. You’re looking to make decisions as a team on what individual preferences should be translated into shared norms for the team. Identify where there are shared work preferences and where there are conflicting work preferences that may require trade-offs.

Our rule of thumb is this: Limit your team to six to eight norms and be specific in how you describe them. The more specific your norms, the easier it is to give each other feedback and hold each other accountable (refer to the sidebar for examples).

To complete this ritual, summarize for the team what decisions you’ve made. It can help to keep the summary in a similar visual format to the output of this ritual, so everyone on the team has a clear picture of what was discussed and the shared norms they’ve agreed to uphold.

Make Your Norms as Specific as Possible

Here are a few examples showing the difference between individual working norms and the ideal level of specificity for your team’s working norms. We keep what we’re writing visible to everyone on the team, moving from “I” statements on the left to “team” statements on the right. This way, each person sees how their personal preferences have led to collective decisions on behalf of the team.

When I want to work

When the team wants to work

Peter: I will be in the office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and take lunch around 11 a.m. to noon. I don’t respond to email after work.

Jo: I get up early and like to work for an hour or two before coming into the office. I get the most work done then.

Frederick: My evenings are for family. If I do respond to emails after work, it has to be later, after my kids go to bed.

Leslie: I like to work from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. I’m most productive at the end of the day.

Individual team members are working on their own schedules from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Collaborative work is from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., and it should be blocked out on our work calendars.

Lunch is from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., so we’ll avoid scheduling meetings during those times unless there’s really good food.

We will respond to emails sent be tween 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. only during standard business hours.

Routine Do This Ritual Once, Use the Information Again

Reuse what each team member provided in terms of individual work preferences for when new people join your team or at future team kickoffs. Make sure that each person reviews their answers and updates them. Life circumstances and professional growth can change a coworker’s preferences and priorities.

Routine Revisit Your Norms after You Start the Project

It will take a week or two for you to know if your team is capable of holding themselves to the shared norms they’ve established. Use the ritual “What Should We Change?” in Part 3, “Sprinting to the Finish,” to revisit your norms and revise them based on what the team has discovered.

images RITUAL What Do We Value as a Team?

If you want to reduce team misalignment from the start, close the gap between what people say they value and how they demonstrate those values through their everyday actions.

Words are powerful—so powerful that most of the problems we encounter are failures of vocabulary. We assume that everyone uses the same words and that they mean the same things to everyone.

For example, think about the word supportive. How do you see that word in how your team works together? How do your coworkers see it? Have you ever sat down with your team and talked about that? People see their values in behaviors, in what people do. But when people come together in teams, they typically revert to abstract or fluffy words to describe how they want to work and leave the specifics for later.

It usually isn’t hard for team members to agree on what values are important to them: creative, innovative, collaborative. Within an hour or two of dialogue, most teams can find common ground and create basic working definitions to explain which values matter to them and why.

But from there, it can be hard for team members to be specific about what tangible behaviors they’ll demonstrate as they put those values into action. Many teams say they value transparency or promise to be ethical or respectful, but when things go poorly, they use those words as weapons. They don’t allow team members to address underlying behaviors. It’s difficult to help each other improve as professionals when tough conversations start with “This team isn’t creative enough” or “You don’t respect me.”

But Shouldn’t We Be Using Our Corporate Values for Our Team?

Most organizations have value statements they use to describe how they work. While these statements are important to the organization as a whole, they usually don’t describe the specific behaviors that each teammate wants to see on their team. When doing this activity, post your corporate values for everyone to see and identify how the team’s behaviors fit within or expand your understanding of them.

This ritual can help your team align and define behaviors that are unique to them. These behaviors will become your working norms as a team. We recommend using this activity with teams that will be working together for longer periods of time, from three months to several years. We also recommend periodically revisiting this ritual. Values change slowly, but the ways that we express them can shift quickly.

To prepare for this activity, have a stack of index cards or sticky notes, as well as a whiteboard or a large sheet of paper on hand. Although this ritual works best with physical notes or paper, a remote team can use a shared document to achieve the same results.

1. Identify your team’s working values

Hand out sticky notes or index cards to your team members. Have them individually write down three words that describe how they like to work with others on a team. Some of the words that we see come up most frequently are:

images

If team members ask for formal definitions of the words, let them know that this activity is about how these words are defined by them individually, not by others on the team. How we personally define these terms, which is based on our own personal and professional histories, has a direct connection to how we recognize and embody these values.

2. Share your value words

Ask each person on your team to share their value words and explain why they chose them.

3. Decide on three values for your entire team

As a team, each person votes for three words that represent their most important values. The entire team has to agree on those three words. If you’re facilitating this conversation, pay attention to the trade-offs the team makes as they narrow in on their chosen words. We don’t always agree on what these terms mean. Talk about that!

4. Describe what behaviors you want from your teammates

Ask each person to take at least ten minutes to write down specific behaviors they would want to see from each other, if they were putting those three values into practice. Use the following questions as prompts:

If we say that we’re VALUE WORD , what behaviors are we doing to show that?

This question helps people reflect on all of the different behaviors they currently have with their teams. It also helps them identify which of the more positive behaviors they want to continue using with their team.

