Design

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teams

By Toph Brown - 22 April 2015


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What makes a team tick? 

In January, our team held a retrospective. That’s a fancy way of saying we stopped working for a day to talk about ourselves.

We have been together for more than a year, growing in number but also becoming more effective. We’re a pretty good team now—we make higher quality work faster and have more fun doing it. But how does this work? Are we special? Nope. Is there some magical mountain spring where good teams come from? Probably not.

If we could get to the bottom of this, we could share it and maybe help others build good teams, too. So we set a goal for our day away: Uncover and clearly define the principles which helped form our team.

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This, but it’s also that. Ugh.

Like an archeological dig, the wisdom revealed itself slowly and with lots of careful effort. In a way, it was the hardest work we have done yet.

We realized there were few definitive truths, few absolute “rules” for forming effective teams. Instead, each point seemed to have an opposite-yet-crucial counterpoint. So we started to distill our thoughts into a list of principles inspired by the structure of the Agile Manifesto, each principle highlighting the symbiotic nature of two opposing ideas.

We hope you find the 7 principles below to be simple and honest, and that they inspire you to consider how your own values can help you build a better team.

Here, have some principles.

1. Happiness over Stress

While we value the rigidity and reliability of timelines and defined deliverables, we value the overall effect of personal happiness more.

Happiness over Stress

Happiness over Stress

Positivity, clarity, and a shared purpose are stronger motivators for us than deadlines and feature lists. Stress is not a bad thing, but without happiness, stress is hurtful and not productive.

2. Flexibility over Structure

While we value the dependability of rules and guidelines, we value the imagination and freedom to change more.

Flexibility over Structure

Flexibility over Structure

Team structure (contracts, rules, process) is only as effective as it is flexible. Structure is itself a tool and should be allowed to quickly change as the work evolves and the team grows.

3. Us over Me

While we value unique individual qualities, we value working as a team with a shared purpose more.

Us over Me

Us over Me

A good idea starts with one person, but only a team can bring it to life. We believe that being together, communicating directly, and providing constant feedback is the best way to build strong teams and do good work. Involving other people in your work also creates team-wide ownership.

4. Silly over Serious

While we value discipline and professionalism, we value spontaneity and free association more.

Silly over Serious

Silly over Serious

We’ve learned that being a “professional” and continuously looking for silliness are not mutually exclusive things. When we let our freak flag fly, our comfort zones expand and honest feedback is given and received more easily. Celebrating each other’s weirdness gives us even more energy than celebrating a big delivery.

5. Collaboration over Hierarchy

While we value the simplicity and clarity of group hierarchy, we value team trust more.

Collaboration over Hierarchy

Collaboration over Hierarchy

Hierarchy can be used as a cheap way to build trust. That said, we believe a hierarchical system that highlights our different levels of expertise can empower team members. In order for a team to be truly collaborative, it needs to value what each member brings to the table and trust the authority of what they contribute.

6. Courage over Comfort

While we value a laid-back working environment, we value unfiltered honesty more.

Courage over Comfort

Courage over Comfort

This team values comfort only when it doesn’t keep us from speaking our minds and hearts.
We believe that good people act with good intentions. Natural and lasting comfort takes hold as a team begins to act with the intent of improving the team or the work, and without fear of being personally hurtful or disrespectful. Over time, this preconception will change. Eventually, it will actually feel more disrespectful and hurtful to withhold feelings or observations than it would be to share them.

7. Principles over Output

While we value the sense of accomplishment that comes with doing the best possible work, we value the principles which guide us as a team more.

Principles over Output

Principle over Output

Awareness of and commitment to shared values are more important to a team than its collective skills, talents, and experience. Output that we can be proud of and which reflects who we are is impossible to create without team principles.


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Our Team is Built on Rock.

All of these principles are built upon a single, non-negotiable truth: Good teams start with good people who trust each other to work toward a common purpose. This is the foundation of our team.

Watch our team present these principles to the studio in New York:


Toph Brown

About Toph Brown