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Holding onto a Collaborative Way of Working

It is well known that collaborative ways of working (pairing, swarming, and mobbing) lead to more effective results for a team. When a team adopts this way of working and focuses on developing a “shared understanding” for what they work on and how they work, everything becomes a little easier to accomplish as a team. Not only does a team get an opportunity to “tap into the collective intelligence” in the room by building on each other’s ideas, it’s also rewarding to work with your team to solve problems collaboratively.

Then why doesn’t every team see a benefit in a collaborative style of working? What hinders teams from working in this way? How about if we help teams experience this way of working? Will the experience make it stick?

I want to share a story of a team who accidentally gravitated to a collaborative way of working and found immense joy in it. It’s now part of their BEING — their Team Culture. Having experienced it firsthand, the team is now tenaciously holding on to this way of working.

A Team’s experience shapes their Journey

Let us go back a couple of years in the history of a team — named the Inventory Team! In the summer of 2020, this team was working on an initiative that required a lot of product domain knowledge, and yet with some of the recent team changes that had occurred — the air was filled with uncertainty, fear, and doubt. Critical subject matter experts on the team had recently left the organization, and the team was feeling a strong sense of anxiety.

How was the team going to cope with continuing to meet the outcomes of their current initiative without having deep knowledge of their product domain?

The journey of this team and how they came together had us eagerly watching at the edge of our seats.

From this pivotal moment, the inventory team has transformed into a curious, deliberate, and collaborative team.

What contributed to this shift? Let’s take a look.

Mindset of the Leader

When a team is experiencing a lot of changes — the mindset of the leader has a great impact on the team and their ability to cope with the changes.

Positive Outlook

The inventory team’s leader embraced a positive outlook and helped the team see the forest from the trees. This outlook provided a ray of hope for the team and it’s just what they needed to continue to “believe” that the best was yet to come.

Having a positive mindset was a good start, but what else did they need to discover a new way of working?

Space and Freedom to Experiment

One of the desires of the inventory team’s leader was to give his team the autonomy and safety to experiment with finding better ways of working. He wanted the team to “try new things”, “fail fast and learn”. Experimentation would be essential if the team was going to be diving into codebases that were unfamiliar to them.

I was curious about how the leader set the stage for this to happen. When I probed a little, he shared — “I turned to my leader and asked for grace for my team and some space to be able to experiment, fail and learn.”

The simplicity and brilliance of this step had a profound impact on the team. Not only did this leader create a safety net for the team; he also set clear expectations with his leader while doing the same. The team was able to let go of control and lean on each other to build from this point forward.

When you allow a team to experiment, fail fast and learn early there is a sense of freedom and a level of safety that creates a momentum for continuous improvement.

Willingness of the Team

When a team is in the thick of experiencing changes, it is critical to not sweep things under the rug and ignore the challenges that are coming their way.

Acknowledgment and Acceptance

The inventory team was going through a relentless number of changes one after another. Openly acknowledging and accepting the changes was a healthy way to approach the uncertainty ahead. It grounded the team and provided a point for the team to build from.

Energy flows where the attention goes. What did the team need to do to find a way forward?

Coming Together as a Collective

When a team acknowledges and accepts the challenges ahead of them, it creates the right conditions for their journey ahead. There is a sense of being on the journey “together”. That is exactly what the inventory team did.

The team started with openly talking about the things that needed to change for increased effectiveness. They put all the cards on the table, listened to each other’s ideas, treated each other with mutual respect and stepped forward together.

The team organically established a few ground rules that served as a good foundation to build their team system:

  1. Open Communication: In a distributed team environment, slack was used to openly communicate at all times.

  2. Radical Transparency: There was a great level of transparency about what each team member knew in their codebase.

  3. Egos at the Door: The team decided to set egos aside, irrespective if they were an old or new team member.

  4. Learn collectively: If the team lacked knowledge of a part of their codebase, they decided to mob, swarm or pair depending on what was needed.

When the team tapped into what they valued they established a sense of BEING as a Collective.

Would the team have the courage to discover ways of working that did not fit the norm? Would they have the courage to stand alone?

Shifting to a Collaborative way of working

As the team started learning together and collaboratively breaking down the silos of knowledge within the team, they started to develop stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Here are some shifts we started to see:

  1. Increased Confidence: As the team started to learn more parts of their codebase, their confidence slowly increased. The transparency with which they started to bust their silos of knowledge, helped the team feel like they were in it together. The increased confidence helped with forward momentum.