If we want to be more VALUE WORD , what behaviors can we bring into our work?

These are new behaviors people want to introduce to the team. Since they aren’t currently being displayed by team members, these behaviors may take more time and effort to put into practice.

Behaviors should be tangible actions that the team can reference as far as how the team communicates, collaborates, and gets their work done. Each behavior must be associated with a value word. Like the shared norm example in the previous ritual, behaviors should be specific enough that team members can say definitively whether they did or didn’t do them.

For example, “I want us to give each other feedback on our work regularly” isn’t specific enough, because regularly for one person might be every two days, while another team member thinks that once a month is fine. Instead, try: “We will meet every Thursday for an hour to share work in progress, and each team member will receive five minutes to provide focused feedback on how their work could be improved.”

images

FIGURE 3 “What Do We Value as a Team?” example output

At first, this specificity may feel overly prescriptive or limiting. Stick with it. Think of these behaviors like building codes in construction. A building can have a thousand different features and functions, but the structure underneath needs clear and defined parameters to ensure that its systems work together and that its occupants are safe.

5. Decide what behaviors the team will take on

Set up this ritual’s diagram in a location that all of your team members can see. One at a time, each person shares the behaviors they’ve identified. Place them under the appropriate value word in the diagram. Then, as a group, prioritize which behaviors everyone wants to carry forward that could have the most impact based on them happening every day, every week, or every month. Teams can only tolerate so much change over a few months, so be honest about this and take care to not overcommit. Most teams are better at continuing existing behaviors than creating new ones.

When you’re done, make sure to place the output of the ritual where everyone can reference it throughout the project, especially if the team wants to make changes.

Routine Check in about Team Values and Behaviors

Your team should regularly discuss how they’re putting their desired behaviors into practice as a team. One approach is to use the ritual “What Should We Change?” in Part 3. You can also give your teammates feedback in the moment to reward behavioral norms that you’ve set up, or make suggestions if a behavior isn’t being modeled in the way everyone had intended.

Define Team Culture around Microcommunication

Emojis and memes and GIFs, oh my! Acronyms, symbols, and non-verbal communication through animated GIFs have become part of our everyday workplace dialogue. We use this lingo to communicate everything from the urgency of a stakeholder request to building the culture and character of a team, often with a dollop of sarcasm or wit. While we’re adapting to this newer aspect of our dialogues, we still need to be aware of the cultural nuances of what we’re trying to express. These communications, digital or otherwise, can still create insular team behaviors.

We encourage teams to create a microcommunication ritual, where they define the everyday workplace jargon and nonverbal cues that may come up. This can be a quick and fun activity. Ask each person to jot down a list of all the workplace acronyms or jargon that they’ve used in the past month, as well as their favorite emojis and animated GIFs. Have each team member share what’s on their list, then create a cheat sheet that new people joining the team can review and contribute to. Update the list as needed.

images RITUAL What Habits Do We Want as a Team?

Habits are individual behaviors that a person repeats over time, triggered by situations experienced in the world. We form and maintain habits because they lead to predictable rewards and positive outcomes. It’s important to remember, though, that those outcomes might not actually be beneficial in the long term. For many of us, it can be difficult to assess the long-term impact of our habits at work. We’re often unaware of our habits, so they can be hard to change.

What you do during your first weeks of work with a new team establishes patterns of behavior for everyone, and those patterns inform the team’s rituals. But our habits as individuals can create the most friction when we start working together. Individual habits are visible to everyone on a team, and they influence the behaviors of others. Habits can be tied to our values, but not always. Some habits have been honed by years of experience, while others may appear to be personality quirks. If we’re not cautious, a habit can set implicit team norms for what behaviors are “acceptable,” even though those behaviors aren’t beneficial for the team over the long term.

In short, personal habits influence how the team acts during rituals. A single person’s habit can ultimately influence an entire set of rituals and routines in a company. This could be a triumph or a catastrophe. Your team members may know better than you the habits that influence the team’s work. This ritual will help you and your team identify the habits they want to take on or foster as a team. The ritual can be done after “What Do We Bring to the Team?” or as an alternative to “What Do We Value As a Team?” for short-term projects.

Self-Assessment: What Habits Have Helped Your Teams?

If you’re seeking more insight about your own habits, try the following activity before participating in this ritual. Think about people you’ve worked with in the past, where there was a habit you felt was beneficial to the team. Consider these questions:

1 What was the specific personal habit, and how did you see it influence the team’s work?

2 Did you take on that habit while you were working with the team? Why or why not?

3 Did the team discuss their intention behind the habit? Why or why not?

Answer these same questions one more time but focus on a habit that was considered counterproductive by the team. After you’ve done this, try this exercise with a coworker, where they give you feedback on one of your habits, and how it may have influenced their own behavior.

