Teaming with the Virus, EuroIA2020

This page contains almost all of the words that I intended to say at EuroIA2020, along with some additional links and resources.

I’m a creative director at the BBC and I’ve led a few different teams. 

The common thread in each situation is that I’ve had to adapt what I ask of myself and others in each of those roles. Most of the teaming activity has been split across sites – mainly London and Salford in the UK. Almost all of the  work has been located in BBC buildings -but teams might have been split across those and other locations. 

 Due to the types of teams I’ve worked with, I’ve always had at least two different types of teaming activities to consider – one has been project delivery, usually software devllopment and helloing with the direction of the IA, Research or writing and content elements of the project. 

The other type of team activity has been providing leadership and support to those communities of practice. Making sure that when the specialists come together they feel like a team and that there’s a support network for these practitioners. 

I think it’s probably true in most organisations and projects, but IAs are the minority in the teams we work with and in the wider design community in an organisation. At the BBC IAs are most often embedding into multidisciplinary production teams. But they also have to operate as a team together – seeing the expertise of others as a source of support rather than a threat to legitimacy. That requires a level of trust and psychological safety – and they need to develop and cultivate that without the benefits of necessarily working side by side  or spending any more than an hour a week together. 

So… over the years I’ve done some thinking about what makes a “team” and what makes a team functional or dysfunctional in different contexts. So let’s look at some of the models I’ve found useful for understanding what makes a good team…

 The first and simplest model I started thinking about was a two axis grid which encouraged me to think about the relationship between specialisation and co-ordination. For at least two of the teams that I’ve worked with I found that there was a tension between specialisation and co-ordination.

In one context I saw this in the ability of specialists to work across discipline. This might be due to boundaries between specialists – the frames we bring to situations. Specialist knowledge creates explicit and implicit boundaries that it requires conscious effort to bridge. You can do that by creating shared boundary objects at the intersections of knowledge – the bits where there’s ambiguity or disagreement… If you put time and effort into these areas you find collaboration easier…

The other set of challenges impeding co-ordination and collaboration was a little trickier to spot and initially to understand. We’ve had different communities of practice and specialisation emerge from the design community at the BBC at different times and at different rates – as the demands of the department shift. 

But that sometimes means there’s a lag between leadership positions, specific job roles and team structures. At points in the evolution of these ‘teams’  I’ve seen specialists sometimes seeing each other as a threat, rather than support. When specialists work independently, embedded in production teams they tend to be the one expert. They can rely on that expertise for legitimacy and to underpin their confidence during collaboration. 

When you bring specialists together, everyone has the same basis of expertise, so in some situations, unless you have a foundation of trust and psychological safety you can find it difficult to make the most of these communities of practice and organise co-ordinated efforts between all the members…

So I continued to think about teams and how to create and sustain them

I started looking and thinking about lists like this… from (Larson and LaFasto, 1989, 2001).  

I had a whole sandwich metaphor for this one. I talked about how a creative director could provide the bread of a team sandwich… but for it to be tasty it needed a filling provided by the team members. 

As my understanding and confidence in creative leadership has grown I’ve thought more about that relationship between my role as a leader and the individual members of the team. 

In ‘The Wisdom Teams’ there’s an interesting model which suggests different organisational units can serve different purposes. This broke some of my devotion to ‘teaming’. 

I still think that teams are one of the most effective ways of getting things done – but some contexts and tasks require different organisational design. Some contexts ask different things of a leader – sometimes you need to delegate, sometimes you need to direct – and there are a range of intentional choices you can make to ensure your approach is optimised for the context. We’ll return to the idea of adaptation to context later…

Because I jwant to talk about some things that I think don’t change about what makes collaboration effective, regardless of context.

In  ‘The five dysfunctions of teams’. Patrick Lencioni presents a list that I consider for every team I have ever looked at – it describes the foundations on which to build teaming efforts.

 So…. We know little more about the features teams. What can we do to create some of those features? Let’s whizz through three more ideas. 

