Creating great teams

I first heard Kim Scott on a podcast, I’ve forgotten which one, where she talked about radical candor and how to inspire teams to create great work. It made great sense to me, especially labelling members as Rockstars and Superstars – it’s a categorization I have tried to articulate in the past.

I walk around the campus where I work and see a vibrant mix of races and cultures. Every one of those people has a different voice … a different perspective … a different story to tell. All of that makes our company an exciting and special place to be, and allows us to do great things together. We are urgently working to become much more diverse, because it’s so important to our future success. I firmly believe that whether you’re building a company or leading a country, a diverse mix of voices and backgrounds and experiences leads to better discussions, better decisions, and better outcomes for everyone.
Sundar Pichai talking about a far more serious topic, Let’s not let fear defeat our values

This is how I feel about teams and who would we should have in them. The conflicts and differences between us bring about greater ideas and ultimately better work. unfortunately it’s not an idea often shared by many companies in Taiwan.

We need brilliant people working in our companies to take them to the next level but we also need smart people with humility and flexibility in their thinking. There’s not always “one best way” to do something; there are many paths. We are better team mates when we listen, when others can challenge us, and when we can admit to ourselves and others that we might be wrong.

McKnight Principles of Innovation

William L. McKnight’s (3M chairman of the board from 1949 to 1966):

“As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women, to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way.
“Mistakes will be made. But if a person is essentially right, the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell those in authority exactly how they must do their jobs.
“Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.”


Project Management Tips

“One thing that derails projects is the lack of a discrete beginning or end. Projects either meet with dissatisfaction from their sponsors, or they amble on past deadlines as scope creep locks you, the project manager, into a lengthy and morphing situation of countless follow-up tasks. Here’s a trick. Use this measurement up front: From what to what by when?
My favourite project de-railer is when the features and goals of a project constantly shift like quicksand. You spend all your time building and managing a part of a project only to find out 3 months later that a sponsor has changed their mind and don’t want it anymore.
Read the full article.

Christmas Books on IA and Teams

I received a number of books for Christmas and I thought I would share a couple. I’m not one for book reviews but I’m sure some of the thoughts contained in these books will make it into later posts. I have hard time getting through my library of texts pertaining to Information Architecture, Experience Design, and the like. You have to be pretty dedicated to read from the beginning to end George Lakoff’s “Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things” or even Sorting Things Out. These books just seem very dry. I have high hopes for Peter Morville’s Ambient Findability which at first glance looks well written with an easily digestible format similar to Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think”. Amazon describes the book better than I will as follows:

“How do you find your way in an age of information overload? How can you filter streams of complex information to pull out only what you want? Why does it matter how information is structured when Google seems to magically bring up the right answer to your questions? What does it mean to be “findable” in this day and age? This eye-opening new book examines the convergence of information and connectivity. Written by Peter Morville, author of the groundbreaking Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, the book defines our current age as a state of unlimited findability. In other words, anyone can find anything at any time. Complete navigability.”

The other book, Ricardo Semier’s “Maverick” might also prove to be a good read and it’s a topic I’m quite interested in – how to transform your workplace. Here’s a long passage from the end of the book:

“To survive in modern times, a company must have an organizational structure that accepts change as its basic premise, lets tribal customs thrive, and fosters a power that is derived from respect, not rules. In other words, the successful companies will be the ones that put quality of life first. Do this and the rest – quality of product, productivity of workers, profits for all – will follow. At Semco we did away with strictures that dictate the “hows” and created fertile soil for differences. We gave people an opportunity to test, question, and disagree. We let them determine their own futures. We let them come and go as they wanted, work at home if they wished, set their own salaries, choose their own bosses. We let them change their minds and ours, prove us wrong when we are wrong, make us humbler. Such a system relishes change, which is the only antidote to the corporate brainwashing that has consigned giant businesses with brilliant pasts to uncertain futures.”

Ambient Findability : What We Find Changes Who We Become and Maverick : The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace

Mix it up.

