Design the Team You Need to Succeed

“High Performing Team” is the holy grail for modern companies. Everything we make is not only interactive, “smart” and connected, but then has to be polished, packaged and promoted. Apparently it not only takes a village to raise a child but also to ship a toothbrush. We have to learn to work with other people to be successful.

Teamwork is tricky. Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” If you’ve been on a bad team, you know what he means. In my ~30 year career in tech, I’ve played many roles on a team, from worker bee to leader to overseer. In that time, I’ve been haunted by the mystery of why things go so very wrong so very often.

Trying to solve this mystery, I’ve read a gazillion writings on teams, including the obvious: Wisdoms of Teams, Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Teaming, Committed Teams, and David Bradford’s writings. I’ve lost many hours on JSTOR (I think I may have a problem.) I’ve run experiments with my students and further refined emergent practices my clients. I finally have a model that helps teams succeed.

The big insights:

  1. There many kinds of teams, and you should decide what kind you need first.
  2. Teams have stages, but it’s not linear. It’s iterative. Great teams are willing to storm, norm, perform, then storm again and re-norm in order to constantly grow.
  3. Teams need to consciously co-design the core three key elements of a team— goals, roles and norms — to be successful.

In this ridiculously long article, I’ll unpack all three ideas (and yes, this wants to be a book. I’m on it. Sign up to be notified when it’s available.)

I want feedback on this article, so feel free to respond! (i.e. is a collective team actually distinct from a learning team?)

Part 1: Types of Teams

I choose the pyramid metaphor, because not all groups will choose to evolve. Not all groups need to.


You don’t always need a “team.” Sometimes you just need skilled bodies.

The workgroup is a proto-team. It’s a group of individuals working separately, coordinated by a boss. A customer service “team” or a group of salespeople are good examples of workgroups.

David Bradford writes

“Groups are most appropriate when the greatest benefit comes from members maximizing their individual efforts with each person achieving his/her sub-area goals. Meetings are spent supporting such individual performance (and giving the leader the information to integrate the separate parts). Such sessions are highly structured with an emphasis on transmitting information and making decisions (but less on joint problem-solving). With a group, the whole is the sum of the parts and the objective is to make sure each part is successful and coordinated with the others.”
In workgroups a single leader can coordinate effort. In teams, everyone works with everyone.


A Team is the evolution of the workgroup. You need a team when you need a multi-disciplinary group to act in a coordinated manner over time toward a shared goal.

In The Discipline of Teams, Katzenbach and Smith wrote “teams have four elements — common commitment and purpose, performance goals, complementary skills, and mutual accountability.”

These first two properties can be addressed with OKRs, which I’ve written about extensively.

The third — complementary skills— is a prerequisite for any sort of maker team. For example, in many game design companies, a new game will start with a micro-team of a game designer, a business person (producer or product manager,) an engineer and an artist.

I remember back when I was first pitching my startup around, and an angel investor drew a triangle on his whiteboard. He said for a startup to succeed, it needed people with skills in product, business and tech.

He said it didn’t have to be three people each with one of the skills, but all three skills had to be there. It’s good to remember that people are usually more skilled than their role requires, and there is more an one way to design a team.

In a nascent team, the fourth requirement — mutual accountability — most often manifests as people demanding everyone “pull their own weight.” In a healthy team, the engineer will walk over to the designer and ask for a missing design component. In a dysfunctional team, he’ll ask the PM to deal with the designer, sliding backward towards workgroup behavior.


In what I’m calling a collective, you see shared decision making and shared responsibility for goals. All members have a clear vision for what they want their results to be, and they both help each other and hold each other responsible. This is the high functioning team that has reached the “performing” stage.

Bruce Tuckman wrote in ‘Developmental sequence in small groups’ that groups moved through various stages to become functional groups.


The collective is what you need if you have a temporary group of individuals to work together toward a shared goal without much to any oversight. If the team is permanent, consider making it a learning team.

Learning Teams

In a learning team, not only is the team performing as a unit, but they are also working together to become better every day. The question each new status quo, and make hypothesis about how they can be more effective. I believe in this type of team the stages look more like this.

A learning team (or maybe I should call it a lean team, as it closely resembles the continuous improvement of lean manufacturing and the learning cycle of lean startup) shares a commitment to progress. Knowledge is shared out as soon as it’s acquired, and the team is continually developing new hypothesis to be tested.

A critical component to this team’s success is a tolerance for creative conflict. Many teams are willing to put up with the storming that comes when you put people together who don’t know each other. It’s expected we’ll fight, misunderstand each other, disagree on goals and outcomes. And it’s a relief when it settles.