  2. Ability to Adapt in the Moment (mob, swarm, pair or work individually): When the team initially started learning together, they defaulted to mobbing for all the work they did. However, as their domain knowledge increased, they creatively came up with a way to determine if a particular task or story would benefit from mobbing, swarming or pairing. This helped the team sense and respond based on the needs of the initiative and the extent of shared understanding that had already been developed.

  3. Making Collective Decisions: Since the team’s default way of being was a “collective”, making decisions easily fell into the same model. The team leaned on documenting their thought processes, talking through all ideas openly and selecting the best way forward. The approach to effective decision-making included analyzing the potential of the idea, talking through each team member’s observations, questions and concerns and the future direction of the product domain.

  4. Reduced Mental Load: The team’s work in progress (WIP) was low and the entire team was in the same headspace most of the time which made problem-solving a lot easier. Stand-ups were short since everyone was working together anyways. The tone of a stand-up shifted from an individual team member’s status update from the previous day to what the team learned as a collective. This was a joy to witness! If someone on the team needed help, everyone stayed after the stand-up and mobbed on it. The team had found a way to keep their mental load low and stay in sync seamlessly.

Taking a simplistic and experimental mindset toward the journey ahead took the fear out of things and placed the focus on “continuous improvement” for this team.

The Road Ahead

In 6–8 months, after a whole slew of changes, the inventory team started to establish a consistent rhythm which was comforting for them and for the leaders and coaches supporting the team. Little did they know that their rhythm would get disrupted a few times and their resilience would be put to the test!

The team’s organic journey was inspiring and as a coach, I wondered why other teams could not embrace this way of working easily. It seemed so simple when observing the Inventory team.

When I reflected on this, I found 3 ingredients prevalent in this team that served as a starting point to establish this style and way of working:

  1. Safety and trust are paramount: Collaborative ways of working are only possible when there is some level of safety and trust within the team. When a team can let their guard down and work as a “collective” it creates a generative space for true collaboration to occur. The inventory team tapped into their human connections during these challenging times and relied on open communication to serve as a guide to build more safety.

  2. Working agreements are gold: A team needs to establish a few clear ground rules which will serve as a guide for them to default to collaborative ways of working, especially if this is not in a team’s DNA yet. Clear agreements and alliances help a team stay in sync with their values. The inventory team lived their values daily to establish an inclusive and collaborative style of working. They learned, shared, and asked a lot of questions which inherently meant they checked their egos at the door. This showed their vulnerability which led to building more safety within the team.

  3. Sense, respond and pivot quickly: Frequent reflection and open conversations about what a team is learning is key for any team to sense, respond and pivot as needed. The inventory team stayed centered on their values and yet continued to experiment with daily/weekly practices to establish an effective team system. This helped them cope with the uncertainties and not lose a sense of who they were in the midst of it all.

Overtime the Inventory team focused on building healthy habits which have now become part of their team’s DNA. Having experienced the benefits of collaborative ways of working, it will be hard for the team to go back.

What’s Next for this Team?

It had been over a year since the team had established a good team system. As leaders and coaches, we wanted to see this team succeed. They fully deserved it!

However, their road continued to be challenging — a few more changes to the team occurred which shook them to their core. We knew this team was resilient but there is a limit to the number of changes that can occur, without breaking a team.

As a coach that cared deeply for this team, I wondered:

  • How will the Inventory team cope with the uncertainties of integrating new team members again?

  • Will they break or will their resilience hold them in good stead?

  • Will they give up their collaborative style of working and go back to being individual contributors?

Never Cease to Inspire Us

Despite the rocky road, the team has continued to live their values, build a shared understanding and step forward as a collective. They continue to lean on their human connections and have strong bonds which help them work effectively through any challenges.

As coaches and guides, we believe — once a team experiences the joys of collaborative work, they will hold onto it. Once you feel it, it is easier not to let it go since it has become part of your DNA. It takes more effort to establish this style of working; it helps a team tap into the wisdom of the collective, produce better research and results, and helps everyone grow together.

We will be eagerly observing and learning from this team in the years to come!! If they loose hope, we will remind them of their resilience, their courageous journey & potential.

This team is on the runway to being high performing soon. Staying true to their “authentic self” along with the resilience to “adapt”, this team will chip away at becoming a high performing team one conversation at a time!


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