To create creative groups of people don’t rely exclusively on cohesion – bring in new people with new ideas and different ways of doing things.
“We found that teams that achieved success — by producing musicals on Broadway or publishing academic papers in good journals — were fundamentally assembled in the same way, by bringing in some experienced people who had not worked together before. The unsuccessful teams repeated the same collaborations over and over again.”
“We discovered that assembling a successful team depends on choosing the right balance of diversity and cohesion — achieving the bliss point intersection of the two.” Diversity represents new collaborations while cohesion comes from repeat collaborations.
Dream teams thrive on mix of old and new blood

Help for Team Efforts

Good article on teams.
“Vince Lombardi, the successful leader of football teams and of men in general, said this about teams: “Individual commitment to a group effort — that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” Lombardi knew the secret to success was not “knowing” something that others did not, but, rather, in executing a plan in a way others would not or could not.”
Read: Help for Team Efforts- Darwin Magazine

Where do These People Get Their (Unoriginal) Ideas

“We all know that knowledge workers work best by getting into “flow”, also known as being “in the zone”, where they are fully concentrated on their work and fully tuned out of their environment. They lose track of time and produce great stuff through absolute concentration. This is when they get all of their productive work done. Writers, programmers, scientists, and even basketball players will tell you about being in the zone.
The trouble is, getting into “the zone” is not easy. When you try to measure it, it looks like it takes an average of 15 minutes to start working at maximum productivity. Sometimes, if you’re tired or have already done a lot of creative work that day, you just can’t get into the zone and you spend the rest of your work day fiddling around, reading the web, playing Tetris.
The other trouble is that it’s so easy to get knocked out of the zone. Noise, phone calls, going out for lunch, having to drive 5 minutes to Starbucks for coffee, and interruptions by coworkers — ESPECIALLY interruptions by coworkers — all knock you out of the zone. If you take a 1 minute interruption by a coworker asking you a question, and this knocks out your concentration enough that it takes you half an hour to get productive again, your overall productivity is in serious trouble. If you’re in a noisy bullpen environment like the type that caffinated dotcoms love to create, with marketing guys screaming on the phone next to programmers, your productivity will plunge as knowledge workers get interrupted time after time and never get into the zone.”

The Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, all about this phenomenon is a worthy read.
I can remember years ago locking myself in a studio working on music and losing track of time for hours on end. Performances were the same. It’s like waking from a dream. Any interruption would kill this level of concentration which was why there were no phones and the door was locked at all times. No windows either.
When I briefly worked a day job the phone was our enemy. We had understanding management who tried to tackle the phone problems by hiring people to deal with it. Productivity went up and so did their profits.
Fast forward to the office environment I work in today. I don’t believe anyone gets in the zone there.
Everyone is a client contact, everyone a project manager (in addition to being designers,etc), and everyone is essentially grouped together socially. The phones are always ringing, people wander around interrupting others to answer questions instead of researching the answer themselves, all manner of people can interrupt (including management) and regularly do (since there is no do not disturb sign and no door to close), people are constantly coming and going, constant chit chat around the cubicles instead of predefined social areas, and did I mention the constant phone calls? Especially the dumb bastard who has kept trying to send a fax through on my office phone for the past five years. Of course not just one try but 4 or more over the space of an hour. Five years, still no clue.
“We should be working in fortresses of solitude, isolated from all distraction, with chilled iced tea and small snacks at the ready. Instead we plop ourselves into distraction cauldrons. Our social lives benefit immeasurably (and that’s not an altogether bad thing). But focus suffers as a result.” Hat tip reinvented.
Later: (08/03) People often say that I am overly critical, a bit harsh, and seemingly negative. Wow. On reread of the above some of that seems to be true, so in the interest of providing balance I should say something nice.
Their are many positive aspects to an open and communicative environment. The constant social interaction creates lasting friendships – many in the office are like family to me. It allows you to bounce off the intensity of others. I can see that my co-workers are working hard so I respond to that social pressure by working hard too (or by pretending to work hard). I have a wealth of knowledge just a shout away and can easily see what other people are working on. I’m pretty sure when ‘the company’ created our work spaces they were primarily just following industry trends and trying to spend as little money as possible (though they tend waste a ton in other areas). Our environment is extremely flexible – all that is really cool. Unless of course you are really focussed on learning, working, and being productive.
The ‘wearing of many hats’ has many benefits as well. I have always been an advocate of allowing people to generalise. It can bring fresh insights to projects to have different people to perform different roles. The fact that I have studied and applied all kinds of knowledge that could be used in many different roles within a team has been invaluable to me. Where else could I have lead huge information architecture projects with so little experience? This kind of approach has to be managed though, because eventually people need to focus on something. People need something to call there own. You can’t invest in training someone to be an instructional designer, have them invest themselves in the role, and then turn around and say that this year you will be a web producer. That shows a lack of respect for the role, the profession, and the person. It’s costly as well.
Was that positive?
Joel on Software – Where do These People Get Their (Unoriginal) Ideas?