But it’s a rare team that is willing to re-enter the land of conflict after it’s figured out how to work well together. You’ve heard that you must break a leg again if it’s set wrong? It’s the same situation when a team has settled into bad (or even so-so) patterns. A great team must step back into conflict again and again to break the substandard status quo and find the best way to execute.

Postmortems, in which a team gathers together to examine what worked and what didn’t, can be powerful or an exercise in passive aggressiveness. A learning team creates a rhythm of introspection and evaluation. Some do it at the end of each project, some will make a simple “keeps” and “changes” tally each week. What matters is the learning cycle. (I recommend both, btw)

The keeps + and changes Δ columns used on retrospective.

The Mindful Team

My final team type is the Mindful Team. It’s a joke that there is no “I” in team. But what if putting the I back in team was important? The mindful team not only takes care of the team’s growth and learning, but in each individual’s. They care about each other as people as well as colleagues. I thought about calling this the Soylent Team, as a reminder that teams are made of people.

The mindful team is needed to make a holacracy work (if you are into such things) because each team member manages and grows the other. In a more traditional company, the mindful team can make up for departments with too many direct reports, unskilled managers and and even dysfunctional executive leadership. A mindful team is not mandated, it is chosen by the team. In that lies its power. I’ll unpack this further in a later article.

Part 2: Building High Performing Teams

Now you’ve decided you want more than a workgroup, what should you do? What does it take to make a high performing team? Where to start?

Research on group dynamics shows that teams perform best when they agree on rules related to goals, roles, and norms
 — Committed Teams

I’ve developed a 3x3 grid that covers the elements of a team that need active design and the stages a team goes through so you know when you need to act.

The x-axis is the elements, and the y-axis is team stages based on Tuckman’s model. Form and Perform should be self-explanatory; Adjourn is a planned period of reflection, typically quarterly. I’ll go through it via the Y axis — time!

Stage 1: Form — Designing Your Team Consciously

Think about the last team you were on. How did you start? Did you just sit down at a conference table and start discussing the project? Or did you take time to ask yourselves what kind of team you wanted to be? When you discussed the project, did you discuss logistics and deadlines, or what success looks like?

If you do not consciously design your team, you default into whatever people think is the right way to act in a team. Unfortunately everyone has different ideas about what that looks like. If you want to reduce conflict down the line, it’s better to have a conversation about what the team members want the team to be early.

Goals: I’m going to recommend OKRs — Objectives and Key Results. They work. The team should collectively create their own OKR set in order to fulfill the mandate their company has given them. Read A Meeting to Set OKRs. Also, I wrote an entire book on goal setting and management. If you’ve read this far and don’t have it, go get it!

Roles: It’s easy to know who is going to be the designer and the engineer, but who will be the facilitator? The tie breaker? The schmoozer?
If we do not clearly decide who will have what role, we’ll default to culture norms, i.e. the woman will end up getting coffee and the tallest guy will make decisions. Discussing what roles are needed, and who wants to fulfill them is crucial for a healthy respectful team.

Norms: This topic gets special love.


What are norms, you ask me? They are the rules of conduct in a group. Often they are emergent and unspoken. But what if different people have different ideas of what the norms are? They will behave in a way that they think is appropriate, but that behavior will be perceived as inappropriate. And then the judging begins: that person is a jerk, a bully, pushy, pushover, etc.

I picture the way norms interact as a variation of shearing layers, the Duffy/Brand model of how buildings are pressured by different paces of change, which can lead to incoherent or even broken spaces.

Americans deal with a huge number of messages about what is normal. We get them from the many cultures that make up this country, from national to regional to familial to corporate. We navigate high context/low context values (value the collective vs value the individual) to cooperative/competitive to conflict adverse/conflict accepting and more.

For example, let’s look at the behavior of interrupting. Let’s say one team member, Margot, came from a big family in Chicago where talking over each other was normal. Only way you could get a word in edgewise! She also works in sales, where fast talking is valued. Now she’s on a team with Jim, who is from Maine, a Quaker, and his family is Japanese-English. Jim thinks Margot is the rudest person he’s ever met, and can’t stand to be in a meeting with her. Margot thinks Jim is a doormat.

I suspect most initial storming is teams trying to normalize varying norms. You could avoid the worst of inter-team conflict by collectively designing the team norms. Instead of letting norms be unspoken and emergent, speak about them and choose what the team will accept and what it won’t.

I created a team norming exercise based on one I was taught by Andre Plaut to help classrooms determine their norms. Andre specializes in adult education, and found when classes decide how they want to learn — as opposed to accepting the benevolent dictatorship of the professor — they learn more quickly and completley.

