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Trust in High Performing Teams: QCon London Q&A

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High-performing teams flourish in a culture of trust and safety. It’s important that trust come both from within and outside of the team, in order to avoid isolating teams from their stakeholders. Stephen Janaway shared his experience with trust in high performing teams at Qcon London 2020.

According to Janaway, a high performing team is a team with a high level of trust, both inside and outside of the team. If that trust exists, then it’s easier for everyone to do their best work in the team, to lookout for their team members and for the team to have a culture of high psychological safety. Teams like this are fun to be a part of, and fun teams equal happy people, who do their best, Janaway said.

To be high-performing, teams should partner and interface with other areas of the company, particularly with their stakeholders. Jaway presented how his team, by being too focused on themselves, lost trust in the organization:

We had a very clear deadline and goal to launch a new product and we focused totally upon that, to the detriment of our relationships outside of the team. While this was very effective in the short term, it quickly became apparent that it had fundamentally harmed our reintegration into the wider technology team that we were a part of. We’d become arrogant, change-resistant or even blind to change, and we’d not attempted to involve and engage others until it was too late. We’d lost trust, and when that happens then it’s very hard to get it back. In the case of the team that I talked about at QCon, I don’t think we ever got it back.

The key to enabling cross-company trust in situations like this is to make sharing an expected and normal part of a team’s culture, and ensure that there opportunities outside of the team as well as within it. Shared learning opportunities, blogs, newsletters and more technical activities like hackdays can really help with this, Janaway explained:

For example, the team I talked about at QCon had a backend platform with an API. If we had we opened up access to that API to others in the company so that they could start to build solutions using it, during something like a hackday, then we’d have created a great shared learning and discovery opportunity.

InfoQ interviewed Stephen Janaway, VP Engineering at Bloom & Wild about enabling trust for high performing teams, balancing between team wins and personal wins, scaling high-performing teams, and building a culture of great teamwork.

InfoQ: You mentioned that a high performing team has to have a high level of trust. How can we enable trust?

Stephen Janaway: It’s really important to think about what helps form that trust, whether it’s through the history of what and how they have delivered work, to how empathetic they seem to those outside of the team. I like to use the Trust equation to help me understand the current state of trust in teams I work with, focusing both into, and out of the team. It’s equally important to consider these different contexts and ensure that trust is built up and maintained in all of them.

Enabling that trust within the team can come in many different ways: through careful hiring, team building and activities that involve not only the team, but also the team’s stakeholders and other interested parties such as development teams that they work with or use solutions from. Providing the highest level of transparency is also an important thing; knowing as much as possible about the impact that your work is having is very rewarding and helps all of us to perform better.

InfoQ: How can we balance team wins with personal wins?

Janaway: Often this is a case of ensuring that the team is balanced. It’s rare for a successful high performing team to be made up of a group of ultra ambitious individuals, and teams like this frequently implode as the competing egos clash regularly. As managers, this means careful considerations when putting teams together, having targets and goals be team-based, while also ensuring that, on a one-to-one basis, we focus on the individual team members’ personal goals. Sometimes this means carefully sharing different team members’ work, but ideally, the team members share their personal goals and learnings, and self-organise so that there is little or no conflict between them. I talked about my playbook for high performing teams at QCon, which is focused around this, and how we can ensure that team members know their direction and how to reach their goals. It also puts the focus on defining the team’s culture and charter, being clear and confident when adding team members to the team and ensuring that there are learning loops in place that make it easy to measure both team and personal health.

InfoQ: What are the pitfalls and traps of scaling high performing teams? How can we prevent falling into them?

Janaway: The most common pitfall I see teams fall into is focusing too much on themselves and not enough on those outside. High performing teams sometimes just need to share a bit more. There are many ways to engage others, through shared learning activities, hack days, crowdsourced testing activities, etc, as well as being open and transparent about progress and goals. I think sometimes we assume incorrectly that others outside of our teams are not interested.

Being aware of change is also important. High performing teams do not last forever; they are often a snapshot in time, and recognising that change can be a positive thing is important. One of my favourite quotes at the moment comes from Heidi Helfand, who wrote the book Dynamic Reteaming: "If one new person joins or leaves, then it’s a new team". Often we fear change, and then when it’s necessary to react to a change in order to keep a team high performing then it’s too late. This is why I think being open with everyone in a high performing team about actions and plans in the event of change is so important.

InfoQ: What can leaders do to build a culture of great teamwork?

Janaway: Leaders are role models and it’s so important to model the behaviours that you, as a leader, want to observe. This means being transparent, open, honest and fair. Help remove blockers from the team, whether these are directly related to the work that they do, or ones you can see will start to block the team performance or threaten the culture. Putting activities and forums in place that encourage the team to make team-based decisions, share information, learn widely and be realistic about what can be achieved all help build great teamwork. In order to maintain great teamwork, measure it regularly by carrying out activities such as health checks, be open to the results and suggestions, and make everyone in the team feel empowered to make changes for the better. And then get out of the way; with a leader’s backing and forums in place, teams are capable of being great if they’re left to it.

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