Models of Collaboration

“The goal of this article is to help you determine which model(s) of collaboration are important to your organization. Figure 1 (below) shows how each of these models relates to each other based on the size of the population that uses them and the level of interactivity. As you can see we go from the Library model, which is really reciprocal data/content that can be accessed by a large number of people and not really inter-active, to the Team and Process Support Models, which usually are used by smaller and more interactive groups of people. Each of the model types is explained in greater detail below.”
Link: Models of Collaboration

E-learning teams

Don’t really have a proper category for this old tidbit which I found reviewing some old papers. The following are a couple excerpts from a conference paper I participated in way back in 1998. That paper was the final deliverable for a position I held at UPEI starting I believe in 1997. Though at the time I remember being completely exasperated it was a great job that helped close the door once and for all on my music career. Despite the technical teams’ inexperience and only budding skill I still think that the team make-up was one of the best I have seen in e-learning product development since.
“The development process began from several philosophical and practical principles:

  • interaction was the key to learning – journals, bulletin boards, within-group email, discussion groups
  • courses had to be visually attractive, easy to use, interesting and challenging
  • the resources of the group, the Internet and the Library would be incorporated into the learning process
  • the teaching strengths of the individual faculty members had to be reflected in the design of each course
  • the bandwidth demands of the final version had to be small enough to accommodate typical computer equipment and browsers
  • materials had to be cross-platform stable
  • the course design would be modular and allow for open access and exit as much as possible,
  • no pay-to-use operating software would be used and unique programming solutions would be developed as needed
  • the project would be a team effort – faculty controlled content, open learning manager directed educational design, project administrator found resources as needed and the technical members developed visual and technical solutions to solve educational and content needs
  • as much as possible, solutions found for one course would be adapted for use in the other course”

Bill Robertson

“… to undertake the transformation process I follow in moving a face-to-face course into a flexible delivery mode. The transformer "is the skilled professional who mediates between the expert and the reader. Their job is to put the expert’s message in a form that reader can understand and to look after the reader’s interest in general. For example, any reasonable query the reader might have should be thought about and catered for in a proper manner." (M. MacDonald-Ross and R. Walker, ‘The Transformer’ The Penrose Annual , 1976). Tranformation was developed as a concept for the presentation of information in the 1930’s by Otto Neurath and has been an interest of educational research since that time.
Transformation draws on the practices of educational technology, instructional design, graphic art, editing and flexible education, and makes a contribution, which is distinctive and individual. Theorists place less emphasis on behaviorist strategies than do some educational designers and may place less emphasis on aesthetic criteria than do artists and graphic designers. Their view is to facilitate the transformation of information and ensure that communication is improved and learning enhanced. This all takes time – the one thing we did not have.
The transformation process I follow involves auditing the face-to-face lessons, transforming the face-to-face reality into a distance education mode. I then discuss this transformation with the professor and, where possible, students. The trick here is to capture the ‘magic’ of the individual facilitator and transform it into the electronic mode. The next stage is to work closely with the team to undertake the final transformation to an on-line course. This entails coding the interactive components of the face-to-face lesson into self- assessment exercises and information sharing for the on-line learner.”
Dale Mattock
From "The Making of Practical Logic 111"
Neb Kujundzic, Clark MacLeod, Dale Mattock, Mike O’Brien, Bill Robertson