Exercise for Team Norming

Picture the best team you’ve ever been on. The one where you felt you were part of something special. Can you recall it’s characteristics? What made it so awesome? Write them down on post-its.

Norms being reviewed for the four time in Story class.

Now picture the worst team you’ve ever been part of. You know, you wake up each morning dreading that you’ll be facing those people. What made it so dreadful? Write them down.

Take a moment to stack rank your issues. Then share your top three goods and top three bads with your team.

Finally, make a list of rules for your team. It should be easy to think up rules after a moment of reflection on your experiences. Call them out to the facilitator, and have them listed on a whiteboard to butcher paper — something that invites editing and updates.

When I run this exercise, I question the “rules.” If someone says, “speak your mind.” I’ll ask,

  • What does it look like when someone “speaks their mind.”
  • Why does that rule matter?
  • How can we tell if people aren’t following the rule?
  • How do you plan to call each other out if someone violates this rule?

The rules need to have the same meaning for all team members. I often have to get clarity around a phrase that “everyone knows what it means,” like “speak your mind.”

Many teams in the Silicon Valley are composed of people from both High Context and Low Context cultures. A rule like “speak your mind” has a very different meaning for a person from China, a person from Holland and a person from Texas. By describing what it looks like to speak your mind, it’s recognizable by people whose culture doesn’t favor direct confrontation. Some people need formal permission to speak up.

Let’s say Jim suggests the rule, “No interrupting.”

Margot is confused, “What do you mean?”

Jim, “it’s rude.”

Margot, “I don’t think it’s rude. It’s important to get your ideas out while they are fresh.”

Jim, “But when you interrupt me, I forgot what I’m saying. It’s upsetting. I feel like my opinion isn’t valued.”

The facilitator can then ask others what they think (if they don’t jump in.) The group will decide if interrupting is ok, at which point the facilitator can ask the group how to help Jim make sure he can participate. Or the group may decide interrupting is not ok, which means they need to figure out how to help Margot adjust. Two things need to happen:

  • pick what is acceptable behavior in your group
  • decides how to help everyone live with that choice.

After you’ve got about ten rules people believe they can live by, ask “how are we going to make sure we don’t forget these?” Nudge people toward a rhythm of check-ins, be it monthly or quarterly.

Discussing check-in timing is often a good conversation all by itself. It gets the team thinking about commitment and accountability, which is critical later.

Stage 2: Maintaining, Tuning and Growing your Team’s Ability

When a team forms, the group actively designs how they’ll work together. It’s the first step toward making a high performing team. In Stage 2, perform, they realize the team’s potential through continuous feedback and iteration.

A goal without a plan is a wish.

Goal Progress: How can you make sure you live your goals every day? Try using OKRs via the Radical Focus approach. Every week the teams review their progress toward their goals, and team members publicly commit to what they plan to do to realize that goal. I’ve written about creating a cadence of commitment, other people have written it too… so let’s skip to making sure people are fulfilling their roles.

It takes a tricky thing teams rarely get right: feedback.

Teams need two kinds of feedback to grow: member and group. Unfortunately most businesses provide a different two kinds of feedback: annual reviews and interventions. Because both of these tend toward the traumatic, employees become conditioned to avoid feedback.

Theoretically, the annual review is a moment for contemplation and thorough examination of your performance. In my life, it is done sloppily because managers are not given extra time to do it correctly (it lands on top of your already overstuffed schedule), it reflects only the last few months of performance, the employee gets more information than they can process so they tend to obsess over whatever upsets them the most, and it’s forgotten in a few weeks. And that’s the best case scenario: at one company I worked at reviews — with a forced curve — were so upsetting that I knew I’d lose a month of productivity after.

Shortening the cycle helps.

Another company I worked at did quarterly reviews. All quarters you had a review with your boss, and any quarter was one in which you could get a raise/bonus etc. This small tweak:

  • reduced the amount of feedback (making feedback actionable)
  • reduced the gap between action and evaluation (making feedback memorable)
  • reduced the stakes (allowing employees to focus on the feedback, knowing it was just another 3 months before they could try to improve their lot.)

Seeing the difference in shorter performance review cycles led me to teach teams the habit of short-cycle feedback. i.e. give feedback within 24 hours of seeing a need for change.

As they say on the New York subway, if you see something, say something. Waiting too long after seeing upsetting behavior causes resentment in the person affected. It also causes the actor to believe their behavior was acceptable.

On the other hand, you don’t want to act without any thought, in a moment of anger. You need to make sure you’ve assumed the right state of mind to give good feedback, so it can be heard and accepted.