The first of which… the JoHari window is a useful model to talk to teams about the implicit and explicit knowledge that exists within a group. It enables you to talk about trust, privacy, unconscious knowledge and bias… all useful ideas to share with a group which needs to work together. I’ve used this as a way to talk about the conversations we need to have to expand that window, building authentic relationships based on honesty and trust.

The second idea is dealing with that second foundation that Lencioni presents. It’s designed to open up conversations about preferences and processes or dealing with conflict and making decisions. It encourages you to talk about levels of assertiveness and co-operation that you expect in the group… 

Coupled with the third and final of the models in the chapter it enables you to talk about decision making and accountability. And it provides a sort of contract to talk about how, as a leader you might flex and adapt your style of leadership…

Now, what each of the models in this chapter have in common is that they’re tools to enable conversations. They can create shared space in which to talk about belabours, expectations, standards… they create a shared space that the team can mould and augment together which can form the foundation for how you operate as a group.

That brings us to chapter two – a quick dip into some ideas about information architecture.

Chapter 2 – What I think information architecture is…

Information architecture is the framework in which environments, things and people can meaningfully interact.

We all carry our own unique perspective, experiences and knowledge with us into every new experience. This framework constitutes a big part of the information architecture of the experience – it provides our invidual context.

But the environment also has an information architecture. This will pull you towards a more common-shared perspective. Every environment has meaning embedded in it that we can interpret.

So I think there might be two “types” of information architecture…

Individual information architecture is the personal perspective or frame that we bring to every experience.

Environmental information architecture is the IA that is embedded into an information environment. It will almost always direct meaning making and understanding.

Experiences happen in a combination of these two architectures.

Experiences are the result of an interaction between these two types of meaning-making architecture — the unique perspective of the user and their decoded representation of the embedded architecture in the environment.

And even if you think that definition of information architecture isn’t quite right – I hope we can all agree that ‘context’ determines whether things make sense… 

So let’s move on to chapter three – Context.

Chapter three: Context

I suspect everyone watching this video has experienced at least one profound shift in context over the last 6 months. Whether that is working from a different location, altering lifestyle and working patterns, coping with home schooling, losing loved ones, living through a global pandemic… the steady, stable truths we’d all grown accustomed to taking for granted have been undermined or simply ripped up and re-written. 

There areso many things we take for granted about environments, situations, people and technologies… and even when we’re aware of changes, it’s difficult to predict their impact in complex systems… that’s what this chapter is about Context, assumptions and the web of dependencies in complex systems…

Teams are an example of a complex system, and we’ll return to teams in a bit. But let’s start by thinking about projects, projects types and delivery strategies.

Some projects are straightforward – you know exactly what to do and how to do it. You have a high degree of confidence in both the method and the results. You probably have a sort of mental template for both process and outcome so even if some deviation from the norm were to occur, you would spot it immediately. Eddie Obeng calls these types of projects Paint-by-Numbers as the method and objective is well understood and within our control.

Eddie then describes three other types of projects…

‘Movie’ projects have well defined methodologies but there’s some ambiguity or room for manoeuvre on results… they’re less certain or concrete. In a movie you can make use of specialist skills and through co-ordinated direction work towards the delivery of a vision. Another way to understand Movie projects are, you know the problem, you have a well resourced and multidisciplinary team but you’re not 100% certain of the specific solution. So, you work together to uncover the most desirable solution or end-point.

Almost the opposite to this situation is the ‘Quest’. In a quest you know the goal or target – imagine you’re on a quest for the holy grail. You know what you’re looking for, and unlike the Nazi in Indianna Jones, you’ll probably recognise it when you see it, but you’re not sure where it is. 

