Trust between team members is essential to create great products,according to Google UX designer Johnny Mack.
He works with the Chrome team at Google.
“For me, in order to do great work, I had to bring the best of myself to the team, and I wasn’t able to do that unless i could work through the stick parts that come up when people get tougher to make things,” he says.
“Designers have an instinct to get their hands dirty right away and it takes a lot to take a step back to think lets set ourselves up to succeed.
“Rather than just jumping straight into the work how can I create a team dynamic where great work is going to happen.”
Mack talks about early in his career, when he was working in a large team, which featured lots of engineers and product managers, and they were of the opinion that they were setting the high level goals for the project, and the job of the designer just to make that pretty.
Naturally Mack was incredibly frustrated. So he started a side project, with three other people, where there was no clear defining of roles. Taking part in two design projects, that were worlds apart, gave him a unique insight into what it takes to build a great team, and in turn great products. Here are some of his observations.
Main team: there was no way to deal with conflict, no mechanisms in place where we could disagree, we’d have designer pushing for one thing, and engineers on another thing, and it would end up like a holy war.
Side project: we disagreed, but we figured out a way to work through it, debates without resorting to personal attacks, or being too stubborn We were able to disagree and that made a huge difference.
Main team: no effort to meet each other.
Side project: All different interests, not much in common, but tried to get to know each other anyway. We figured out ways to find common ground, a common language, where we could relate to each other. And even though it was obvious we were all trying hard, that went really far.
Main team: there was a hierarchy, it was top down. A lot of product decisions were made behind closed doors. As a consequence it was hard to know exactly what was going on, which created a lot of distrust. There was a thought among the designers, if they could just view it our way, we’d make a great product. And I think the product mangers felt the same way.
Side project: everyone was a stakeholder. More transparency, and there were conversations when a member was pushing an agenda too far. We all felt we were making something together that was better than anything we could build on our own.
While some of those observations might seem obvious, Mack says, what wasn’t obvious to him was the things that went into creating a great team, like the one he had working on the side project.
While investigating how to create great teams, he came across Bruce Tuckman, a former Navy researcher who suggests there are four key elements to teamwork.
Forming: gathering info about the team, about the project, start to agree on high-level goals, what you guys are all here to do. Nobody is really debating, nobody is really arguing. it’s important because people are feeling each other out.
Storming: This is all about conflict. The team has built up enough initial trust, they start to feel comfortable expressing different points of view. They open up about how they feel and challenge other peoples opinions. This can be a difficult period for a team to go through, Mack says. Especially for people that are averse to conflict. But it’s an important phase to facilitate growth.A lot of teams don’t really move past this stage, he says. They get kind of stuck here.
Norming: This is when the team’s identity starts to emerge. The team starts to fall into how they are going to be. High level goals start to become more clear. This is when people start to disagree and commit.
Performing: All the members of the team are now autonomous, they’ve developed a really big knowledge of the space they’re in, and they can work with less oversight from managers. This is where the best work happens, Mack says, you’re making relationships that are really meaningful and really lasting.
The common thread among people collaborating well, whether it’s artists, musicians, developers and designers, is trust Mack Says. And it’s important to have a plan to build trust, from the very beginning of any project.