A Feedback Model

When people engage in a behavior that upsets us, we often attribute intention. “They don’t care,” “They’re selfish” “What a privileged asshole.” But intention is unknowable. Only through feedback and conversation can we create a common understanding that leads to better cooperation.

The prompt to give feedback is usually emotion. It can be angry, frustration, resentment. People feeling strong feelings often vent or repress. You cannot do either, for the sake of your team.

This is the hard part. You have to transform your negative emotion into curiosity.

I feel angry. Why?

What triggered the anger?

What are the stories I’m telling myself about my anger?

What other stories explain this trigger? Is the behavior appropriate in another context? Could it be personal? Have I seen this before, or is it atypical? Is this the individual, or is this how our culture asks us to behave.

The next step is to try to put the behavior into context via compassion.

Watch for High Context- Low Context Culture Clashes

Everybody has an internalized idea of appropriate behavior. It comes from multiple factors, from geography to family to corporate culture. When people grew up in one place, got jobs, and worked for one company for most of your life, there was very little cultural tension. Your family played by the same rules as your country and your company.

As we become more global, we run into issues when people have to work together but we are playing by different rules. When we seen a behavior we think is inappropriate it must be examined for context.

At Yahoo, we had a culture of passive-aggressiveness. At Zynga we had a culture of aggressive-aggressiveness. I grew up in Iowa, which is a mix of high context and low (because of it’s Dutch-English mix). My family, however, we very non-confrontational. You can image which company I found easier to navigate.

From curiosity, change your emotional state to sympathy, then empathy and finally compassion. Sympathy allows you see they have a different experience, empathy allows you feel their struggle as well as your own. Compassion is empathy with an action item. Compassion gives you the right posture to communicate feedback. When you move from wanting to give feedback because you’re hurt to wanting to give feedback to help them be more successful, then you are ready to shape your message.

Structuring Effective Feedback

Matt Abraham’s four i’s is a pretty good model for structuring feedback.

If you don’t want to watch the video, his steps are:

  • Information — what is the behavior I observed that is not working for me
  • Importance — why is it problematic
  • Invitation to change — a nice way to say “I’d like you to cut that out.”
  • Implications — if you don’t, this is the results I expect will happen, from not being to work together to firing.

I shorten this to simple sentences like, “You’ve turned in your designs late three times now, and this means I don’t have time to code properly, or I have to stay up all night working and my husband gets mad at me. How can we change this? Otherwise, I’m not sure I can continue to collaborate with you.”

The touchy-feely approach works, but you have to modify messaging to match your company and team culture. But no matter how you say it, keep feedback about the behavior and not the person nor the intentions. For example, delivering promised work late can be called out as bullshit nonsense, but never call the person a jerk nor assert “you don’t give a shit about my life.” Stick with what is knowable by both parties: this fact did happen and you did not much care for it. People get upset if you judge them as a person, or ascribe intent. They know you are making stuff up about them, even if you are right.

Stay with what you both know: this happened.

They only thing you can both be sure about is behavior. Talk about that, share your reactions, inquire about intention.

Stage 3: Adjourning (or Reflection)

(1) You first need to get your team to Commit to goals, roles, and norms. (2) You need to regularly Check alignment with these commitments. 3) Finally, you need to Close the gap between saying and doing.
 — Committed Teams

Agile, Lean and the medical profession respect the important of stepping out of the fray and asking “how would be do it differently, knowing what we know now? Call it a retrospective or a post-mortem or whatever you want, but do it.

A rhythm for reflection during performing is daily/weekly. But once a quarter (or six months, or a year, or at the end of a long project) it’s critical to move from examining the trees to taking a look at the forest. Adjourn, reflect, and start anew with your learnings.

  1. OKRs get graded.

2. Individuals do performance reviews. Performance reviews are based on three things: how well is the individual living up to their goals, role expectation and team norms. This clearly deserves an article of its own.

Teams can give each other feedback.

3. Norms can be evolved. Bring out your rules, and ask folks if they are living up to their own standards. Discuss changes. Make updates.

Design Your Team, or Accept What Shows Up

There is an old saying, when you assume you make an ass out of you and me. With teams, if you assume shared understanding, you invite conflict and under-performance. Instead of spending time innovating and executing, you’ll spend it arguing and undermining.

  • Take a chunk of time up front to design who you want to be.
  • Set aside a tiny bit of time each week to tune how your progress toward those goals.
  • Protect the time at regular intervals to evaluate your progress.

This “extra work” will end up saving time in miscommunication and arguments as well as making happier and more product workplaces.

Design the team you want to be part of. Design the team you need to success. Design the life you want to live every day.

Sketchnote of my UX DC talk.
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