Comparing ‘Movies’ and ‘Quests’ we start to see how context determines the effectiveness of different approaches. The coordinated and orchestrated activities in a movie production are less likely to be effective in a quest – where more experimentation is usually required. Communication is likely more important in a ‘Quest’ type project as individual practitioners explore individually or asynchronously and then come together, compare notes, reorient and redirect their efforts periodically 

Foggy projects are the final type in this model and they are high in ambiguity. There’s little certainty in both the desired target state or the method. There’s an impulse that drives this type of project forward – a feeling of being lost of vulnerable, but there’s too little information in the prevailing conditions to determine outcomes or methods…

Cynefin is another model which does a good job of illustrating this implicit connection between methods and context. 

When a situation is simple we can sense it, categorise the situation into a bucket based on experience and respond. Like the numbers describing the colour to use in a paint-by-numbers picture, we have a ready-made recipe for success.

Complicated situations don’t offer the same level confidence as simple situations. But there is usually good practice or domain expertise that you can rely on. In some ways, movies are complicated but through detailed planning and the exploitation of domain expertise you can increase both effectiveness and efficiency.

Complex situations increase the uncertainty, so the reliance of sensing, probing and reflecting increases too. Complex situations require experimentation and evaluation. Play can also be useful in complex situations because it both relaxes the mind and might result in novel solutions. You create the path through action, and refine your success through reflection in complex projects.

And then there’s chaos… I don’t know about you, but at times 2020 has felt chaotic. In chaotic situations all bets are off, and rather than force or expect productivity, I think the desirable outcome is survival – safeguarding physical, mental and emotional wellbeing so that you preserve your ability to act as the situation evolves and actions can be more intentional. 

Chaotic situations are likely to trigger fight or flight responses, and while acting in chaos is unpredictable you can put your effort into removing immediate dangers and moving the problem into another domain… framing situations feels like IA to me, so even in chaos I think we have something to bring.

Here is an uncomfortable truth… most problems don’t stand still long enough for you to solve them. Situations change and emerge, even in the best of times – and 2020 has not been the best of times. I think all teaming activities are probably complex. I think in 2020 our job has been in finding ways out of chaos and using the techniques of designing and operating in complex situations to continue to survive – and maybe once in a while thrive.

Teaming is the process of integrating diverse skill sets and perspectives, as well as coordinating timelines and transferring resources across groups. 

And teaming is almost always complex because it involves human beings. 

Most groups (especially diverse groups – whichI believe are the most creative types of groups) often have difficulty accessing and managing knowledge and information – which is why I think information architecture is so relevant to Teaming. 

Misunderstandings arise because different individuals encode and decode information differently.  Different meaning is embedded in different disciplines, and therefore mistrust arises between groups where communication fails.

If we reflect on some of the steps we discussed in Chapter one – psychological safety, accountability, focus on results we can see these as supporting the probing and sensing that is vital to coping in complex and complicated situations. These steps increase the information available to all the members of a team, they enable more information-rich communication. 

Lets look at one more model to consolidate this point about situations and context affecting the processes and outcomes of teaming efforts.

Amy Edmonson shares the last model that I want to talk about. It illustrates how context determines the effectiveness of different organisation and operational strategies. 

She presents a ‘process knowledge spectrum which describes how different contexts demand different approaches.

So…I’ve said the same thing three times and I’ve done that because it is the point I want to make sure that I make. I think any teaming effort is complex, I think it requires consistent probing and sensing from leaders and members of the team to detect when situation shift and assumptions become outdated. And I think that in 2020 probably every assumption that we have about the contexts in which we live, work and collaborate is worth re-evaluating and considering. 

Amy Edmondson talks about ‘organising to execute’ and ‘organising to learn’(caption) – and she talks about execution as learning… which closely mirrors the kinds of strategies I’ve talked about in the other two models I’ve presented. 

As we work in teams we should diagnose the situation, develop a plan or at least a hypothesis, act with an experimental mindset – collecting evidence and then reflecting on both the process and the outcomes. And I think we need to do that consistently across all of the elements of teaming – outcome and process.