The Power of Process, The Perils of Process

“The power of a well-defined process is the creation of order amidst chaos. When it works, it can be like a fine-tuned machine, and our design work is better for it.
On the flip side, problems happen when people get complacent about the structure they are working within. Expanding phases excessively, becoming rigid about the order or duration of each phase, or even over-documenting the elements within a phase can backfire on a team. There are also problems when one team decides to work in a totally different way than another within the same group. Suddenly, no one knows what to expect, what the level of thinking or quality of the product will be, and internal fighting over whose process is best ensues.”
Link: The Power of Process, The Perils of Process

Teams within an IT department

Whenever I finish a project (certainly large ones) I usually spend some time analysing my own failures and successes, and any problems I may have encountered within the team I might be working with. In the past we would take this personal analysis and share it within the team in the hope that the next project could improve upon the last.
Having just finished a rather long agonizing project I have been going through this same process, albeit unfortunately alone.
One of the things I have been doing is reviewing some basic literature about IT teams. They don’t directly relate to the type of people I work with on a day to day basis but they provide some interesting fundamental lessons.
“The team needs a dedicated project room to conduct all meetings and display all project artifacts. The room should have several large whiteboards and be equipped with a high quality conference phone. It must be dedicated for the duration of the project, including its retrospective. The room should openly display any artifact that is needed by the team. Over the years I

Dynamics of multi-cultural multi-lingual teams

“It’s the journey not the destination”
The process of building or the act of creating something is infinitely more enjoyable than the appreciation of the product itself. There are so many variables that affect a products development, an end product can never reach the level of perfection envisioned in the creators mind. As such when you define a successful project as one with an enjoyable process, the way in which we work and who we work with are central to this ideal. I am working on a short essay with regards to the dynamics of design teams in Taiwan and here are some of the issues which I am addressing.
1) Language
This is this most obvious. When working with multi lingual teams language will always be a problem. There are many ways to deal with this problem including setting a one language policy (usually English), active translation, excessive documentation, excessive illustrations, and the most fun a mixture of rich illustrations and Chinese and English language. The language of design and art tends to stay in the realm of the abstract for extended periods of time making shared understanding difficult in any language. Add the inherent difficulties with communicating across different cultures and languages and this difficulty with increase exponentially .
2) Term definitions
What does information design mean to you? What does it mean in relation to the project at present? How do you develop storyboards? When? It is essential to start a project definitions document at the beginning to ensure that everyone has a common understanding.
3) Lack of equality
The strict hierarchy present in so many teams and groups.
4) Resistance
5) Individualism
Its always more efficient to go it alone.

Film Director Metaphor

I was reading the discussions on Elegant Hack and other places about “big IA” and “little IA” when I found this link which I think uses an interesting metaphor to describe the work I do.

From IAwiki: “This idea of a different role particularly resonates with me, as I


I seem to be living in a world of soloists. People with their own personal agendas unable to see the greater music that is capable by working in concert with other people.

Years ago the Japanese showed the western world the power of their team based business environment. People working closely together toward a common goal. The west took up this model destroying office walls and erecting ugly uniform low walled cubicles. Flat management has been the mantra and it has seen success.

It now to seems to me that we have maintained the outward appearance of “businessized” team work, the ugly cubicle farms, and the homegeniety that it brings, without people actually thinking as one. There is a rebellion – the cubicles get higher walls, in the veiled excuse of wanting a place for plants, and we no longer talk as equals, people in different roles, playing different instruments directed by not a concertmaster but the vision of the composer. Taking and giving, leading and supporting done automatically without thought for oneself but for the idea of creating beauty, of creating something unique. Truly beautiful music is never created by a room full of soloists.

King Canute

“Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings. For there is none worthy of the name but God, whom heaven, earth and sea obey”.

So spoke King Canute the Great, the legend says, seated on his throne on the seashore, waves lapping round his feet. Canute had learned that his flattering courtiers claimed he was “So great, he could command the tides of the sea to go back”. Now Canute was not only a religious man, but also a clever politician. He knew his limitations – even if his courtiers did not – so he had his throne carried to the seashore and sat on it as the tide came in, commanding the waves to advance no further. When they didn’t, he had made his point that, though the deeds of kings might appear ‘great’ in the minds of men, they were as nothing in the face of God’s power.

Excerpt from