Three Truths About Teamwork (with a Collaborative Twist)

A Theory with Practical Implications for Your Collaboration Ecosystem

For the past few months, we’ve peered into the future of teamwork.

I have a theory we can use to inform the design of future collaborative ecosystems, and would love your thoughts.

In this Article

With Visions of Teams Dancing in Their Heads

How are teams changing? What remains constant? Where do our established practices hold up, and where must they evolve? And what kind of teams are we talking about anyway? So many questions!

Submerged in many ponderings, I poked my head up to enjoy some YouTube. But my background mind kept swimming in these questions! To simulate my experience, quietly mumble "teams, teams, teams" under your breath while watching this video.

What do you notice?

WOW!!!

On my first viewing, I noticed the giddy rush of it. I delighted in these joyous daredevil athletes.

Then, I saw this comment:

Can we give a round of applause to the camera crew and the edit team. They just added another level to the experience

I hit play again, this time watching for the achievements of everyone beyond the camera frame.

Try it and wonder afresh. Yes, the camera crew was amazing. Also, amazing people must have groomed the course, built the gear, trained the athletes, and choreographed the sweet moves.

This "best party lap ever" is a gleeful culmination of teamwork.

Teamwork: The coordinated effort of a group of individuals pursuing a common goal.

When you notice contributions from many invisible hands, you also realize that daring athletic feats only become possible because many people agreed to help. The athletes had predictable, reliable support from their gear and colleagues and ample time to practice until they nailed it.

In that video, you can see evidence of three truths about teamwork.

1. Teamwork requires agreement.
A whole bunch of folks had to agree on dates, design details, sequences, and more to make this video. Every team - from skiers to nurses to software engineers - operates according to their own what, where, when, how, and who agreements.

2. Predictability enables focus and unlocks creativity.
Can you commit to a jump if your boots randomly detach? How would you time your flip in the snow pipe if you couldn't predict where your flipping partner would be? Would you lug your cameras up a frozen mountain if you weren't sure the athletes would show? The greatest innovation becomes possible only once many of the details have become so boringly predictable that team members can forget about them.

3. Performance improves by tuning processes and practices.
Teams, like individuals, get better after practicing and working out the kinks. In the ski train above, you can see that this isn't the first time those folks hit the slopes. You can also see that they've tuned their environment for that performance, just like knowledge workers do. Neither snow pipes nor project whiteboards are naturally occurring features.

My Theory: These basic truths apply to all forms of teamwork, but the practical implications vary depending on the nature of the team. 

Some "teams" barely coordinate their efforts, while others collaborate deeply on an ongoing basis.

Collaboration: The process of working together to develop an innovative solution for a complex challenge.

On LinkedIn, Carrie Lopez asked, "Are teamwork and collaboration different?" and Paul McGregor replied.

Yep, definitely different. My friend Ann Braithwaite explains it like this.

Collaboration is The Rolling Stones coming up with ‘Angie’ together. 

Teamwork is them playing it on the night."

It's a neat definition that demonstrates how the same group of people can work together in different ways depending on the task at hand. Thinking about the three truths, you can also see how showing up to play the song requires far less agreement, predictability, and iterative performance tuning between team members than the act of co-creation.

Tailoring the Collaborative Ecosystem to the Team

Some teams - like the Rolling Stones, the Red Bull Ski Train crew, and a new startup team - aim to collaborate frequently at a high level. Others, like the ushers and ticket booth staff at a Rolling Stones concert, would be shocked spitless if asked to team up and innovate. The ticket booth folks don’t work in that kind of team.

Road crews, delivery drivers, and HR administrators coordinate their efforts but rarely collaborate. Entrepreneurs, creative squads, and leadership teams collaborate often.

While teams may sometimes collaborate more and less during different phases of their time together, most operate within a standard collaborative range. We can plot different groups on one axis by their most frequent collaboration style (from Communication to Collaboration) and on the other by the time and attention they dedicate to working as a team.

The three truths hold for all of these groups, but because groups interact in different ways, the way we use these truths to evaluate and improve the fitness of a collaborative ecosystem will vary.

Why does this matter? If you've been following this series, you know I'm putting together a refreshed guide to forming Team Agreements. These are a special form of living and evolving agreement used by some teams, but not by all. As I pondered why this practice hasn't spread more widely, I began to see that it's because not every team needs a Team Agreement. What’s more, I now believe that taking time to form Team Agreements may be wasteful and potentially harmful to the health of teams that rarely collaborate.