Some people have used the phrase ‘the new normal’ to describe the world that might emerge from current events – but I wonder whether ’normal’ is the right word for any complex system… we know that there are best practices to put in place to help teams succeed. But all of them require constant sensing, occasional probing and repeated reflection… ‘normal’ isn’t a stable state in the modern world – it requires conscious attention and adaptation.

Chapter four: Leadership and living through a pandemic

“A frame is a set of assumptions or beliefs about a situation.” 

Most of the time we adopt these frames automatically and unconsciously and they become the filters through which we see the world – they are the individual information architecture which we carry around and which provides the context in which we decode information and have experiences. We superimpose our meaning into situations and interactions. 

Framing is neither good bad – but it’s probably inevitable. And because it happens on an individual basis, without efforts at constructing shared frames, teaming efforts are more difficult, communication more challenging and success less likely. 

And that’s because of something psychologist Lee Ross called ‘naive realism’. We tend to think that there is an ‘invariant, knowable, objective reality’ out there for us all to experience on the same terms – if only everyone were as reasonable and rational as we are. 

It’s easy to think that COVID levelled the playing field in some way and created a common reality. But we know that’s not true – either in the impact it has medically, economically, emotionally and practically it varies massively – we are not all affected in the same way. 

We can create shared spaces, shared efforts – we can align timescales, resources and objectives – but we need to acknowledge the things that cannot be fully shared too. COVID is a reminder that while teaming is predicated on creating shared goals, language, expectations, trust and accountability – shared frames – it’s also about recognising the unique skills, perspective and circumstance of each member. 

In The Reflective Practitioner Donald Schon talks about two types of reflection.

He describes reflection in action as pulling the attention toward the performance of skills or actions that might otherwise be unconscious or instinctive. Through this we can refine performance and avoid a sort of automatic pilot leading us astray when the assumptions we’ve taken for granted have shifted and the situation we’re actually faced with require a different approach. 

Reflection on action is taking a step back after a situation and judging performance… in some ways this like the synchronous and asyncronous activities that I mentioned at the start of this talk. SoI thought I’d share three questions I’m currently exploring and don’t have any answers to… 

  1. What responsibility does a natural optimist have when leading in times of uncertainty and psychological vulnerability? Is me being upbeat detrimental and does it fail to recognise the reality for others?
  2. Is this an opportunity to explore and promote quiet leadership and support introverted practitioners who might thrive in a more socially distanced workplaces? And if so, how do we do that?
  3. And the third is… How do you establish and maintain trust at a distance? 

I think the biggest change to teaming and collaboration for me has been that what would usually have been people gathering in a room now works differently… most of my professional communication is down a camera, through a screen. And while the naive realist in me thinks that this reduction in bandwidth might simplify teaming – creating a universally shared reality, the human in me knows that it makes it more challenging. 

I think the secret of teaming, at least in the short-term, is to acknowledge that the frame in which teaming efforts exist is not a 16:9 box that we see on a screen.  It is the reality behind and beyond the screen. 

There’s best practice to follow to make the complex process of teaming more successful. It is based on creating shared frames – having honest conversations – using the JoHari window to expand that shared reality and reveal inaccurate assumptions. It’s about being clear about when and how decisions will be made, but acknowledging that at times of high complexity and uncertainty – organising teams to ‘execute to learn’ as much as they deliver ensures happier, healthier more productive teams.

The theme of this conference has been hope. Hope can be fragile and difficult to sustain, especially in chaotic times. But I think the through information architecture – acknowledging peoples individual perspectives and investing time and energy into creating shared, meaningful places for co-operation and collaboration we can emerge from the chaos

Hope is a frame that we bring to situations. It’s acknowledgement of the reality of the present and faith in our ability to carve the present into a better future. So I will leave you with that thought and the hope that we might meet each other soon.

Book recommendations:

  • Teaming, Edmonson
  • The Wisdom of Teams, Katzenbach & Smith
  • Everybody matters, Chapman & Sisodia
  • Team of Teams, McChrystal
  • The five dysfunctions of teams, Lencioni