1. List individual habits

Set up this ritual’s diagram in a location that all of your team members can see. Ask them to individually write down on sticky notes the habits they think help them be successful when working on teams. They can also write down behaviors or habits they see coworkers exhibiting that they want continued or habits they aren’t seeing that they wish the team would try. These habits are the smaller, more personal ways that we act in the office. They are separate from the larger, team behaviors that inform the values in the previous ritual. But, just like those team behaviors, the more specific the habit, the better. Here are some examples:

images

FIGURE 4 “What Habits Do We Want as a Team?” example output

Write deliverable dates in the calendar in two colors, black ink for the hard deadline and an earlier date in green to make sure things are on schedule.

Respond to email within twenty-four hours, even if just to say when we’ll fully respond.

Don’t accept deadline changes from stakeholders until everyone on the team agrees.

2. Share your habits

Ask each person to share what they’ve written. Place this information in the left column of the diagram.

3. Decide what habits you want to establish

See if any habits or behaviors were suggested by multiple team members. Discuss them as a group and identify which ones the team would like to try. Place those in the right-hand column. Then, as a group, prioritize which of these could have the most impact based on them happening every day, every week, or every month.

To complete the ritual, go back over what the team listed in the second column. A good way to make sure the team’s habits and behaviors are usable is to ask of each item: “We’ll be successful in putting this habit into practice if . . . ?” Capture the output from this ritual in a form that team members can refer to throughout the project.

Routine Hold Check-Ins on Team Habits

Plan check-ins to discuss how things are going with your team’s habits. An adopted habit may become a significant enough behavior that it supports one of your team values; assess its efficacy by doing the “What Do We Value As a Team?” ritual. Focus on the habits and behaviors the team deemed successful and discuss why. Ask the team to consider a similar approach to other habits they’ve been struggling to put into place. If the team can’t make all the changes they wanted to make right away, discuss different approaches that address those challenges. The ritual “What Should We Change?” can help with this process.

Prepare the Team for Next Steps

We don’t always get the opportunity to discuss our values, behaviors, and habits with our teammates. This is a chance for everyone to get to know each other better. Although the conversations that emerge from these rituals may be therapeutic, they shouldn’t be thought of as therapy. Use these rituals as a framework to keep your conversations productive and relevant to your team’s needs.

If you start the team off right internally, it will be easier for them to focus on external concerns, such as the products and services they’re creating and the audiences they’re trying to serve. Let’s look at a few rituals for defining those concerns.

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Endorsements

Turning People into Teams is a treasure trove of exercises to help your team work better together and accomplish more, no matter what discipline you work in. I look forward to sharing this book with leaders in design, product, and engineering.” —Katie Dill, Vice President of Design, Lyft 


“Our organization is always shifting our teams, programs, and products to meet the needs of our network and adapt to an evolving field. I find the rituals and routines in
Turning People into Teams invaluable to keep our team grounded. From strengthening relationships when forming new teams to project delivery and evaluation, the rituals and routines in this book will level up your project management process and guide you to the best possible outcomes.” —Leslie Lindo, Director of Community Engagement, Business Alliance for Local Living Economies 

“I love the Sherwins' articulation of how rituals can be used for real strategic advantage. What I love even more is that using rituals can be one of the most inexpensive, rapid ways to drive meaningful change in your organization.” —Linda Quarles, Director, Strategy + Organizational Design, frog

“Bringing together people with different perspectives and areas of expertise is always a challenge. In Turning People into Teams , the Sherwins equip teams with the context and exercises needed to help them understand each other, break down barriers, and align on long-term goals. Using these exercises with my company's cross-disciplinary teams of designers, engineers, product managers, and data scientists has already led to several breakthroughs in how we identify goals, share feedback, and work together.” —Patrick Weiss, Director of Product Design, Omada Health 
“In Turning People into Teams , the Sherwins share practical rituals, routines, and activities that help teams understand what it means to exhibit ownership, values, and integrity as individual contributors to a collective effort. Curating best practices from corporations, nonprofits, and academia, this book has insights into building effective teams and transforming how they work.” —Ratna Desai, Director of Product Design, Netflix 

“When working on teams, you might not always get to choose whom you work with—but you should definitely choose to read this book.
Turning People into Teams enlightens the reader with an inspiring, common-sense approach on how to turn a group of individuals into a team that functions on multiple levels. The Sherwins practice what they preach, and this book gets rid of the fluff and provides a practical mindset and corresponding tools to evaluate your team's rituals, behaviors, and values. They prove that it's possible for almost anyone to learn the etiquette of collaboration.” —Alie Rose and Simona Maschi, cofounders of the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design 

“In a world with so much written about team processes for greater development speed and effectiveness,
Turning People into Teams provides immediately usable tools for any kind of team to work better together. For anyone leading a multidisciplinary team, this book provides simple frameworks for getting at the hard challenges of team dynamics and a common format for engaging your team that can be experimented with and freely adapted to work within any context.

Many changemakers and writers focus on the initial stages of ensuring a team is aligned to a shared goal. While this is critical, in my work helping organizations transform to be more innovative, I find the true test of change to be how it plays out over time. The Sherwins provide not only effective methods for framing the problem to be solved but also tools for completing a team's efforts and learning from what has been done. Written in a tone that invites readers to craft their own solutions, this book offers a way of approaching teamwork that you and your team can own and adapt to your needs.”
—Turi McKinley, Executive Director, Org Activation, frog

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