I also believe that Team Agreements are essential for any team that wants to operate as a Deep Team. Let's explore this and other Practical Implications of these three truths.

The First Truth: Teamwork requires agreement.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.

Some agreements are explicitly formed between team members. Others come as mandates and announcements, which team members comply with tacitly.

For many groups, these agreements are formed by leadership and communicated to teams. Basketball team members receive the practice and game schedule and then demonstrate their agreement when they show up. On the field, they adopt the behavioral standards set when they join the team and by their coach. That's how agreements work for communities of practice and many functional teams too.

Should they skip practice or refuse to pick up the ball when they do, that's breaking the agreement.

I know this is basic. But I no longer believe we can assume these agreements are obvious to everyone, and without agreement, you have no team. I'm hearing more and more stories about folks who don't show up to work or who refuse assignments from managers baffled by how to respond.

Agreements That Support All Teams

So for all teams, it's become increasingly important to make agreements explicit. I encourage you to take this further than you think necessary. Ask people to confirm agreements both in writing and out loud to invoke the principle of commitment and behavioral consistency.

Then, you have to enforce them. Broken agreements break trust and break teams. That's okay for Affiliations, but all other groups need to know they can count on others to do their part.

Collaborative deep teams need even more support.

Agreements for Deep Teams

1. Create team-owned Team Agreements.

Because deep teams need the flexibility to solve challenges in creative ways, they have to be largely self-governed. Team Agreements that they create and evolve together make it possible for them to effectively share leadership and responsibility for results.

2. Ensure easy access to all documented agreements. 

Since collaborative work is constantly evolving, the ability for every team member to easily look up the latest version of their agreements frees up time and cognitive overhead. Without this easy access, team members waste a lot of time questioning, forming, and reforming these agreements. See the previous article on the implications of unaddressed Collaborative Drift.

2. Make day-to-day communication transparent.

Fluid tasks and emerging understandings require constant adjustments and context clarification. "Working out loud" helps team members understand any action taken that falls outside of the team's established agreements, preventing possible confusion and broken trust. Distributed teams will use Slack or Teams to keep a living pulse running so everyone has all the information they need to quickly make quality decisions.

And, because the nature of collaborative work is complex, adaptive, and fundamentally hard to pin down, there's a twist when designing for deep teams.

🔀 The Collaborative Twist: Agreement limits possibilities.

One team's liberating agreement may be another's straitjacket and yet another's gibberish. Deep teams need to pay careful attention to ensure their agreements enable rather than constrain collaboration.

⚠️ Warning Signs That Your Agreements Need Work

  • Groupthink
    Too much agreement can stifle dissenting opinions and creativity. When you see this, try experimenting with practices that increase conflict. For example, a simple Five-Finger check, Ritual Dissent, or exploring topic frames are all pretty cool ways to get started.

  • Isolationism

    Teams that work well together may become so confident in the "rightness" of their way that they fail to gracefully integrate with other groups, creating silos that slow down the larger organization. When you see this, consider sending team members to shadow or liaison with other groups. Host fishbowls, informal interviews, and connect with people outside the team at lunch.

  • Over-Formalization

    Excessive focus on agreement can lead to bureaucratic slowdowns. When you see this, review your agreements and streamline whatever you can. Here's one way to find and eliminate BS in your process.

  • Dominance, Dependence, and Social Loafing:

    Unclear processes for decision-making or conflict resolution can leave a vacuum that more assertive team members will fill, unintentionally stifling diverse opinions and creating decision bottlenecks. When you see this, it's important to surface any assumptions that may be leading to these behaviors. Respectfully state what you've noticed and invite the team to form a new agreement. Refer to Crucial Conversations and Radical Candor for effective guidance on holding these conversations.

The Second Truth: Predictability enables focus and unlocks creativity.

I like having a routine, because everything else... is so unpredictable.

Jordana Brewster, of Fast & Furious fame

If you want to write “Angie” with your Rolling Stones buddies, you need to be able to predict where you can find them, that your guitar strings will hold a tune, and your pencils hold a point.

We are blessed with a physical world governed by predictable natural laws, and we rely on these to hold steady as we go about our business. The digital world does not afford us the same degree of predictability. Who knows when the next system upgrade will move all the icons on your computer? It's an unpredictable mystery that can tank your productivity.

Innovation and creativity build on top of predictable bases. In all our manufactured environments, both physical and digital, it is up to us to create that predictability.

