It Doesn’t Have to Be That Difficult
Working in teams can be frustrating and unnecessarily difficult. In this post, I’ll present ways to optimize team collaboration and share a structure for thinking about collaboration that has been helpful for my work with teams. My hope is that by providing some context to team outcomes and ways to optimize those outcomes your team can improve the productivity and quality of your work while feeling a sense of pride in the team and being more satisfied with your work.
UX research and design work requires effective collaboration and yet most of us are not trained in team collaboration. Unfortunately, many of us are not trained in ways to be effective team members. To help groups maximize the positive outcomes of teamwork, I’d like to share the Group Bullseye (or simply the Bullseye) with you. The Bullseye is based on the work of small group communication researchers Dr. John Cragan and Dr. David Wright.
“Why Do We All Suck At Collaboration?”
That question had me reflecting on what I’ve learned about teams that I’ve worked on and led throughout my career. As I reflected on what I’ve learned about teams and collaboration, I concluded that very few of us are trained in the art of effective team collaboration. We have very little practice working in teams and when we do find ourselves collaboration, and we don’t fully understand ways to organize and cultivate strong group work. My answer, or a contributing factor, to the question of why we suck at collaboration is that few of us are even trained or have practice working in teams, which could provide a strong common ground. We then enter our professional lives and a work in environments that demand teams, but don’t understand the ways to organize and cultivate strong group work.
Best & Worst Team Experiences
Think about your experiences working in teams.
- Best team: What made it the best team for you?
- Worst team: What was frustrating about it?
I’m guessing that your best team experiences had many of these characteristics:
- Shared and understood goals
- A feeling of trust among teammates
- Team members that contributed and a feeling that you made significant contributions
- The team produced something new and cool, or it felt like you made an impact.
- There was a social connection among team members beyond the work.
On the other hand, the worst group was probably plagued with chaos, swirl, competing goals (or a complete lack of a goal), jerks, and childish or inappropriate behavior. Bad teams seem to bring out the worst in us as individuals. Unfortunately, being a part of a bad team is so common that the following meme resonates with many of us.
Trust Falls & Ropes Courses
So, how do we optimize our work to maximize the outcomes? Simple, one three-hour session on the ropes course or some trust falls in the parking lot and your team is built. Just kidding.
Unfortunately, some of the “forced merriment,” even with positive intent, is presented as a turnkey and inauthentic way that it works against building our teams. With all human endeavors, culture and context matter. Many team building events can fall flat and not strike the right chord with your team and the context in which the team working.
The Team Effectiveness Bullseye
In grad school, my research focused on computer-augmented group decision making. Since graduating, I’ve been working on the theory and application of teamwork for about twenty-five years. I’ve worked on and built teams in start-up environments, non-profits, and some of the largest for-profit organizations in the world. I have modified a framework based on Cragan & Wright’s “Bullseye” to maximize team effectiveness by clearly defining roles, goals, and methods for communication. My belief is that the Bullseye framework will help you and your team maximize the effectiveness of your group efforts.
At its core, the Bullseye is the target of group outcomes every work team (small, interdependent group, working towards a shared goal) is trying to balance and maximize. The four outcomes are productivity, quality, consensus, and satisfaction. Let’s look at ways you can help your teams maximize these outcomes. The Bullseye gives teams a target for positive and effective outcomes. By balancing and maximizing productivity, quality, consensus, and satisfaction, team collaboration is more enjoyable and produces a better outcome. Win-Win!
By understanding the four outcomes, and the four types of talk in teams, you can stay on target and optimize the effectiveness of your teams.
Maximizing Four Outcomes
All work teams need to maximize the following outcomes.
These outcomes are interdependent elements to be managed. As a team, we could move faster (productivity), if we didn’t need some level of agreement (consensus). Or a belief that we could improve quality if we slow down, reducing perceived productivity. For teams to work well there will need to be clear goals and measures of success, as well as an open line of communication when team members feel conflicted about competing outcomes. Some team members are more motivated or satisfied with productivity measures, while others are more satisfied with quality or consensus, and others who are most satisfied by producing high-quality work.