Practical Predictability for All Teams

Create an environment where the right thing to do is the natural and obvious thing to do.

Core agreements – like schedules, policies, and plans – form the foundation. We can predict when work will happen because operating hours are printed on the front door.

Then, we embed the values we want people to live by in organizational rituals. Rituals - like the way new people are welcomed to the team, victories celebrated, and losses mourned - create a predictable way to reinforce the desired culture.

Collaborative work is, by nature, unpredictable, which raises the bar.

How Predictability Unlocks Deep Teaming

Functional groups within top-down organizations often work in wildly incompatible ways that incite silo wars. When you first study organizations that have flattened their hierarchies, distributed decision rights to everyone, and embraced deep self-managing teams, you may expect seriously gnarly inter-team friction.

You may be surprised. In reality, successful increases in self-management are always associated with an increase in predictable process clarity.

Take Haier, for example.

This Chinese appliance company reorganized operations into 4,000+ self-managed microenterprises consisting of up to 15 employees each.

While each microenterprise chooses how they form and what they work on independently, they share the same practices for planning, goal setting, forming agreements with other microenterprises, and coordinating workflows.

By liberating self-managed teams to work within a predictable collaborative ecosystem, Haier has grown revenue by 18+ percent per year since 2015 and has created more than $2 billion in new market value. Read more about Haier's journey from McKinsey and in this video by Corporate Rebels.

You can bring greater predictability to collaborative work when you:

1. Schedule time to collaborate together AND focus apart. 

Put time on the calendar for working together. You may not know when the brilliant idea will emerge, but you can know when you'll get a chance to pull it into shape with your colleagues. For example, the software company Coda reserves agenda-free Bullpen time each week where all employees work together on whatever came up. Knowing they have that time together also makes it easier to set aside meeting-free "maker time" on other days, ensuring at least one afternoon or day each week is dedicated to focus work.

2. Standardize critical processes.

Establishing consistent processes reduces uncertainty and allows team members to focus on their tasks. Standardize (and ideally, automate) anything that you need to see happen in a predictable way over time. If a practice is common to many teams, such as your approach to decision-making or inter-team coordination, establish these standards across the entire organization.

3. Openly share resources.

Predictable access to resources (time, tools, information) means the team can focus on writing the song rather than finding a pencil. Share frequently and abundantly.

🔀 The Collaborative Twist: Creative work is unpredictable.

Routines are normal, natural, healthy things. Most of us take a shower and brush our teeth every day. That is a good routine. Spiritual disciplines are routines. That is a good thing. But once routines become routine you need to change your routine.

Mark Batterson

⚠️ Warning Signs That You're TOO Predictable

  • Dogmatism

    There is no "right" way, only right-enough ways for now. Teams who place unquestioning faith in their process will fail to consider useful alternatives. When you see this, ask: how has this practice changed? What's the latest thinking? What works well for us, and what needs updating? Teams that find questioning their practice uncomfortable may benefit by using techniques like De Bono's Six Thinking Hats to role-play the skeptic and challenge the status quo.

  • Risk Intolerance

    Attempts to control every aspect of a team's work inhibit exploration, experimentation, and innovation. When you see this, shake it up! This is a great time to play with pre-mortems, critical uncertainties, and other thinking tools that highlight scenarios where your risk aversion will lead to your ultimate doom.

  • Complacency

    Over-reliance on predictable processes can lead to complacency and resistance to change. When you see this, shake it up! If possible, get the whole team into a new environment and a new situation. While you're away, ask: where have we become complacent? What assumptions are we operating under? What if the opposite were true? What then? Networking analysts have found that the energy and connection created in offsite team gatherings positively impact team performance for up to four months following the event.

Credit: Atlassian

Teams must continue questioning their practices as the work evolves. When they do, they gain the benefits realized by the third truth.

Third Truth: Performance improves by frequently tuning teamwork.

If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.

Lao Tzu

Experiment, identify a successful pattern, practice it, reflect, and refine. That's how we learn and improve as individuals and as teams. I believe the implications are the same for all teams, but that groups will go through these steps at different speeds.

Practical Performance Tuning Tips for All Teams

1. Plan to pause.

Ensure time for learning and reflection is built into all schedules. At the team level, this means time for retrospectives, peer consulting, and advice councils. The frequency of these learning events should directly correlate with the speed at which you wish to improve.