Four Types of Talk to Maximize Outcomes
It will take time and commitment, but the effort you put into your team should be seen an investment in future teamwork – where your team continues to maximize the four outcomes. We can optimize and maximize our outcomes through our ability to manage four types of “talk.”
Talk is simply the way we communicate through a variety of media and channels. Each team has unique contextual elements and dynamics (organizational culture, individual’s mental models, etc.) so your mileage will vary. Strive to find the right mix for your team, in your organization. When it comes to groups we need to manage: task talk, role talk, trust talk, and team talk.
Task talk is communication related to team goals and objectives. Good task talk will reduce uncertainty and manage expectations regarding what the team needs to accomplish and managing the work-related talk. Task talk includes items that will focus on situational awareness and status updates.
Task communication may not be the most thrilling content to consume but is important to keep the team on the same page. Note, when task talk is taken too far, it sounds like edicts from taskmasters and the content does not care about the impacts to the team members. Healthy task talk helps promote alignment on the understanding of goals and “rules of engagement” for our work. This should also include decision-making systems so that we understand how decisions will be made along the way.
Role talk is communication regarding team roles and functional role.
Your functional role can most easily be understood by your title or the group (function) you represent on the team. A functional role is usually associated with your expertise and responsibility in the team context. While you are so much more than an employee ID, your functional role, in this context, is almost perfectly correlated with your position on the org chart.
Your team role is related to your responsibilities to the team itself and the work you need to do to support the team. Team roles should be more flexible than your functional role. A healthy team will rotate team roles.
Healthy teams or “good groups” have a:
- task leader – focused on managing the work
- social-emotional leader – focused the team’s humanity
- information provider – focused on subject-matter expertise
- tension reliever -focused on healthy levity or making sure the team doesn’t take itself too seriously
- central negative – similar to a “devil’s advocate” and is focused on healthy challenges to ensure the team doesn’t fall into group think mode
From this perspective, team roles can and should be rotated, especially in teams that are together for more than one project. High performing teams can be seen as leaderless — team members competently rotate through roles. Leaderless groups should not be confused with leadership-less groups.
Trust talk builds the social-emotional bonds and understanding of the team. Similar to our needs to reduce uncertainty and manage expectations regarding tasks, individuals also need to know about the people they are working with.
Team’s move at the speed of trust, low-trust teams will spend more time documenting CYA type information. High trust teams can spend more time on the work and less time on the meta-work. Some basic things to help build trust are self-disclosure, being role flexible, helping with introductions when there are new team members, and recognizing individual differences and contributions.
Almost all tension in groups comes from elements related to trust and task-related items. By working to clarify roles and tasks, as well as the approach to meeting goals, the team will be able to reduce a great deal of tension. Check our tips to reduce tension in groups.
Team talk is communication-related to the amount of pride team members have as being part of a team. Team talk is an extension of and contributes to the group consciousness or team identity. Healthy team talk builds the team up in a productive way that doesn’t fall prey to groupthink. Some ways to improve team talk include celebrating work-related skills (not demographic similarities).
You can read more about ways to improve four outcomes in 10 Ways to Improve Team Outcomes.
While teamwork may feel frustrating and difficult at times, it doesn’t have to be. I hope this framework helps you understand the dynamics at play in your team’s work and provides tools to help you maximize the positive team outcomes of productivity, quality, consensus, and satisfaction. And, ultimately, improve your UX team and research outcomes.
Handrail enables collaboration by providing teams with a centralized platform that supports the entire UX research workflow. With Handrail, everyone is on the same page and has access to the same information. We built Handrail to help teams answer important research questions and promote better human understanding. We understand that collaboration is a critical part of UX research and design work, that’s why Handrail supports team collaboration throughout the research process.
Here are a few resources to help keep your teams on target and increase the probability of project success:
We built Handrail to help teams collaborate throughout the research process. You can use Handrail to help your team collaboration during your next design project. Sign up for a free 30-day trial today.
Matt is a researcher and product specialist at Handrail, Inc. He is passionate about human-centered design and helping teams do more effective research. Matt has led strategy and design work for early and late stage startups, as well as some of the country’s most recognized brands.