2. Create feedback loops.

Continuously gather data and stories to inform robust decisions.

3. Make small changes common and big changes rare.

Regularly tweak your approach to optimize performance. Reserve large changes for responding to new challenges or opportunities. This ensures a large degree of predictability within an ever-improving ecosystem.

Example: Pixar's Braintrust

Pixar's famous Braintrust meeting serves as a ritual pillar of their ecosystem that exemplifies these guidelines and embodies all three truths.

  • Agreement: Braintrusts operate by agreements on how work is presented, who provides feedback, the kind of feedback shared, and who decides what to do with it.

  • Predictability: A regular schedule and clear process for presenting and responding help participants focus their attention on the creative delight and truth in the story, rather than the meeting mechanics.

  • Performance Tuning: Braintrusts are planned feedback opportunities where movie makers can get advice early and often. This reduces the likelihood that any single project will experience major upheaval since no one is just working off in their mystical creative cave for too long without input from folks more tuned in to market dynamics.

I'm a huge believer in continuous improvement. I believe we can always be more efficient, more balanced, more regenerative, more brilliant, and more excellent.

"Excellence is not a gift, but a skill that takes practice. We do not act 'rightly' because we are 'excellent'; in fact, we achieve 'excellence' by acting 'rightly.'"

Plato

So while it rubs my soul the wrong way to say it, I must acknowledge the risks of over-optimization.

🔀 The Collaborative Twist: Highly-tuned systems can be fragile.

Do you know how many mission-critical military systems run on software programmed using old versions of Fortran? Legacy Fortran is not a hip language for new programmers to study, so this is great job security for the handful of old-guard guys keeping these systems alive. (I met these guys. They are fascinating!)

These antiquated systems work reliably. It would be incredibly expensive and risky to achieve the same degree of reliability by updating them to more modern technologies. You don't hook programs like these to the internet so they can download the latest security patch, which makes ongoing maintenance trickier too. So far, we're okay. But there's an increasing risk that someday, these systems will need love from a knowledgeable Fortran guy who's no longer there.

This situation isn’t unique to old computer systems. It’s familiar to anyone tasked with nursing along a legacy system that's both mission-critical and hopelessly out of date. You’ve seen what happens when we create a system that works so well that it never gets updated.

Beyond our work systems, we're seeing the fragility of over-optimization in the natural world too. Species finely adapted to their niche ecosystem are dying out as the climate changes.

Collaborative teams need to be more resilient than that.

⚠️ Warning Signs That You've Over-Optimized

  • Single points of failure. 

    Fine-tuning can create systems optimized for current conditions but fragile in the face of new or unexpected changes. When you review your operations, ask: What could change that would mean we need to change the way we work? Can we tweak our practice to be more flexible should that change occur?

  • Change fatigue. 

    While continuous improvement can increase performance, it also takes energy. Frequent changes can overwhelm team members and reduce overall morale and productivity. Make sure your performance tuning practice includes tuning your rate of change to one that grows rather than saps team energy.

  • Diminishing returns. 

    Constantly tuning processes requires significant time and resources, which might be better spent elsewhere. Sometimes, good enough is good enough.

The End of the Theoretical Romp. Thoughts?

I've been focused on team collaboration for several decades now and, as I mentioned in the intro, aggressively questioning my assumptions of late.

This theory is new to me, and I believe directionally – but not comprehensively – correct. My behind-the-scenes review partners say that it makes sense to them and helps explain many of the teaming challenges they've encountered. It also helps me square the dissonance I experienced after listening to collaboration experts sing the praises of Team Agreements, and then admit that hardly anyone creates them.

I'm interested in your take.

Resonance Check

How are these ideas landing for you? This article represents a first pass. Your feedback will inform future improvements.

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

  1. Do you agree with my theory about the three truths?
    Note: this isn't intended to be an exhaustive list, merely a useful one.

  2. Does this mapping of groups by collaboration style match your experience?

    It's inspired by existing frames ranging from teamwork models (see this article for an intro to several existing models) to Arthur Himmelman's Developmental Continuum of Change Strategies for multi-organization relationships. I find the map to be a near-but-imperfect fit, and sufficient unto the day. How about you?

  3. What additional practical implications do you see here?

  4. As we use and refine these ideas going forward, what else should we consider? 

I'm eagerly awaiting your ratings, email replies, comments, and if you think this is cool, your enthusiasm.

Happily signing off to go mumble "teams, teams teams" away from the computer,

Elise

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